Through hardship to the stars


22 April 2009 Through hardship to the stars For Robert Frimtzis, Yom HaShoah yesterday (Tuesday) was an opportunity to reaffirm the defiance and resilience that had seen him through the Holocaust and with ORTs help build a new life that took him to the frontiers of space exploration. Ive been invited to speak at my temple for Yom HaShoah, California-based Mr Frimtzis said. But Im not going to speak about the six million who died but about the three million who survived and who went on to build a future for the Jewish People in spite of Hitler. The same forward-looking spirit pervaded the Central Training Institute for the Training of ORT Instructors at Anieres, near Geneva, where Mr Frimtzis, then 18, was the second youngest member of the inaugural class, in 1949. The esprit de corps was unbelievable, he remembered. We were Survivors. We were interested in studying and getting somewhere. We didnt want to talk about the war. We were focused on the future. For Mr Frimtzis, who had enjoyed a comfortable middle class life in what was then the Bessarabian (now Moldovan) town of Belz before escaping with his parents to the security of a mud hut in Tajikistan by keeping barely one step ahead of the advancing German army, the Anieres Institute was a glittering prospect of better days. After three years in the overcrowded, basic conditions of Displaced Persons camps in Italy, the renovated sanatoriums splendour was enhanced by the natural beauty of its surroundings, near Lake Leman, and the mansions and chauffer-driven limousines enjoyed by local residents. It was a new world, Mr Frimtzis recalled. And his class was suitably international 63 young men, the youngest being 16-year-old Vittorio Pavoncello from Rome, the rest coming from across Europe and from as far away as Rio de Janeiro and Casablanca. Theirs was a diversity which only grew as the Institute went on to teach hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish people from Europe, Africa, Asia and America the latest techniques in vocational education as well as general and Jewish studies until its closure in the early 1990s. But it was not Mr Frimtzis first encounter with ORT; that came at the Cremona DP camp, south of Milan, where he and his parents arrived in 1947. Cremona was one of 78 centres in Austria, Germany and Italy at which ORT trained and educated some 80,000 Holocaust Survivors between 1945 and 1951. In 1947, ORT was providing 597 courses in various trades and subjects and employing more than 900 instructors. There was nothing to do in the camp, he said. Then, out of nowhere, we found ORT schools. They were a godsend. Id never heard of ORT before that. The worst part of the DP camps was the boredom. So ORT provided us a way of getting out of the boredom. They offered courses in fields such as mechanics, electronics, radio repair and woodwork. Id had to leave school at the age of 12 and work as a helper to an electrician so the electronics course at Cremona was an obvious choice. Mr Frimtzis found the course easy enough to give him the free time to pursue his own studies, using ORT text books and with the support of ORT instructors to learn algebra and physics. At the end of the course he was invited to apply for a place at the new Anieres Institute. The exams were rather simple, designed to test aptitude rather than knowledge, he said. I remember one question, for example, which asked how I would explain electricity to two people: one of them a professor, the other an African who had never seen anything electrical. He was one of two out of 400 applicants from Italy who were accepted. We were obviously elated; it was probably the finest day of my life thus far because it meant I was going to have an education, not just a trade, he said. However, delays in the Institutes opening meant that Mr Frimtzis went on to study a further ORT course in motor winding in the DP camp at Iesi, near the Adriatic port of Ancona. Several months later the Institute opened and ORT arranged his visa and travel from Italy to Switzerland. The Institute may once have been a sanatorium but any notion of rest and recuperation had been papered over in the renovations. All the instruction was in French so we all had to study French. The instructors could speak various languages but once we were in the classroom it was only French. They told us it was for our own good. Imagine how difficult it is to study engineering now try studying it in a language you dont know. In addition youre competing with some students whose mother tongue was French. But it only made us work harder. As far as I was concerned this was my road to the future. That road took an unexpected turn when Mr Frimtzis received word from his parents that they had received their long-awaited visas for America. Although he wanted to live in America he did not want to leave Anieres. He believed that the best schools in the United States were open only to the wealthy and so the ORT Institute afforded him his best chance for education-fuelled advancement. Fearing that he would for ever be limited to blue collar trades, Mr Frimtzis re-joined his parents only to discover that the Americans had taken him off the visa list because of his place at Anieres. Unable to return to Switzerland, Mr Frimtzis had to spend a further six months in a DP camp until he received his visa and could join his parents in the USA. As detailed in his memoir, From Tajikistan to the Moon, which can be ordered by visiting, Mr Frimtzis won a place at the City College of New York (CCNY) by gaining near perfect results in high school matriculation exams after studying only two semesters at night classes. Armed with a bachelors degree in electrical engineering, he went on to gain a Masters at Columbia and joined the historic Apollo programme which put Man on the Moon. Notably he worked hand in glove with first man on the Moon Neil Armstrong in developing the astronauts training simulator. Despite having missed the chance to attend high school, Mr Frimtzis occupied various engineering management positions in lunar exploration programmes as well as in defence satellites and other space projects. World ORT Director General Robert Singer met Mr Frimtzis at the ORT America Annual Meeting last month. It was a privilege to meet someone with such an amazing life story, Mr Singer said. His is a story of the human spirit triumphing over evil; it is also one which shows that the sky is not the limit to the opportunities opened up by education. And this sums up perfectly ORTs mission over the past 130 years for thousands of youngsters in dozens of countries and sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances. And Dr Ronald Sugar, Chairman and CEO of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, whose 120,000 employees produced $34 billion-worth of sales last year, has described Mr Frimtzis as a mentor and role model during the early years of his own career. Rising against all odds from deprivation and tragedy, he was driven to succeed and personally contribute to our nations security, Dr Sugar said. His living example convinced me that I had no excuse not to make the very best of myself in my own career. Although circumstances prevented Mr Frimtzis from completing his studies with ORT, he has never underestimated the benefit he derived from the organisation. I credit ORT with being able to do what I did, he said. I was able to get into CCNY without going to high school because of the knowledge I got with ORT. ORT was the stepping stone into my career. The nearly two years I spent with ORT at Cremona influenced me in the direction I was to take. And they gave me time to study on my own. And the six months at Anieres honed me. So I give a portion of the sales of my book to ORT.