The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope
My name is Tova Friedman. I’m one of the youngest survivors of the Nazi extermination camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. For much of my adult life, I’ve been speaking about the Holocaust to ensure people never forget.
I was born Tola Grossman in Gdynia, Poland, in 1938, a year before the Second World War began. After living through every stage of the Nazis’ attempt to wipe out the Jewish people, I eventually moved to America, married Maier Friedman and later began calling myself Tova.
No matter how much the last few remaining survivors and I share our stories, it seems that people are forgetting. Personally, I was horrified to learn about the levels of ignorance revealed in a survey of young Americans that was commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and published in September 2020.
Two-thirds of the people who were interviewed had no idea how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Almost half couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto. Twenty-three percent believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated. Seventeen percent said it was acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. A similar survey in Europe in 2018 showed that a third of all Europeans knew just as little or hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust. It also showed that 20 percent thought that Jewish people had too much influence in the worlds of business and finance.
Those astonishing, alarming numbers point to just one thing: anti-Semitism, or hatred of the Jews, is on the rise again in the United States and across Europe. I find it very hard to believe, after everything we endured in the ghettos and the extermination camps during the Second World War, that the insidious attitudes of the 1920s and 1930s are resurfacing. The Holocaust, the worst crime in the history of mankind, happened less than eighty years ago, and it’s fading from memory already? That, quite frankly, is appalling.
I’m now eighty-three years old, and with this book, I am trying to immortalize what happened, to ensure that those who died are not forgotten. Nor the methods that were used to exterminate them.
Many people wonder whether the world we inhabit now is similar to Europe of the 1930s, when Nazism and Fascism were on the rise in the run-up to the Second World War. Back then, anti-Semitism was the official state policy of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. It’s true that no government in the world today has such a doctrine enshrined in law and supported by the population at large. Nevertheless, we all know countries where discrimination is prevalent and perhaps even tolerated.
Hatred is one of the fastest-growing phenomena today. Hate of every kind, especially toward minorities. Wherever you are in the world, I implore you, do not repeat the history to which I was subjected.
Remember, the Holocaust began less than twenty years after Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, his master plan for eradicating the Jews. In the age of warp-speed internet, change can happen much faster than it did eighty years ago. We need to be constantly vigilant and brave enough to speak out.
On that note, just as we were putting the finishing touches to this book, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade neighboring Ukraine, imperiling world peace in the process. The images were so familiar to me. Terrorized children and adults, destruction of homes and families, war crimes, millions of people displaced, hunger, bomb shelters and communal graves. And I hope that after nearly eight decades of reflection on man’s inhumanity during the Holocaust, Ukraine reminds us of the importance of helping those affected by the ravages of war.
As you read on, I want you to taste and feel and smell what it was like to live as a child during the Holocaust. I want you to take a walk in my shoes and in the footsteps of my family, even though, in the worst of times, we didn’t have shoes. I want you to understand the dilemmas that faced us and the impossible choices we had to make. I hope you get angry. Because if you are angry, there’s a chance you’ll share your outrage, and that increases the chances of preventing another genocide.
I come from a long tradition of oral history. I consider myself more of a narrator and storyteller than a writer, which is why my friend Malcolm Brabant has been helping me. He has a way with words and images.
We met in Poland in January 2020, as the world commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which took place on January 27, 1945.
Malcolm has been a war reporter. He witnessed ethnic cleansing close at hand in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. He knows the stench of genocide. He’s had some narrow escapes and painful experiences that are different to mine. What we have in common is that we are both survivors.
He has delved into the Nazi occupation of Poland to try to place my childhood in the right context.
As we worked together to revive the sounds, smells and tastes of the Holocaust, I found that hidden memories came flooding back. Sometimes they kept me awake all night. Everything that happened to me and the people around me is buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my subconscious. As a practicing therapist, I must accept the possibility that age and time have blurred my worst memories. The human brain and body are extraordinary instruments, and they have survival mechanisms that we may never fully comprehend.
Some details of my story may not precisely align with other accounts of the Holocaust. After the war, my mother talked to me incessantly about what happened to us, to make sure I didn’t forget. The conversations I recall in this book are not verbatim. The content, tone and nature, however, are an honest representation of what was said at the time. We all have different memories and versions of the truth. This is my truth.
I don’t believe I suffer from survivor’s guilt, which is one component of what psychiatrists call “survivor’s syndrome.” Those who experience this condition punish themselves for surviving, even though they are blameless. I don’t think the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust would want me to feel guilty. Instead, I have chosen to embrace a new term—“survivor’s growth”—through which I actively use my experiences to build a meaningful life in honor of those who died in the Holocaust. I will remember them.
I have channeled the trauma into what I call “undoing Hitler’s plan.” He wanted to stamp out our faith by murdering our children. I have spent most of my adult life doing the opposite by ensuring my own family is steeped in our culture. My eight grandchildren are testament to our continuity.
In this memoir I will be referring to this genocide as the Holocaust, however the ancient biblical term for utter destruction, Shoah, is more accurate in expressing this uniquely Jewish tragedy.
Auschwitz imprinted itself in my DNA. Almost everything I have done in my postwar life, every decision I have made, has been shaped by my experiences during the Holocaust.
I am a survivor. That comes with a survivor’s obligation—to represent 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis. They cannot speak. So, above all, I must speak on their behalf.
Highland Park, New Jersey
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|Epub, PDF||September 10, 2022|
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