Sarny is a small city in the Rivne Oblast of western Ukraine. During the Soviet occupation (1939–41), the Jewish institutions were disbanded. After the outbreak of World War II many refugees arrived in Sarny, and the number of Jews there had risen to 7,000 by 1941, when it was captured by Nazi Germany. Sarny again was reclaimed by Soviet forces in 1944.
Arnold was born in Sarny in 1936 to Avigdor (Victor) and Dreizel (nee Theresa Schwartz) Frumin. He was named Leibel after his mother’s father and, as his life progressed, his name changed to the Polish Leon, then the Russian Lova, Aryeh in the displaced persons camp, and Arnold or Arnie in the United States.
Avigdor owned a dry goods store and was well-to-do. He married a little later in life. Dreizel had difficulty conceiving, so when Leibel was born it was a very happy family. The happiness came to a very abrupt end in 1939. The Nazis occupied Sarny and the first thing they did was levy a tax on the people. Whenever the tax was paid they were okay. When the community ran out of money in 1942, the Germans set up a ghetto, which was mainly guarded by Ukrainian henchmen who pulled people from the ghetto to work details, including Avigdor.
“I owe my life to my father because he was very prudent and he never trusted the Nazis and the Ukrainian henchmen. He built two hide-out places in our house—in the attic and in the cellar. The cellar was located adjacent to a brick wall and there was about five feet of dirt to keep it cool. My father dug out all the earth between the cellar wall and the brick wall, put in a false roof and a hidden door. That was our hide-out.”
In 1942, the Nazis told everybody to collect outside the city to be issued papers and documents. “My father didn’t believe them. His thinking was that we were going to go into our hide-outs. If this was a ruse, we didn’t want to be where everyone else was. But if it was a matter of papers, we could get them after.” The day before the gathering, Avigdor put Leibel, Dreizel, his brother Meyer, his father Jacob, and a distant related cousin Basl into the cellar. Basl didn’t want to come, but he grabbed her and threw her into the cellar. “As luck would have it, she was saved along with myself, my uncle, and my grandfather.” That day, all they could hear was machine gun fire and all the people that were on the outside of the city were shot. Then the locals drifted into the ghetto and completely cleaned it out—anything that wasn’t nailed down was taken away. Unfortunately, his father was in the hide-out in the attic and was discovered and taken away. But fortunately, he was able to escape.
In the cellar, the family survived on the remnants of pressed oil seeds that were normally fed to the animals during the winter months. After a few weeks, their food supply began to run out. Arnold never forgot what hunger meant and, seventy years later, describes hunger as follows: “I didn’t eat two days ago. I didn’t eat anything yesterday. There was nothing to eat today and I didn’t know if there will be anything to eat tomorrow. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know if I will live tomorrow. Now that is hunger.”
After a few weeks, they did not hear anything from the attic, so Meyer decided to go up there and see if anyone was left. No one was there. When he came back down, he said “Why am I going to sit here? I may as well see if I can get out into the nearby village and see what I can find out.” So Meyer, who was about 13 or 14 at that time, left and through a miracle found Avigdor. “My father said to him, ‘You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to, but do me a big favor and go back to the ghetto and bring out Leibel.’ My uncle said he would go.”
Meyer dressed up as a shepherd and came back to the ghetto. He also dressed Leibel up as a shepherd. They waited until Sunday when all of the people from surrounding villages came into town to go to church and they would be less conspicuous. “My instructions were to walk on the other side of the street, don’t look back, and whatever happens go forward.” He cried a lot before leaving the cellar and reluctantly left and walked on the other side of the street from Meyer. “As he passed the street where we lived before the ghetto, a Ukrainian policeman came out from one of the houses and said, ‘Hey, where are you going? Who are you?’ My uncle was raised in Krichilsk and spoke Ukrainian fluently, which saved his life and my life. He said he was a shepherd and he came to church and now he was going home. I didn’t stop. I didn’t turn around. I kept right on going.” Meyer caught up with him and they got as far as the outskirts of the town when they were stopped by a wagon-load of local farmers. One of the farmers grabbed Leibel. Meyer said, “Hey leave him alone. Why do you want innocent blood on your hands?” He was very convincing and they let him go.
