Days of Remembrance: Friedlander recounts story of survival during Holocaust
May 1, 2014
ANSBACH, Germany (May 1, 2014) -- The windows were open to let fresh air breathe into the crowd. People filled the chapel to capacity. With every pew fully occupied, dozens of attendees stood against the walls and stood and sat on the floor in the back. They watched and listened as a 92-year-old woman, sitting at the front of the church, read passages from a book.
U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach's Equal Opportunity Adviser invited Holocaust survivor Margot Friedlander as the keynote speaker during the National Days of Remembrance ceremony at Katterbach Chapel April 24. During the event she sat at a table and read from the English translation of her memoir "Try to Make Your Life" (original German title "Versuche, dein Leben zu machen").
"We have a unique and tremendous and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen to the fascinating and inspiring story of our guest speaker, Margot Friedlander," said Col. Christopher M. Benson, USAG Ansbach commander, during the opening remarks of the event. "Her incredibly inspiring story is one of tragedy, perseverance, resilience, dignity and respect for all, forgiveness, and love. Her mission is to tell the story that others are not able to tell."
Friedlander, nee Bendheim, immigrated to the U.S. in 1946. In 2008 she wrote her account of her survival of the Holocaust, which was recently translated to English. She lived in New York City until 2010 when she moved back to her home of Berlin. Now she accepts speaking engagements to educate audiences on the Holocaust.
Friedlander began her account to the Ansbach audience in Jan. 25, 1943, when her family was planning to leave Berlin. Upon her arrival home the then 21-year-old Margot discovered that the Gestapo had arrested several Jews in the building, including her brother Ralph. One of her non-Jewish upstairs neighbors harbored her and let her know that her mother had gone to another neighbor down the street in the meantime. After dark, Margot left the upstairs neighbor to find her mother.
The neighbor to whom Margot's mother had fled had unfortunate news for Margot. Margot's mother had turned herself in to the Gestapo to accompany Margot's brother. Margot's mother's message to Margot was "Try to make your life."
"She did what a mother is feeling," said Friedlander. "My brother was four years younger. She wanted to help him. She thought that she might cook a soup for him and maybe wash his clothes. He was taken into custody; I was not."
Margot had made few major decisions on her own, and now she had no family to be with her or to guide her. All she had was the imperative from her mother to "make her life."
"Every decision I made for myself was awful," said Friedlander. "Should I turn myself in to the Gestapo or should I go into hiding by myself? I didn't know which was more of a betrayal of my mother: by leaving her in the lurch or not carrying out a legacy."
To avoid being recognized on Berlin streets, she dyed her hair. She grappled with guilt that somehow, because she had not been picked up and her family had, she was culpable for their incarceration.
All of her family's friends were Jewish, so she did not know to whom to turn except a Swiss, non-Jewish aunt. She visited this aunt hoping to find shelter with her, but the aunt refused to help, suggesting instead that Margot should have gone to the Gestapo to accompany her mother in incarceration.
Hiding in the underground constituted being shuttled from one household to the next. Margot forgot the names and identities of her protectors, which helped ensure that they could not be betrayed if she was ever caught. She would memorize an address, destroy the paper, and go to the address. She moved from location to location for a year and three months.
"There were Germans at that time, when it was so very forbidden for them to help us, that they helped me," said Friedlander. "I had only 16 helpers, but I know that there were others who helped others to survive. So my feelings were that there were good Germans too. So for me, I've always had the idea that people basically are good."
During this time, she lived as other Berlin residents did, spending time in bunkers when the city was under air raids.
One day during the spring, Margot and two of her friends, with whom she lived as her protectors, were walking along the street after an air raid when they were met by two men requesting papers. The two men asked Margot to accompany them to the police station, and, so as not to get Margot's protectors in trouble, the three friends said they were strangers who met for the first time at that bunker.
On the way to the police station, Margot told the two men that she was Jewish.
"I was once again united with the fate of my family and all other Jews," said Margot. "No matter what happened to me now, I was no longer alone. This sense of being isolated, 'I-ness' became 'we-ness.' After 15 months of hiding I again existed. The running and hiding were over. In the last few months I had met with people who had helped me. I had even discovered friends, but those people had nothing to do with me, with my early life. Probably I would never see them again. Through that whole time I had never spoken with a single Jew. I had been separated from my people's fate."
The Nazis sent Margot to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. The camp was overcrowded.
"Everyone fought as an individual," said Friedlander. "I yearned for empathy, for intimacy, but it was difficult for me to allow that myself. Everyone existed for themselves in a kind of encapsulation."
The camp was partly emptied in 1944. Margot remained in the quieter camp, cleaning out the barracks of the older prisoners. She survived through the winter as many died from cold and malnutrition.
In February 1945, with the arrival of train cars filled with prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp, she was tasked with distinguishing between the living and the dead when the cars were opened. The Nazis had sent the Auschwitz prisoners away so they would not be rescued when the camp was liberated by the Soviets. It was this grim task that not only brought Margot in touch with what had happened to millions of Jews and others across Europe but made her realize the fate of her own family.
"At that moment we learned about the death camps," said Friedlander. "At that moment, I understood that I wouldn't see my mother and my brother again. It was incomprehensible that any one of them had survived at all."
Soviet troops liberated Theresienstadt in May 1945.
"After liberation, I had seen the looks of those who survived Auschwitz and the death marches," continued Friedlander. "The eyes of each of them said more about the death camps than all the news about Auschwitz, than all the news we had learned from the Russians."
Eventually she found out that her mother and her brother, along with two other members of her extended family, had been taken to Auschwitz Jan. 29, 1943, only four days after their arrest and Margot's initial hiding.
Margot had met her husband, Adolf Friedlander, when he arrived to Theresienstadt from another camp. They had known each other but were not well acquainted from their time in Berlin.
"It was somebody from home, from before," said Friedlander. "We could talk about something. We could talk about the streets, and we could talk our language. And it was for me a wonderful thing to meet him."
The two left Germany for the United States. Although the two émigrés had Berlin in common, they swore to each other not to return. They lived in New York City where Margot, among other things, worked as a travel agent.
Adolf Friedlander died in 1997. In 2003, Margot Friedlander accepted an invitation to return to Berlin. Eventually she moved back permanently.
Friedlander received the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's highest civilian decoration, for her contributions to society and had tea with the president of Germany.
The crowd in the chapel applauded once Friedlander had concluded. She answered a few questions from the audience, met members of the audience and signed copies of her book.
"The reason for coming back is because I want to talk to you," said Friedlander to the audience. "I want to tell you what has happened. I want to reach out to you. I want to give you my hand, but I would hope that you understand me, that you will be the one who will be after -- we cannot live very much longer because we are old -- will be the one to bring further the message that I am telling you.
"The blood in my brain is the same as all of you," continued Friedlander. "There is no Jewish blood, Christian blood, Iraqi blood or whatever. It's all human blood. We are all humans. I am speaking for the one who cannot speak for themselves anymore. I want you to know that it once was and it should never happen again."