Ironically, George Blank was bloodied after he survived the Holocaust.
The 80-year-old man told a crowd of nearly 500 people who gathered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park for Yom HaShoah, that he went to school and hoped for a sliver of normalcy. Instead, in his hometown of Rzeszow, Poland, classmates continued the horror, which would give him nightmares for years to come.
“This is hard to believe, but despite the fact that all the Jews were dead, pretty much, the kids would beat me every day,” he said. “When I ran home, they would chase me and throw broken bricks. I’d come home bleeding every day.”
He said they sang a song in Polish, translated as “Jew, death is following you, and wearing a red cape. It’s gonna grab you by the underwear.”
Death did not find Blank and he was the only person on his father’s side of the family to survive as he would live in France for a year and eventually come to America. But there were close calls.
In 1941, just prior to Operation Barbarossa, his father worked in Lvov for a Russian general, who advised him to take his family to Russia. The family chose to stay and Blank said it turned out to be the wrong decision as they were wiped out. When Russia had to retreat due to the German invasion, his father had to join the on pain of death. He went with them and was believed to have been killed by German artillery. He said the only memory he has of his father is him wearing a leather jacket and being with him on a motorcycle.
It was up to Blank’s mother Andzia, who came from a Chasidic family, to protect him. She did. In the Lvov ghetto, with food being scarce, she took off her yellow star and snuck out of the ghetto to buy food. She didn’t look Jewish, and he didn’t either, sporting blond hair. But a woman yelled out that she was a Jew and a policeman saw the outline of her Jewish star. His life could have ended there, at the age of three. But in a park on the way, his mother lunged at the leg of the policeman and made a final plea.
“For the sake of the child, let us so,” Blank recounted his mother as saying.
He said there was some touch of humanity in the policeman, who ordered them to return to the ghetto.
“That, my friends was a miracle and one of the reasons I am here tonight,” he said.
His mother, grandparents and aunt escaped the ghetto and paid a man to drive them to Zloczew. They rented an apartment and pretended to be gentiles. But someone ratted them out and they were placed in the Zloczew ghetto. When his uncle Milek heard that the ghetto would be liquidated, he helped construct a false wall behind a pot belly stove where they hid for three days and they heard shooting and screaming.
The night after, his uncle had a Polish farmer come to take them to his farm deep in the forest. On a hay loft, his mother would quietly read him the same book over and over again. They ate mainly potatoes and would not eat meat because it was not kosher. They paid the farmer with jewelry sown in to the lining of the women’s clothing. They would be liberated by the Russian Army, and he said Russian soldiers patted him on the head and gave him a loaf of black bread, the first bread they’d had in more than two years. At that moment, he realized he’s survived the Holocaust.
But later, his family looked up and saw what appeared to be a German soldier approaching. They did not know what to do.
“I’m Russian, I just borrowed the coat from a dead German,” he recalled the man saying.
Blank spoke in conversation with Miriam Leichlting, who organized the event with The Young Friends of The Museum of Jewish Heritage and Manhattan Jewish Experience. Leichtling said that Blank “unshakable positive energy” and determination to see things in a positive way stood out.
Blank has 10 grandchildren, one of whom also made a trip to Poland to see the camps. But Blank said while he sent a letter to be read there, he could not make the trip.
“I’ve never gone back to Poland,” Blank said. “There’s just too much pain for me in Poland and there’s just too much blood in the ground. I’ve seen enough of it.”
He said he thinks half of the Jews in Poland would have survived if it wasn’t for the “enthusiastic and focused assistance” of the Polish population which helped Germany find Jews.
Interviewed after the event, he said the new Polish anti-defamation law which makes it a crime to claim Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, did not come as a shock.
“The law did not surprise me at all because Polish nationalists are acting as they always have,” Blank said. “They were the victims in their minds who suffered. And they were victims and they did suffer. But they’re in denial. As far as their complicity, there was major complicity, but they don’t want to own up to that.”
He added that the one thing they were correct about was that there were German concentration camps and not Polish concentration camps.
Rabbi Mark Wildes, founder of Manhattan Jewish Experience, noted that his own son recently returned from Poland and spoke about the trip.
“We can never allow our enemies to cast a negative shadow on what Torah was meant to bring into our lives,” Wildes told the crowd. “I was happy to hear they didn’t just visit the camps. It’s important. But they also spent a Shabbat in Krakow singing the same songs as some of the great Hasidic masters so they could see not just how our ancestors were killed but how beautiful a Jewish life they lived.”
Blank urged the crowd not to focus on materialism. He noted that he was born into a rich family. After the Holocaust, while living in France, with little money and an uncertain future, his mother was proposed to by an affluent dentist. She refused because she wanted her son to live in America, where she believed a better future. Blank met his wife Harriet on the Upper West Side when she was 15. Eight years later, it was time.
“He proposed on Thanksgiving,” she said. “Before the turkey.” They’ve been married for 57 years.
Their grandson Joshua, 23 said the family looks up the man who spoke on the stage.
“He taught us to always have the courage to trust in God, our fellow people, our family and of course, ourselves,” he said. “He set a path for us.”
As for the path of the audience of Jewish professionals in their 20’s and 30’s, Blank told them that Israel was essential to their future because of a lot of evil in the world. Then his final remark caused some in the audience to cry.
“There were so many wonderful men and women just like you who were cut down at the beginning of their lives,” Blank said. “You are their replacements…They never had a chance to succeed in a greater sense. They were just getting started. You have the opportunity to succeed for yourself and for them. But don’t forget your greatness.”