Fred Hilsenrath, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, shared his story and first-hand account of the traumatic history behind his childhood that mirrored what so many other Jews also endured before a group of Rotarians on Thursday.
The Fairfield Bay resident said he is happy to be alive and that while he doesn't share his story aloud often, he was glad to be Thursday's guest speaker at the Conway Rotary Club meeting.
Faulkner County District Judge and Rotary Club member Susan Weaver invited Hilsenrath to speak with the Conway group.
His story, she said, needs to continue to be told so that others don't forget what those who lived through the Holocaust endured.
"For me, it's such a huge part of history and folks that were alive during that time are becoming nonexistent," she said Thursday. "For him to be able to come and for people to come meet a Holocaust survivor ... holds such a huge impact. Sure, we hear stories all the time, but to hear from someone who was actually there is just amazing."
As she introduced 89-year-old survivor, Weaver became emotional, noting she had a great deal of love and respect for Hilsenrath and was glad he could spend time sharing his story with members of the Conway Rotary Club.
Hilsenrath stood humbly before a full audience in the Rotary meeting area at the Hole in the Wall Cafe on Thursday as he recalled his childhood and the memories he made as he and his family fled the Nazi wrath.
As he began to share his stories, he took a moment to remind the group that humility can be learned and found in the oddest scenarios.
"There is humor in every sad story and there are sad thoughts in every humor story," he said.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, the survivor said he grew up in a small town called Halle along the Salle River. While his home country was once a place that thrived and had a positive impact on history, it became a dark place by the time he grew to know it.
Hilsenrath was 4 year old when Adolph Hitler rose to power.
At 6 years old, he was already ridiculed in school. His teachers refused to call him by his first name, Manfred, and referred to him as "Jew Boy." As he walked to and from school, Hilsenrath said he was often attacked by his classmates.
"On the way home from school, kids would usually follow me home and pick fights," he recalled of his early school days. "Every once in a while, I landed a punch in somebody's face, but usually I got beaten up and came home bloody."
Everyday tasks became increasingly more difficult, and Hilsenrath's father soon decided their family needed to leave before things continued to get worse. His family fled to Romania, where his grandfather had a ranch.
Life on the ranch was simple, there was no electricity. But, it wasn't pretty forever, and eventually, Hilsenrath's family was forced to leave the Romanian ranch. About 2,000 people lived in town by the river, and about 400 Jewish families lived in the village.
"Here we are, we fled from Germany to Romania, my grandfather had a nice ranch — horses, cattle, dogs, chickens, you name it," he said Thursday. "We lived a quite a peaceful life, a simple [life]. Compared to Germany, Romania was 100 years behind ... no electricity, no telephone. Germany was already quite advanced. Romania was not."
While out picking up some medication in town for his grandfather one day, he learned trouble was more than soon approaching.
It was 1940 and the Hilsenraths were being forced to assemble along with all the other Jewish families at the town square "with no more than 20 pounds [of luggage] on our backs."
As he spoke, he recalled memories of multiple occasions where he and others who sought shelter found abandoned schools they learned to call "home."
The memories he shared, he said were painful ones. He also recalled wondering how they survived because there was little to no food during this time of survival.
His time in Attaki was spent sheltered in a bombed-out school building. At one point, the Jews were instructed to go to the river. However, Hilsenrath and three other kids were taken aside and ordered to clean the schoolyard where the captured had been using the bathroom. The smell was almost unbearable, he said, noting it took hours to clean. He said he knew if they had not complied, he and the others would have been executed. As he and the others cleaned, he could only wonder where his family members were, because he had no clue.
Eventually, the children were allowed to go to the river and find their families. Hilsenrath said he was worried he would be unable to find his family, but that he was lucky to be reunited with his mother, brother and grandfather.
From there, they walked for 80 miles to Mogilev, Romania. While there, they once again found shelter in an abandoned school after bribing the officials to allow them to stay there. During this time, he became ill.
His grandfather was scared Hilsenrath would be left to die after learning he had typhoid fever, so they kept Hilsenrath's illness a secret. Luckily, he overcame his sickness.
As he remembered his time of illness, Hilsenrath recalled his grandfather singing Hebrew songs to him and being hungry, noting he was very hungry but that he was unable to eat for fear he would die because of the fever.
"I remember my grandpa singing Hebrew songs ... and all I could think about at the time was food, food, food," he said.
After being liberated, Hilsenrath eventually landed in the United States and moved to California. He and his wife, Eleanor, now life in Fairfield Bay. He has also since written a book, "The Story I Was Reluctant to Tell: My Personal Holocaust Memories" where he explains the misery he endured that now marks a dark part of the past that he says never needs to be forgotten.