After a while, they found Avigdor and stayed together. At night they hid in barns, while Avigdor went out and begged for food. One night his luck ran out when he went to beg for bread at a house filled with Ukrainian policemen. They chased and shot him. When the news got back to town, their neighbors, a Polish family, sent a wagon to pick up Leibel and bring him back to the city. They hid him for about a year and a half, despite the German bounty on any Jewish person who was turned in. “The bounty was one kilo of salt. It’s hard to believe that people would turn in a Jewish person to get a kilogram of salt.” Although he spent most of the time by himself in their basement, “They sort of treated me like their own son. I learned Polish and my name became Leon. I used to go to church with them. If I survived and no one else in my family had survived, I would have become a Polish Catholic.”
One Sunday, German soldiers came to the house. Everyone panicked, but the grandmother of the family had her wits about her. “She threw me into bed and threw a comforter over us. I stayed there quietly while the policemen turned the house upside down. When they came to the bedroom door, Grandma said, ‘Oh that’s my daughter. She’s having a very hard pregnancy and the doctor told her not to leave the bed.’ So I was saved again.” The next day, he was in a wagon filled with straw heading towards the outskirts of town and turned over to his uncle Meyer. They hung out together for about a half year until the Russian army reoccupied the town and they no longer had to worry about getting caught and getting shot.
While Arnold was being hidden by the Polish family, Meyer continued to live by himself in the forest and barns and the surrounding village. His father (Arnold’s grandfather Jacob) was a true believer. “He believed in G-d and I envy his depth of belief.” One evening he went out to get some water and was caught. Somehow he escaped and ended up in the surrounding territory. He always claimed that “It was ‘his father’ that pushed him through that little opening in the cell where he was being held.” Meyer and Jacob stayed together some of the time, but it was not prudent to be together all of the time in case something would happen and both might perish.
Arnold’s mother Dreizel and Basl remained in the cellar hide-out. One day, some of the Ukrainians broke through the roof. Basl took off and Dreizel was taken away “and that was it.” Basl had a very horrendous experience, but she survived, lives in Florida, and has three daughters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren “thanks to my father.”
Life was still very difficult in post-war Sarny. Arnold was enrolled in the first grade and learned Russian. His name became Lova. The Ukraine was anti-semitic and was not a friendly place for Jewish people. About that time, there was a movement to go to Israel, but that also presented a problem because the British would not permit it. Some Israelis were duplicating false passports, bribing border guards, and moving everybody toward Italy. Arnold, Meyer, and Jacob spent four years in displaced person camps established by UNWRA. At night, the Israelis were trying to run the British blockade (Aliyah Bet). During the day, they taught Hebrew, geography, and Israeli history. His name became Aryeh.
During that time, they lucked out and found their family in Detroit, who sent the three of them affidavits to join them in Detroit. Arnold enrolled in Americanization classes, then Hutchins Intermediate School, Durfee Intermediate School, and Cass Tech High School, studying drafting and mechanical engineering—a step that led him to a career at General Motors. Except for two years spent in the US army in Fort Benning, Georgia, he worked until he retired in 1995.
Arnold reflects on the continuing anti-Semitism in Poland, personal anti-Semitism he encountered in Detroit (“I did not react because throughout the Holocaust I learned not to react and wait”), and the lack of understanding by American gentiles about the extent of what happened during the war in Europe. He refuses to go back to Europe—“to a place soaked with Jewish blood and filled with anti-Semites and to visit cemeteries”—and to provide “zero financial help to the Polish people.”
Date of Interview: August 17, 2011
Length of Interview: 34 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran