Information is readily available when it comes to the Holocaust – museum exhibits, articles, documentaries and much more – but there are not many opportunities for students to hear survivors tell their own first-hand accounts of what they experienced. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and to commemorate the occasion WGVU hosted a special screening of its documentary “Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah.”
Tova Friedman, who was taken to Auschwitz when she was five and a half years old, was featured in the documentary and came to Grand Rapids to talk about what she went through during the Holocaust. The Lanthorn had the opportunity to meet and talk with her about her memories. Additionally, she gave some advice to college students about overcoming hardships.
SH: First, just thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us; I heard you’ve had a really busy schedule.
TF: I’m happy to be here.
SH: So you were taken to Auschwitz at such a young age, where did you grow up before?
TF: What do you mean by grow up? I was a year old when the war broke out so I was in different camps. Before I came to Auschwitz, I was in a ghetto and then in another camp – it was a slave labor camp – and then in Auschwitz. After that I was in Europe until I was 12. I was 12 when I came to America. I’m not sure if that answers your question of where I grew up; I’m still growing up.
SH: What do you remember about the trip to Auschwitz?
TF: Oh, the trip to Auschwitz. That was probably something you can’t forget. We were – I don’t know how many people – in a cattle car, which means no windows, just a tiny window on the top.
The trip was about three days. And we had no water, we had no food, we had no bathroom facilities, so we just went wherever we stood. For me it was dark because I was so little – I was the only child among all the women. And a lot of terrible, terrible screaming and noise and hysteria really. People were very, very frightened.
I knew I was going to Auschwitz but I don’t think I realized exactly what it meant – I was five and a half. But the people, the women, they expected to die and there were horrific, hysterical outbursts.
SH: How long were you at Auschwitz before it was liberated?
TF: I was there about 6 or 7 months.
SH: What stands out in your memory most vividly about your time at Auschwitz?
TF: Well, the time when they decided that our barrack had to be exterminated, all the children. And before you went to the crematorium, they give you sort of a nice breakfast – something warm, something sweet, it was like a porridge of some kind. And it was sort of almost a symbol that this is your last meal. And I didn’t mind because I was starving. I remember eating it and then saying to myself, “I’m glad it’s over.”
And we were walking all together to the crematorium and all of a sudden I hear a voice. I know it was my mother because she called me by name. Most of the time, we were called just by number. And she said, “Where are you going?” And I said, “To the crematorium.” And women were screaming and crying because their children were there too. It was a women’s camp. And I thought to myself, “Why is everybody crying?” I thought that all Jewish children had to go to the crematorium.
So we went there and we wait, and we got undressed. And we waited, and we were freezing. And at the end, they made us put on our clothes again and they said they got the wrong transport. Something was wrong, the wrong time or the wrong – I don’t know – and they sent us back. There were a number of memorable things, but that was really outstanding. As a group, it’s something.
SH: I read online that you were with your mother for some of the time and how she gave you a lot of instructions about what to do while you were there. Can you tell me more about those instances?
TF: There were different places with different instructions. In the slave labor camp, she gave me instructions of how to behave. If you see a German coming towards you, you have to move – give him the right of way, no eye contact, you keep your hands to the back, if you’re wearing a kerchief or a hat or something to show respect – because if you were face to face with a Nazi, you would be shot because you did not show certain respect. She constantly reminded me.
In Auschwitz, she kept telling me that I could only go to the bathroom once a day and I have to hold it. And I tried not to think about going to the bathroom. That’s these kind of instructions. And I can’t be too visible, I shouldn’t cry, I shouldn’t say anything, I should be as quiet as possible. So she tried.
SH: What were your feelings and emotions on the day that you were liberated? Can you tell me more about that day?
TF: I think you know I was hidden with a corpse just before liberation?
SH: I read a little bit about that, but could you tell me more?
