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Lessons from my mother

She endured the horrors of the Holocaust with her faith intact, raised a family, and died of COVID-19 in a Long Island nursing home
(Courtesy)
(Courtesy)

Terror in Real Time

My mother, Felicia Friedman (née Deustcher), z”l, was 13 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. She endured unimaginable challenges, tortures, and horrors until she was liberated in 1945.

Shortly after the Nazis marched into Krakow, Poland, her Jewish school was surrounded by Nazis and all of the students, including her, were chased out. She recalled trying to escape the clutches of a Nazi running after her screaming, “Jew, I will kill you!”

It is hard to imagine the terror that she felt as a child, narrowly escaping his attack. The fear and terror that she felt lasted well past the time it took her to flee and hide in safety. Undoubtedly if we view these events in ‘real time’ we can understand a fraction of the trauma that she and other Jews felt not just for minutes, but for weeks, months, years and a lifetime.

She made it safely back home, only to have Nazis barge in and ransack her family’s apartment four days later. She and her entire family stood in terror as everything of value including tablecloths and linens were forcibly stolen from the apartment.

Keeping Her Faith in God…Resisting Peer pressure

A short time later she was separated from her family and sent to Płaszów, a forced labor camp, where she witnessed her six-year-old cousin being shot to death by the notorious Nazi, Amon Goeth.

During a weekly break she joined a conversation with other teenagers, in which one girl was lamenting their horrific situation and proclaimed that she did not believe in God. When no one else challenged her words, my mother responded by declaring that God existed but that their horrific situation was caused by man choosing to be evil.

My father – her husband to be – overheard the conversation and was very impressed by the remarks of this young girl. They agreed to meet again if they were both able to survive the war.

My mother was a woman of deep and abiding faith even at a young age. She exhibited the courage and strength to speak out under the most difficult of circumstances.

This underscores the importance of being willing and able to speak out if one perceives a wrong, even – or perhaps specifically – when there is peer pressure against your opinion.

Enduring Auschwitz

My mother was sent by cattle car to Auschwitz. During the terror-stricken trip, she and the hundreds of others packed into the train did not receive any food rations, water or the dignity of a private bathroom.

Twice her entire barracks was sent to the gas chamber – once the gas ran out and the Nazis sent them back to their bunk, and another time a group of ‘Gypsies’ arrived in Auschwitz and the Nazis’ sent my mother’s barracks back so that they could gas the gypsies instead.

I have no doubt that on both occasions she and the others were gripped with fear thinking “are they going to call us again in a half hour, in the middle of the night or tomorrow morning?”

Exhibiting Jewish pride

During her interviews with the Spielberg foundation, My mother recounted that she was the victim of terrible beatings by a Nazi guard in the concentration camp. In particular, he picked on her because her maiden name was Deutscher, and he objected to the fact that a Jewish girl could have a German-sounding name.

During one of these ‘personal’ beatings when she was clearly in pain the Nazi barked at her “Beg me for mercy and I will stop!”

She courageously decided not to give the Nazi the satisfaction of seeing a Jew begging, and endured a continuous beating until his whip broke, after 104 painful blows.

This story should inspire all of us to be courageous and proud Jews.

True Concern for Others

In January 1945, as the Soviet troops approached from the East, the Germans took the Jews under their control on a horrific ‘Death March’.

The Soviets liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 but my mother and thousands of others already been forcibly transferred to another death camp.

The Jews of Auschwitz were subjected to days of marching in the bitter cold of Poland, guarded by gun-toting Nazis and their attack dogs. Jews who had the misfortune of collapsing in the snow due to exhaustion or hunger were either shot or mauled to death by the dogs.

When asked by the Spielberg interviewer what she might have done to merit surviving… my mom responded “I don’t know, but perhaps it was because I shared my one piece of bread with another Jewish girl who was about to faint.”

The message of concern and caring for others despite her own personal dire circumstances is inspiring and instructive.

Keeping the Promise

My mother survived the war, returned home, heartbroken and depressed to find that her parents, siblings, and relatives were all murdered by the Nazis.

Miraculously, she found information about the young man, my father, who had survived the war and was sick with typhus in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

She made her way from Poland to Czechoslovakia, posed as a nurse and helped my father survive.

After their survival, they both volunteered to identify in a lineup Amon Goeth, the notorious Nazi commandant of the Płaszów camp. They also agreed to relive the horrors that they experienced by bringing testimony against Goeth.

They married in October 1945 and had almost 70 years of wonderful marriage until my father’s passing in 2015.

Love of Family

My mother and father had what one would call a storybook marriage. They were deeply in love for 70 years, and I never heard them argue with one other.

I always wondered why they rarely, if ever, spoke to our family about their horrible experiences during the Holocaust. I surmised that it was because it was too painful to talk about, although I later learned that was only part of the reason, as they often spoke about their experiences in Florida, where they lived for 30 years, speaking to local students, teachers, and community organizations about their experiences,

In listening to the testimony they gave on the Spielberg interview tapes, both my father and my mother made it clear that it was a conscious decision on their part to prevent my sister and I from hearing about their pain and suffering which might lead to our sadness and despair.

The interviewer asked my mother if grandchildren (of which she had 9 at the time) ever asked about the numbers on her arm. She replied that when they asked about the numbers she did not disclose it was the Nazi attempt to dehumanize the Jews in Auschwitz, and instead said she told the little ones that it was her phone number which she didn’t want to forget.

They taught by example what a marriage and family values could and should be.

A Sad Ending

My mother, who had endured so much and survived the war, died of COVID-19 in a nursing home on Long Island. This followed a New York state directive that adult care facilities were required to accept patients with COVID-19. She will be sorely missed, but her life lessons of honesty, courage, Jewish pride, concern for others, and personal sacrifice continue to endure and inspire.

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Friedman is the Rosh Mesivta, Dean Of Rambam Mesivta for Boys and Shalhevet High School for Girls.
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