Karen Pollock
Karen Pollock

Freda was elegance, wit, determination and strength personified

Freda Wineman (© Blake Ezra Photography Ltd)
Freda Wineman (© Blake Ezra Photography Ltd)

 Freda Wineman was elegance personified. Always immaculately dressed, extremely poised and very understated. Her charming manner and constant smile put everyone at ease. Often the most beautiful woman in the room, she never wanted to be the centre of attention.

She was very softly spoken with a gorgeous French accent. When I first discovered Freda was born in Metz I couldn’t believe it. It is a small town in Alsace Lorraine but happens to be where I spent a year – I studied languages at university – and so I knew Freda’s home town well. I told her about my experience there and tried out a bit of my French… but soon reverted to English!

I sometimes saw Freda at various WIZO events – she was involved in the Daphna group – a committed member of the community, always active and sociable, and always smiling.

I found Freda captivating. You had to lean in when she spoke, or else you’d miss it.

Freda Wineman at Speakers House

Because of that, the words she used had an amazing power. I saw this when she spoke at school assemblies, in lecture halls and at Speaker’s House in Parliament.

She spoke with quiet dignity. She had a devastating story to tell and she would share it with such grace.

Freda’s story, like all the stories of those who survived the Holocaust, was unique and heart wrenching.

I heard Freda’s testimony in schools a number of times over the years but I will never forget sitting with her in a film studio when she shared even more detail about what happened.

She spoke of the moment that, upon arrival at Auschwitz, a man told young mothers to give their babies and children to older women. Freda’s mum took a baby from a stranger, and as a result Freda’s mother, and that little baby, walked to their deaths – her mother’s actions saved the stranger.

This was following the German invasion of Freda’s home country, France in 1940. The family had intended to go into hiding, but were arrested and sent to Drancy transit camp on the outskirts of Paris, and then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Freda Wineman (© Blake Ezra Photography Ltd)

Unlike her mother, who was killed on arrival, Freda was disinfected and tattooed with the number A.7181. During her years at Auschwitz, she was forced to dig trenches and served in the Kanada Kommando. She was an eyewitness to tens of thousands of murders.

In October 1944, Freda was taken from Auschwitz by cattle trucks to Bergen-Belsen, where she remained until February 1945. From there she was sent with 750 other women to Raguhn, a satellite camp of Buchenwald concentration camp.

As the Allies advanced, Freda was once again put on a cattle truck and sent to Terezín where she remained until she was liberated by Soviet troops. After liberation, Freda discovered that her parents and her brother, Marcel, had been murdered at Auschwitz. Eventually, she was finally reunited with her brothers David and Armand, and she made this country her home.

Freda made it her mission to tell people about what happened in the Holocaust and to put a face to history. Only last year, she wrote in the Independent:

I know I cannot go on sharing forever, but what happened in the Holocaust must never be forgotten. The world should always know what happened to us.

Freda Wineman with former PM David Cameron at Number 10 (© Blake Ezra Photography Ltd)

When I speak in schools, I ask students to tell their friends and family what they have heard. I say that in the future, if they ever hear anyone question what happened, they should tell them that they heard Freda Wineman, and she survived the Holocaust. I ask them to be my witnesses. Today, I ask the same of you. Please share my story. Please be my witness.

And there are so many who are her witness.

She made an impression on everyone she met, countless teachers and students, community leaders and politicians – including the great and the good. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, former Prime Minister David Cameron, Boris Johnson when Mayor of London, the now Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP, Health Secretary Sajid Javid all have heard from Freda as have the many thousands of young people who have heard her speak in schools. She made multiple appearances on our TV screens including one episode of Blue Peter in 2009 which was especially memorable.

In particular, I will never forget her encounter with then Prime Minister David Cameron:

Freda initially met him on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2013 in 10 Downing Street. He spoke about meeting her in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions and got her age wrong – he had aged her by a year. So, when she introduced him at our Annual Dinner a few months later standing at the podium on a great stage, surrounded by 600 supporters at The Dorchester, she quipped ‘Mr Prime Minister, I must correct you, I am not 91 yet!’.

16.09.2013 © Blake Ezra Photography Ltd 2013.
Images from the HET Dinner 2013 at The Dorchester. Not for forwarding or commercial use.
www.blakeezraphotography.com

She was nervous about joking with the then Prime Minister, but she did it with aplomb. She was so proud of herself, and we were proud of her too!

Freda survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and multiple other concentration and death camps. She lost loved ones and witnessed horror that none of us can imagine.

Yes, she had charm, wit, and beauty but she was also strong and determined.

I know I am not the only one who will miss her, who feels so privileged to have known her and who commits today and every day, in her memory, to keep sharing her testimony.

On behalf of all my colleagues at the Holocaust Educational Trust and all those who met Freda and adored her, we wish her family long life. May her memory be a blessing.

Karen Pollock with Freda Wineman
About the Author
Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (H.E.T.)
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