TF: Yeah, well my mother found a corpse and she told me to hide with the corpse because all the people were being sent out of Auschwitz because they wanted to leave no witnesses and the allies were coming. So she had covered me and told me they were all gone and you could get out.
We started walking, all of us, towards the barbed wires and they were still electrified and so forth. They had also set everything on fire, so all the different places were on fire. All the little houses and all the places where they had clothing for, you know, children’s clothing and adult clothing and all kinds of storage places.
And I remember walking towards the barbed wire waiting with everybody for the Russians to come. It took some hours. And when they arrived, we were just shocked, especially when they cut the wires. And I remember the Russian soldiers were so amazed at what they saw, and they were shocked.
One of the Russians took me and picked me up, and put me down. So the whole thing was an amazing situation, especially that I could eat. Since we had no food, and now the Russians were beginning to feed us.
We were also in shock. My mother didn’t know what to do, where to go. We just stayed in Auschwitz and we were wondering what to do.
SH: I saw online that both your parents did survive?
TF: Yes, my mother and father survived. My mother was liberated with me.
SH: What was it like to be free and reunited with them?
TF: Well, first of all, the problems began because how do you get back home – whatever home was. I didn’t know what home was. So we had terrific difficulty getting back, we had to take trains and I don’t know what else. We had no money, so we stayed in Auschwitz for a little bit.
But after we got home, what’s called home, my mother took me back to the town where the whole thing began. And I remember we were wandering the streets and the Poles were very, very unwelcoming. And some of them said, “What are you doing back here again, we thought Hitler killed you all?” We had no place to stay and no place to live.
You know what happens is, first you go into shock and now you want to live a normal life and you don’t know how. And my mother waited to see who was alive and came back. Ten of her brothers and sisters were killed, and all of their families – a total of 150 people. So we waited and waited, we were three years waiting.
So it wasn’t a jubilant period. I think that most people, because in the beginning there was trying to keep yourself alive, and now you were thinking about what happened. Where are your family, where is your family? Where are your brothers? Where are your sisters? Where are your parents? It was a terribly difficult time.
And, when I went to school, the Polish kids made fun of me. They called me, “Dirty Jew.” So it wasn’t like being liberated and going to some wonderful place and be healed. It was a terrific struggle afterwards too.
SH: Going through school and being called names, how did you deal with that as a kid?
TF: Well I didn’t want to go to school. I wouldn’t go back. I just didn’t go back. So I refused to go to school. I was there just maybe a week or two. And then they called me, “Dirty Jew,” and I said, “I’m not going back.”
I also couldn’t understand the concept of school – you know, the sitting. My mother tried to teach me at home a little bit – numbers and counting – and I couldn’t get it. My mind just wasn’t there.
SH: What made you able to move on with your life after such an experience?
TF: Well, we were in the DP camp for a while, that was a quiet time – DP camp means displaced peoples camp, people who had no family and no money – so they put us all in this camp. It was run by some welfare, like the Jewish welfare board, I’m not sure exactly who. So they gave us food. My parents were still looking for family and then they decided to go to America.
When I was 12, I came here. The first thing I decided, well my mother decided, that I’m going to learn how to read. And I think what happened, for the first year or two, all I did was read to learn about things. I went to school. I think the quiet of America – we lived in Queens – we were there and life became like everyday. We go to school and every day to study. The first summer, I read the dictionary – the picture dictionary. I learned all the words.
I think a normal kind of existence, we eat and we sleep regularly, and you go to school, and you have homework, and I made a friend or two – there was some people that I liked. So I got into the rhythm of living. And that sort of began the healing process.
SH: What have you accomplished since moving to the U.S. and since your childhood?
TF: What do you call accomplishments?
SH: Personally, or professionally.
TF: I have four children, I don’t know if that’s an accomplishment. I’ve got eight grandchildren. I have two master’s, one in literature and one in therapy and social work. I worked – I still work, I work now. I was the director of an agency for therapy, and for 23 years. I speak a lot. I do a lot of speaking to make sure people know what happened and won’t forget. I speak to kids a lot – high school, college, younger ones. Anybody who wants to listen, I talk to.
