“I felt, within certain limits, while I was in the house, safe. I never left more than fifty meters perimeter from the house…I was there from October ’44 till April ’45.” Listen to Gideon Frieder describe how a Catholic family in Slovakia hid him during the Holocaust. Learn more about his experiences and the choices he was forced to make to survive.
The partisans, Henry, never realized I was wounded. But he realized that a child cannot survive in the mountains. The partisans were moving all the time, they were a fighting unit. Being saddled with a seven-year-old child is not something a fighting unit want to do, so they brought me to this village. At night.
And they selected the first house. They didn’t dare to go into the village. They surveyed the village for a long time, there was no movement. The village was so small, that there was no German garrison there. It’s a dirt road with some houses on the side. The word "village" is exaggerated; it’s a mini hamlet rather than a village. There were no Germans there. They knocked on the first house and this was the house of Pauline and Jozef Strycharszyk. And they placed me there.
So it wasn’t like a safe house that they knew?
No, no no.
It was just the first house they got to, and said, “Take this boy.”
Yes. And there are two versions of it, in a sense. Henry, in his memoirs, which I used, which I was instrumental in publishing, I did all the computer work and set up to publish and so on, wrote that he came there, and these partisans were reasonably fearsome-looking, you know. They were not shaven really. They had all these grenades hanging on them. They have some machine guns taken from the Germans. And told them to keep this child safe, and if not, they will come next night and kill all of you. Which is kind of a persuasive argument I would say. That is his story.
My father’s story was that he–they were promised a nice reward. Everybody knew that the war is over and it’s just a matter of time. And they were told that I’m a son of a very important man and that if I survived they would be rewarded. I don’t know. I assume that both stories are correct. There was a carrot and stick approach by the partisans.
I have to say that while I was there, everything they did was not a product of fear. I felt wanted. I felt, within certain limits, while I was in the house, safe. I never left more than fifty meters perimeter from the house. So all my stay there I never left the vicinity of the house. So I wouldn’t say that I was very assured about my safety. But . . .
And you were there for quite a while.
I was there from October ’44 till April ’45. I never left the vicinity of the house. Except once, when in December we walked to the real village next to it. I would assess it’s about five kilometers, three and a half miles, three miles, three and a half miles. We walked there for the midnight mass in Christmas, in December, through the snow. But I don’t remember any other time that I left the vicinity of the house.
And speaking of going to the mass, the family gave you an identity.
Oh, yes. Obviously when I came. One of the reasons I believe they did everything . . . Let me step back. That village of possibly 50 houses, if that much, maybe 25, saved ten families of Jews.
Wow. In that one village?
That one little village of extremely religious Catholics, in the hut I was in, in this house. By the way, the picture of the house is a modern picture. At the time there was not the concrete side of the house was not there. And there were no real glass windows beautifully painted white. This is a new picture.
Every wall in these two big rooms which the house consisted of, had a large picture of the heart of Jesus. These are very deeply believing Catholics. They saved many people. So when I came there, it was very obvious that if I were called Gideon Frieder, my chances of survival are rather minimal. So they gave me a Slovak name, a very Slovak-sounding name. I was called Jan Suchý. So Jan is the Slavic version of John.
So, Jan? Okay.
Jan. And the endearment is Janko, so they called me Janko. Suchý is a very typical, Slovak-sounding name. It’s very funny in a sense because suchý means in Slovak “dry.” And when I was brought there I was anything but dry. I was dripping wet. I was a mess.
And they taught me . . . first of all they established another identity. I was the son of the brother of the woman. And the brother of the woman, look how clever–these were totally uneducated people. They were so intelligent. You do know that intelligence and education are two different things. They were so intelligent; they understood what has to be done.
They understood that they have to establish an identity for me, which will be impeccable. My pedigree should be impeccable. So my pedigree was: I was the son of the brother of the woman, and the brother was killed by the partisans. So for the Germans I was really somebody of value. I mean, obviously I don’t like the partisans; my father was killed by them.
And they taught me. They taught me a sentence. They said if somebody will ask you this, you tell them that. And for the life of me I couldn’t understand what they taught me. I couldn’t care less. I memorized it and I used it.
I discovered only later on. What they taught me was the Lord’s Prayer. Sorry. Obviously, no Jewish boy will know the Lord’s Prayer. But you have to go back to the 1940s. These were Catholics. The Catholic Church used the Latin mass. All the liturgy was in Latin, with three exceptions, which were always in the language of the country. And one of the exceptions was the Lord’s Prayer.
But these were not essentially university graduates; they were not even graduates of a primary school. They were taught this by their parents, which were taught by their parents over generations. The words in Slovak will be: otec náš ktorý si na nebesiach; “Our Father–Our Father in heaven . . . .” This called Otčenáš. Otčenáš is Ot-če-náš. “Our Father.”
All the words were slurred to each other. But this is the way the Slovaks knew it anyway right? It doesn’t matter that you slurred it on because on the kids would slur it on. They didn’t understand the Latin mass, they didn’t understand what they are saying here either until they became older and they could parse the sentence. So this established my identity as a good Catholic boy by the name of Jan Suchý.
I had–I have blue eyes, they are still blue. I had–now it's white again. I mean, I had fair hair and now it’s fair again, but for a different reason. I have a straight nose. I don’t look Jewish, whatever that means. So I passed. But think about the intelligence of these people. The understanding they have. What it takes to survive. I was possibly the first Jew they have seen in their life, but they understood what’s important to survive, how children survive, and they did everything to survive. I’ve many proofs, which happened many years later, that what they did they didn’t do because they were threatened.
Gideon Frieder was born on September 30, 1937, in Zvolen, Slovakia. His family moved to the town of Nové Mesto in Slovakia at the beginning of the war after his father, Abraham Frieder, a rabbi, was offered a position there. Slovakia was a collaborating satellite state of Nazi Germany. Slovak authorities deported Gideon’s grandparents in 1942; they died, most likely at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Rabbi Frieder was part of Slovakia’s underground “Working Group,” a secret Jewish rescue organization, and was responsible for its communications with Slovak authorities. He wrote about his experiences which were later published as a book entitled To Deliver Their Souls: The Struggle of a Young Rabbi During the Holocaust and are an important source for historians studying the “Working Group.”
In 1944, during the Slovak uprising against the pro-German Slovak government, Gideon and his mother and sister fled Nové Mesto, making their way to Banská Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia which served as the center of the uprising. Rabbi Frieder fled separately, fearing that since he had been part of the “Working Group” anyone close to him would be killed if he were caught.
As German mobile killing units approached Banská Bystrica, Gideon and his mother and sister fled to the mountains, where they were caught in a massacre in the village of Staré Hory. His mother and sister were killed; Gideon was injured but survived.
A Jewish partisan, Henry Herzog, took Gideon to the village of Bully, where he was placed with the family of Paulina and Jozef Strycharszyk. Henry Herzog later wrote his memoir, ...And Heaven Shed No Tears, and described helping to save Gideon. Gideon remained in Bully until 1945, when Romanian troops fighting with the Soviet Army liberated the area. Gideon’s father, who also survived the war, later found him. His father remarried but died in 1946.
After the war, Gideon and his stepmother immigrated to Palestine on an unauthorized transport in 1947, a year before Israel’s War of Independence. He remained in Israel until 1975, when he immigrated to the United States. Today he is the A. James Clark Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and volunteered at the Museum.