I am living proof of the Holocaust, Cesare Frustaci told the diverse crowd at Florida Southwestern State College last Tuesday night.
“I am not any different than you,” Holocaust survivor Cesare Frustaci said to the captivated crowd at Florida Southwestern. “And if, at the age of 7, I could develop solutions for problems, so could you.”
Frustaci was born in 1936 in Napoli, Italy, to a Italian father and a Hungarian mother. At the age of 2, Frustaci’s mother took him to Budapest, Hungary, to escape extradition to by the Italian Government. They were then moved into one of the thousands of Yellow Star Houses, which were ghettos the Jewish population was forced to live in.
Years later, as World War Two raged on in Europe, his mother sent him off into the streets of Budapest to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. At the tender age of 7, he was forced to fight for his very survival.
“My mother said ‘Now listen to me, and listen to me very carefully,” Frustaci said as he told the story of how his mother let him go. “You are not a Jew, you are a Roman-Catholic… You are not a Hungarian, but you are Italian.’”
After that, she gave him one last embrace and walked back into the Yellow Star House. She was deported to a concentration camp not long after.
“I can still feel her hands on my head.” Frustaci said as the crowd sat on the edges of their seats with a mix of anticipation and heartbreak on their faces.
For the first two days and three nights Frustaci took shelter behind a statue at the opera house nearby. Knowing that this could not be a permanent solution, he sought to find real shelter. That was when he remembered the key.
“The key! The key! Remember the key!” He said, as he explained his sudden epiphany.
When they ousted him and his mother from their apartment to be relocated to a ghetto, any keys they possessed were to be taken from them. However, by a stroke of luck, or pure childlike ingenuity, Frustaci had hidden a key to allow easy access to the cellar for whenever he had to collect firewood. This key was never confiscated, and it was in that cellar that Frustaci took refuge from the chaotic world surrounding him.
In order to wash himself and use the bathroom, Frustaci cleaned the facilities at a local tennis club in order to use them for himself. For food, however it was a different story. He would see food on the street with no one around, but he knew he could not take it.
“I heard my mother’s voice ‘Son, you are not a thief. You cannot do this,’” Frustaci said as he remembered the words that made him stay true to himself. “And as a matter of fact, I cannot do something that hurts or disturbs others.”
Instead of stealing, Frustaci decided to go to the local shop and work for his food. To his surprise, however, the owner simply let him take an apple. The owner told him to come back whenever he was hungry.
“I still remember the name of the owner, Mr. Varga.” Frustaci recalled.
The day-to-day struggle was very real to Frustaci. He would often be checked by soldiers while on the street, the only way to prove he was not Jewish was to lower his pants so they could see if he was circumcised or not.
The worst moment for him, however, was on the bridge linking the two sides of the city.
“I heard ‘You! You Jewish dirty Jewish whore! What are you doing!’” Frustaci said as he remembered that horrible day. He watched as a militiaman on the bridge took something from a woman and threw it over the bridge. He realized at that point that it was a small child that was thrown, and kept watching as the woman was then shot and thrown into the river as well.
He recalled the people on the bridge with him and how they turned around and pretended to not have witnessed.
“I still remember that every day of my life.” Frustaci said.
It was not long after this incident that Frustaci was finally captured and sent to a youth detention camp outside of the city. Frustaci was one of the fortunate ones, as he was placed in an orphanage staffed by Catholic priests and nuns that genuinely cared for the welfare of the children there.
Frustaci’s stay took a turn for the worse a few months later as the Russians advanced and famine grasped the region. The area was a war zone, and the group of children he lived with had resorted to eating snow, which only resulted in diarrhea for him and his friends.
One day, on his way to get water, Frustaci took his life into his own hands as he found a bushel of berries. Unsure of what kind they were or if they would be harmful, his situation left him no other choice than to eat them by the handful.
“Many years later, I knew how fortunate I was, because they were rose berries, containing the highest quantity of vitamin C,” He said as he explained his luck. “This is why I still have the teeth in my mouth.”
“Coincidence? Or miracle?” He asked the crowd after he finished his story about the rose bush.
He went on to explain how one day he left the confines of the orphanage to find a strange man wearing a uniform he had never seen before. That man was a Soviet soldier. The Nazis were finally gone.
Frustaci explained how the Soviets had the occupants of the various hiding places strip down and roll around in the snow to rid themselves of the lice and bugs they had on them.
After the Soviets had moved into the area, Frustaci returned to Budapest, where he witnessed the devastation that had befallen the city.
“Imagine Manhattan,” He said as he related the scene to the crowd. “18,000 houses at ground zero. There wasn’t one single building left undamaged.”
Even though they had been liberated, tough times still lay ahead. With the food shortage affecting everyone, the Soviets and the Red Cross decided to send all of the displaced children to farms in the area to help with agricultural work.
Frustaci was sent to a local farm by the International Red Cross, and it was there that he was adopted and had his name changed. He worked for his new family, all the while living under the assumption that his mother was dead.
Frustaci hadn’t known that his mother still lived, and since her liberation she had been traveling across the European countryside to find him.
“The dogs were chasing the pigs, then the pigs were chasing the dogs,” He said as he recalled the day his mother found him, garnering hardy laughs from the crowd. He remembered how his adoptive sister had come saying that his mother wanted him. Not sure as to the reason, Frustaci questioned why and his sister answered “No, not that mother! The other mother!”
Frustaci and his mother were finally reunited, where he then learned that she had walked for six months from her concentration camp to return to Budapest. After hearing that a young boy matching Frustaci’s description had passed through an International Red Cross camp, she searched 183 different villages to find him, and finally succeeded.
Frustaci’s incredible story did not end there. He returned to Budapest with his mother, where she hired a teacher for him to get him back on track. He completed two grades of school every year until he was finally caught up.
Frustaci went on to become a businessman at the age of 27, and was eventually brought to the U.S.A. to make use of his talents.
“I was imported by the United States as a merchandise,” Frustaci said as he answered a student’s question as to what brought him to America. “The United States said ‘If I cannot beat him, I will buy him.”
Throughout his speech, Frustaci emphasized the fact that he was living proof of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
“For over 60 years, I never said anything to anybody.” He said, and explained how it wasn’t until he saw that the Archbishop gave orders to his perishes to not talk about the Holocaust that he knew he needed to tell his story.
Since then, Frustaci has made it his goal to speak to over 15,000 students. The fifty people in attendance at Florida Southwestern make up a small portion of that number, but his message was loud and clear to all who were listening.
“When someone says that the Holocaust did not exist,” Frustaci said. “That is really something criminal.”