SH: When did you first start talking about your experiences?
TF: My daughter, my first daughter, was I think in public school, like 8th or 9th grade. Her teacher told her something about needed Holocaust survivors and she sort of said to me, “Are you willing to talk?” And I went to class – very hard in the beginning.
SH: What made you want to share your story?
TF: What made me want to share? Well, you know there were 5,000 children in my town, and only four stayed alive? And I’m the youngest of the four and I decided there has to be a reason. I have to tell the story. I’m a witness. Do you know Hitler never wanted any witnesses? He tried to kill everybody and say that he didn’t do anything. So I’m a witness to everything he did, to all the atrocities, as much as I could have seen at that stage in my life.
SH: So we’re college students, and many college students today face hardships that they feel they can’t overcome or they’re the first of their family to go to college, or just personal hardships. But you’ve overcome so much. What advice would you give to them?
TF: Can you tell me what kind of hardships you’re talking about?
SH: Losing a family member, or even just feeling like they’re not good enough academically or personally – just really anything.
TF: Well you know I’m also a therapist. So I deal with people that way too. I think that the most important thing is their faith – faith in yourself. And you can get faith in all different ways.
If you can find another person, that could be a support system. It doesn’t have to be your parents if they’re not capable or able. A friend, a teacher, a book. You’ve got to find strength someplace. Somehow, you have to find strength somewhere. And let’s say you have no money for college, as college is quite expensive, you can get a job and then start going at night. You know, life is very long – it really is. You have a lot of chances to do a lot of things. If you give up very early, that’s it. Then you can’t do anything. Sort of roll with the punches, and you go for counseling if you can.
You just need one person in your life. Look around for that person – you’ll find it. Just one person. Every time, when I was very down – I don’t mean in Auschwitz because I was too young – but as I get older, you know, things were not easy for me. I found this one person who would give me strength, and then I would, in turn, give that person strength. That’s all you need.
Timothy Eernisse, development and marketing manager at WGVU: Can you talk a little bit about your educational journey – your educational journey not only being a survivor, but also as a female? Because that was obviously different in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘80s.
TF: I was a maverick. I think I was born one. I have a master’s in black literature. No white person at that time would dare go to that. Now there’s more integration. I moved to Harlem – all black Harlem in New York City, together with my husband and my two children were born there – so I could study black literature at a university there, CCNY was the city college. And I decided that I wanted to learn about the literature and I wanted to teach it. After which, I taught at the university for about 10 years – that was in Israel, I lived in Israel.
When I came back to America, I went right back to school and I had four kids by then. I remember going for an interview with one of my kids in the carriage. I didn’t mind. You have to break the stereotype. I mean, I nursed a child when I was writing my master thesis. Took the child to the library with me, I sat and I nursed and I wrote my papers. You didn’t have computers at the time, so I couldn’t sit home and do it. I had to go to a public place. And I asked the library for a cubicle, they had study cubicles in the library, and I just did it.
You can’t follow the accepted norms, because if you do, somebody will always say no to you. And I just never asked, so nobody could say no to me. If you ask, they’ll say no. If you don’t ask and you do what you want to do, it’s not harmful to anybody. It’s not detrimental to anybody’s health. But if I felt like I wanted to write my papers – I had no place but the library at that time and I had a child that I wasn’t going to leave behind and I wasn’t going to give up my master’s either – so I managed to do that. I had bottles and I had food and I had all that in the library cubicle. You know, you do all kinds of stuff. So I think that’s what it is, it’s a kind of a feeling that the world is your place where you can experiment and experience.
SH: Thank you, I just know you’ve done a lot.
TF: I don’t know if I’ve done a lot. You’ve got to break the molds of things, because they’ll just keep you in...The future will hold that which you decide to do. Try it, and if it doesn’t work try something else.