by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
At 91 years of age, Norman Frajman is a tall, dignified man on a mission. The words roll off his tongue easily as he tells his story. He has spoken before thousands of young people through the years. They hang on his every word.
Norman suffered unimaginable horror as he lived out the formative years of his life in the Holocaust, but his story is also one of enduring hope and faith. Now more than ever, the world needs to know what happened as violence against Jewish communities escalates across the globe.
The boxcar was filled with the stench of 120 people crammed into the small, airless space. Young Norman was scared. Where were the Germans taking them? His mother, Hela, and sister, Renia, were with him. That was reassuring, but there was no room for them to sit or even bend. The five-gallon (19-liter) bucket for waste was filled to overflowing. The other five-gallon bucket meant for drinking water was long empty. Desperate people wiped the sweat off their neighbor’s face just to moisten their lips. The trip lasted days.
They had been loaded on the transports after being imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto for almost two-and-a-half years. Eleven-year-old Norman was already familiar with terror. He had learned how to smuggle food into the ghetto like many other child smugglers. He knew to duck out of sight when the Nazis raced through the streets on their motorcycles, randomly shooting people with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar. Norman saw bodies lying in the gutters every day, victims of starvation, typhus or the Nazis’ diabolical game. But he had to focus on keeping his mother and sister alive. With his father imprisoned in a Russian prison camp, he was now the man of the family.
Masters of deception, the Nazis enticed the people in the ghetto with promises of bread and marmalade if they would volunteer for a work camp. Driven by starvation, thousands willingly boarded the transports bound for the Treblinka extermination camp, where they were summarily gassed. Very few in the ghetto believed the horror stories when news trickled back. Ultimately, Treblinka swallowed up 365,000 Jews from the ghetto.
In April 1943, Jewish fighters in the ghetto mounted an armed resistance. One fighter told Norman: “We’re all going to die, but not without a struggle. We want people to know that the Jews didn’t go like lambs to the slaughter.” The resistance put up a valiant fight, but 7,000 died. The Nazis sent 7,000 more to Treblinka, and 56,000 were loaded onto transports. Norman, his mother and sister were among them.
The train, they discovered, was bound for Majdanek, one of the six Nazi extermination camps. Life and death were determined by the jerk of an SS officer’s thumb. Norman, separated from his family, was now completely on his own in a place he described as “hell on earth.” Life was so wretched that “a trip to the crematorium was almost an act of mercy.” One inmate, pointing to the chimneys belching smoke, told Norman that only his ashes could be free.
In October 1943, he jostled his way onto a train bound for another camp, Skarzysko. Less than a month later, the Nazis machine-gunned the remaining Jewish inmates at Majdanek. Forty-three thousand Jews were slaughtered there and at two adjacent camps in Operation Erntefest (Harvest Festival), the largest single massacre of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
In Skarzysko, Norman contracted typhus and was selected for extermination, but a fellow inmate named David Reischer hid Norman under a pile of wood shavings in his carpenter shop until he recovered. Since Norman no longer had a family of his own, he considered David a member of his family. His mother and sister had died a year earlier at Majdanek. Renia had contracted tuberculosis and was to be gassed. Hela could not bear to see her daughter die alone and chose to be gassed along with her. News of their deaths sent Norman into a spiral of grief.
By August 1944, he was shipped to Buchenwald and Schlieben to make bazookas for the German home guard. As the Allies began to close in, Norman and his fellow inmates were forced on a death march to dig anti-tank ditches. Others working alongside him succumbed daily to starvation, exhaustion or an SS bullet.
In early May 1945, they arrived in a town near the German–Czech border. Awakening one morning, they realized the German guards had fled as the Russian army moved in. Norman was finally free. Fifteen-year-old Norman walked into the first church he saw, knelt down and prayed, “Thank you, God, for letting me live.” It didn’t matter that he was Jewish and praying in a Christian church. He wanted to offer thanksgiving to the Almighty. How did he survive? “It was by the providence of God, and nothing else.” Even in the darkest days, he never lost hope—he never felt forgotten by a loving God.
Jewish blood shed during the Holocaust continues to cry out from the ground, and Norman is a voice for those whose voices were silenced. “As long as my eyes are open,” he says, “I will share the story of this tragedy.”
Norman emigrated to the US after the war, married his wife, Shelley, and had two children and two grandchildren. He later learned that his father, Leon, had also survived and was living in Israel. He lost 126 family members to the Holocaust. He serves as president of the Child Survivors/Hidden Children of the Holocaust of Palm Beach County in Florida and received a Medal of Freedom from Governor Rick Scott. His accomplishments are too numerous to list. His bar mitzvah (religious coming-of-age for boys held on their 13th birthday) at age 73 was held at a synagogue two miles from Auschwitz. Norman’s full story can be found in the book We Remember the Children.
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