Gita Frankel had seen the Earth’s surface crack open and Hell slither out.
As a teenager, she was stolen away from her life in Poland when World War II hit. She went through 5½ years of ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps and the March of Death. She watched her father die to protect her younger brother. Her older brother starved to death in her arms. She protected her mother from Nazi physician, Dr. Josef Mengele.
Frankel, who died July 25 at 94, immigrated to the United States with her late husband and two children in 1957, where she and her family moved to Cleveland Heights to be close to her mother. Frankel eventually moved to University Heights and attended Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood.
Instead of letting her experiences exist solely in her mind as blood-stained memories, Frankel decided to share her stories after many years with help from the late Leatrice Rabinsky, a former Cleveland Heights High School English and Holocaust studies teacher.
She spoke to students at schools, Ohio’s governor and state employees in Columbus, and a crowd at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said Francine Schlachet, Frankel’s daughter who lives in Florida.
“She finally felt she found her reason for surviving the war was to speak to everybody and anybody,” Schlachet said. “She went to small town USA, where people said they’d never seen a Jew. She’s really spoken everywhere. She had letters by the hundreds, written to her after her speaking engagements from students who were so moved by her stories.”
Turning on her mind’s projector for all to see wasn’t an easy process for Frankel, Schlachet recalled.
“Every time my mother spoke, she would come home and say, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this,’” Schlachet said. “‘I feel that every time I speak, I’m reliving the experience, and it’s very hard.’ She would have migraine headaches, and it would really take her a while to recover. Then there she was again, going out there and feeling, ‘This is what I have to do.’”
The Gita Frankel Scholarship was created in her name in 2014 at Cleveland Heights High School to honor a student who demonstrates exemplary community service during the school year they took the Lessons of the Holocaust class.
Before Frankel devoted her time to telling her story, she worked at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland as its kitchen supervisor for 35 years.
Stephen H. Hoffman, former president of the Federation, warmly remembered “Mrs. Frankel,” as he called her, as a woman whose warm, inviting personality matched the food she prepared.
“Mrs. Frankel made 1750 Euclid Ave. feel like family when people came to lunch,” Hoffman said. “It was like you were invited into her home, and she was putting out the spread for you.”
Hoffman remains thankful for the years he spent learning from Frankel until she retired in 2000.
“She was never just a cook,” Hoffman said. “She was just a force of nature, very energetic and very hard working. She made sure that several new generations would know that the Holocaust was real, there were horrible consequences of it, there are lessons to learn and things we need to do better as people.”
As a Holocaust survivor, Schlachet said her mother did two things she never thought she’d do: she lived to tell her story and had a Jewish family she loved more than life., Schlachet said.
“(Telling her experience) meant that, ‘I survived and you, Hitler, did not,’” Schlachet said. “‘I have gone on and created a family to carry on who I am. You didn’t kill us. You didn’t annihilate us.’”