Holocaust Survivors: Symbols of Hope and Inspiration

 

              While I listened intently to Frieda there were no signs in her poised demeanor, eloquent speech, or gentle smile that she had survived one of the most horrific events in the history of mankind: the Holocaust.  Frieda began her story recounting her childhood memories of hearing about Hitler and how many people dismissed his perverse ideologies by reassuringly saying that “he’s just barking”. It was unfathomable to all, Jews and others alike, that Hitler’s Final Solution entailed the death of 6 million Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Frieda grew up in Czechoslovakia, which in 1944 was one of the last places to be occupied by Nazi Germany. But before the tragic day in April of that year when she and her family were deported to Auschwitz, Frieda remembers the “exciting” life she had lived. She explains her mostly Jewish neighborhood as having a “cultured atmosphere”, filled with a sense of community and support.  Being the youngest girl of seven children, she remembers always being “nurtured and spoiled” by her parents, her four sisters, and two brothers. Her father was a Talmudic scholar and her mother a housewife and together they taught their children many of the Jewish traditions and values that Frieda lives by to this day.

             In April of 1944, she and her family were deported to Auschwitz, well aware of the horrors of the crematoriums and gas chambers at the concentration camps. As she and family disembarked the train, they were immediately separated by gender and the children and elderly were sent straight to the crematoriums. Their belongings were taken away from them and they were forced to stand naked while they were inspected by the officers. From that moment on, Frieda said she had to “fight to survive”. There was no food, no heat, and they had no shoes even when the snow was two feet deep. On the first day she arrived, Frieda recalls being given a piece of black bread and a cup of black water, which she was unwilling to eat. She remembers how a couple of ladies were attempting to take her untouched food from her, but then another lady who was kind enough to tell Frieda to save it because she will need it as nourishment if she wants to survive. Frieda explained the conditions at the camp and how there was sickness and disease all over. She said how the officers dehumanized them to keep them from getting the idea of escaping. In the case that a person attempted to escape and they were caught, there would be a public showing of the person being hung. Frieda explained that those who worked in the crematory were killed after a few months so their stories wouldn’t get out. Her only thoughts and desire were: “let me survive so I can tell the world what [the Nazis] did”.

                  While listening to Frieda jump from story to story, it became evident that it was the values and lessons that she had learned throughout her childhood and early adolescence that gave her the strength to endure and rise above the suffering she faced during and following the Holocaust. Frieda recalls how her father would always tell his children, “takhlis”, which she translated from Yiddish to mean accomplish.  She was motivated by her diligent, devoted older siblings as well as her hard working parents, who emphasized the importance of education. Her mother would always tell her to “see how you can better yourself, rather than preoccupying yourself with gossip”. Frieda explained to me vivid memories of her life in Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust, where she, her sisters, and mom would knit, sew, or bake, while her brothers and father would study Torah. Everyone in her life was so bright, which further motivated her to be a good student and to make education a priority. Even today, at around eighty years old, she is still pursing the quest for knowledge and trying to improve herself. In the last couple years she has taken courses of psychology, poetry, and nutrition at Beverly Hills Adult School and UCLA Extension.

                Her strong background in education and her unstoppable pursuit of knowledge taught her invaluable qualities such as devotion and dedication that helped her deal with difficult times. After the Holocaust, with not much external motivation in her life because most of her family had died, she still strived to reach her highest potential. After the liberation of Auschwitz, Frieda and her one older sister, who were the only two who had survived, lived in Israel from 1949 to 1950. In Israel, Frieda, who was considered the unwelcomed “new arrival”, was able to get by financially with no knowledge of the Hebrew language as well as being unfamiliar to the ways of the country. It is in Israel where Frieda met her husband and came to America in 1950. Later in 1975 with her husband’s early death, she would use this same drive and dedication to single-handedly raise her three young boys. It is the discipline and strength she learned from her quest for knowledge that helped her to rise above such obstacles.

                   Her eagerness to learn allowed her to appreciate the value of acquiring knowledge. One particular subject that caught her attention at an early age was poetry, which was introduced to her by one of her sisters. The poetry she learned remained instilled in her mind even throughout the most tragic events of the Holocaust and motivated her to keep fighting to live. As Frieda shared her stories with me she would occasionally recite poetry she had committed to memory because she had found them to be inspirational and meaningful. She mentioned the importance of these poems to her, saying that “after all the horror, I had to fill my mind with beautiful thoughts. I memorized these poems, to make them a part of me, as well as to be able to share them with others”. She said that it extremely hurt her knowing that, “everyone who knew me and loved me was dead” and so she used poetry to help fill the void in her life.

            Another valuable lesson that Frieda learned that enabled her to overcome many obstacles throughout her life connected to what her mother always use to tell her: “we don’t take, we give”. This connects to the Jewish commandment of tzedakah, which literally means justice, and it is similar to the act of giving charity. Frieda learned this lesson from an early age so she always helps those less fortunate than herself and she also never liked taking the easy way out by getting support from others. Even when confronted with the challenged of raising three boys on her own, she refused to go on welfare, because of both her pride and her strong belief that she had the potential to support herself and her family.

            The teachings from Frieda’s family stayed with her and allowed her to overcome obstacles and reach her highest potential when faced with the challenges from the Holocaust as well as other life challenges that followed. It was her passion for knowledge and belief in herself that allowed her to have hope of survival in the future.

 

 

 

 

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