By Greg Olgers ’87
The Hope Academy of Senior Professionals gave a gift to the entire community in October, extending an open invitation to the group’s monthly meeting, which was featuring a presentation by Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman.
The result was a full house in the 800-seat Concert Hall of the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts for the 9:30 a.m. event on Tuesday, Oct. 10. The response even included an entire high school history class, and parents who brought along their children after pulling them from school just for the opportunity.
At age six, Friedman was one of the youngest of the 7,000 prisoners found alive when the Soviet army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland on Jan. 24, 1945. “Thank you so much for being here,” she said as she began her remarks. “Because without you being here, the story and everything that happened to me and to other children would be lost.”
She noted that she speaks around the country, even now at age 85, with a sense of responsibility for those whose voices were silenced, and to do what she can to forestall the death of innocents in the future.
“The only thing I can do is talk about it,” she said. “I have no idea what good it does, but you know, even if there is no hope, your obligation is to hope.”
“Because without [hope] we can’t live,” she said. “I could not have survived Auschwitz.”
As explained by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, six million Jews, mostly from Europe, were murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies between 1933 and 1945. Of those who were killed, more than one million were murdered at the Auschwitz complex. The six million included 1.5 million children.
By sharing her story, Friedman sought to bring a relatable perspective to the statistics, and to bring attention to the destructiveness of hatred.
“Who can envision six million?” she said. “So let me tell you about one person. And the reason that I’m telling you: The story isn’t only mine. Because one person’s story is not that significant — it’s interesting, but it’s not significant. It’s a story of all the children who aren’t here.”
“I was not richer. I wasn’t smarter. My parents didn’t have special kind of, you know, knowledge. No. A lot of it was luck. 95% was luck,” Friedman said. “And you know, sometimes when people say to me, ‘You were chosen to live,’ I say, ‘No. No. If I was chosen to live, why were the other children chosen to die? What did they do? They weren’t even aware that there was a war, and they were shot and killed.’”
Auschwitz survivor Tova Friedman noted that she speaks around the country, even now at age 85, with a sense of responsibility for those whose voices were silenced, and to do what she can to forestall the death of innocents in the future.
Planned by HASP months in advance, the talk was originally envisioned as a way to consider historical context with the rise of anti-Semitism and prejudice in the world. It acquired additional immediacy in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel and the ongoing conflict resulting in civilian deaths on both sides.
“So I want to take you back and tell you what hatred did 80 years ago, and then you can see what hatred is doing now,” Friedman said. “Very scary, very upsetting, to me and I’m sure to all of you, because when people are murdered somewhere in the world, I think it’s a problem for all humanity — all of us — because we have much more in common as human beings than we have differences. We may be different religion, we may be different color, we may have different ideas, but basically we want the same thing. We want to live in peace with our families. That is the basic idea of most people.”
Friedman also stressed that understanding the intent and scale of the Holocaust today should be accompanied by understanding that what was to come wasn’t recognized in the years before it began.
“All these atrocities don’t happen suddenly,” she said. “I didn’t wake up in Auschwitz one day. It happened so slowly that you weren’t even aware that it was going on.”
“We can live our private lives, but you’ve got to be aware of the outside society,” Friedman said.
“So let me tell you how this started,” Friedman said. “And again: slowly. There were rules. The Germans made all kinds of rules: ‘Jews cannot go to school with the other people’; ‘They cannot go the movies’; ‘They can’t use the libraries.’ It happened very slowly.”
“They had book-burning parties,” she said. “They called it decadent writing.”
“And once, I asked my father, I said — he was a very smart man — ‘You heard what was going on, why did you just keep on, you know, doing business as usual?’ You know what he said to me? ‘Oh, yes, we heard all about the crazy man in Germany. And you know what we decided? Somebody’s going to kill him, assassinate him. Who’s going to listen to this crazy person?’ Well, millions and millions and millions of people listened to that crazy person, and that’s how he was able to do all of it. He couldn’t have done it alone.”
“[W]hen people are murdered somewhere in the world, I think it’s a problem for all humanity — all of us — because we have much more in common as human beings than we have differences. We may be different religion, we may be different color, we may have different ideas, but basically we want the same thing. We want to live in peace with our families.”Auschwitz survivor Tova Friedman
Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. In 1940, Friedman explained, the Nazi forces reached her town, and immediately killed the Jewish teachers, elderly (including her grandparents), children, intellectuals, rabbis, doctors and lawyers. The Jewish members of the community who remained, she said, were isolated in a ghetto (she survived because her parents succeeded in hiding her). The killing continued, and illness and starvation also claimed lives.
All the while, she recalled, trains of cattle cars were taking people away. She and her parents endured, but eventually it was their turn as the Germans decided to clear the ghetto. Even as they were packed into the cars standing up, not everyone could fit.
“The shooting started because the cattle cars were full, and there were still people in the ghetto,” Friedman said.
After 36 hours on the train, she said, with no food and no place to go to the bathroom except where they stood, they arrived in Auschwitz, where upon arrival they were stripped of their clothes and forced to proceed naked while being inspected; those too weak to work could be removed and sent directly to the crematorium. She was allowed to stay with her mother (her father was sent elsewhere), although after later contracting and recovering from scarlet fever she was moved to a barracks with other children.
The deaths, she recalled, continued. The 12-year-old girl in the bed near her died of starvation. At one point, Friedman was sent with other children to the gas chamber, but it malfunctioned and they were returned to their barracks.
As the Russians approached in January 1945, the Germans burned what they could of the camp while rounding up some 50,000 survivors to march away. Her mother located her in the chaos and, with her mother knowing herself too weakened for the journey, they hid among the dead in a barracks. Friedman’s mother placed her under a sheet next to the corpse of a woman who had died so recently that she was still warm, warning Friedman not to breathe in a way that would cause the sheet to move.
After the camp was liberated — on Jan. 27, 1945 — Friedman and her mother reunited with her father and the family was initially placed in a camp for displaced persons. Later, she said, they learned that out of the 15,000 Jews who had been in their town before the war, only 200 survived.
She noted that she initially went to school while still in Poland, but even in the aftermath of the Holocaust other children called her a “dirty Jew” and a “Christ-killer,” so she stopped attending. “I didn’t learn to read until I was 12,” she said.
The family eventually immigrated to the United States, but her mother didn’t live long, dying at about age 45 when Friedman was 18. Sorrow, Friedman noted, played a role — her mother had lost 150 family members, including 10 siblings and all their children. “She missed the family and she felt such guilt for being a survivor that she died,” Friedman said. “My mother could not talk about it at all, except she cried when she thought of her family.”
In adulthood, Friedman directed a nonprofit social service agency for 25 years, and she continues to work as a therapist. In 2022, she published the memoir The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope, which she authored with journalist Malcolm Brabant. Her grandson has also helped connect her to the online platform TikTok, where she has reached an estimated 90 million people.
She noted that she is aware of only five Jewish children from her town who survived, one of whom remained in Europe; two of whom also came to the U.S. but have since died; and one of whom who, although in the U.S., is 90 and not as active. Recognizing her own mortality, Friedman closed with a request of the audience.
“Please remember my story. There’s nobody else to tell it after I’m gone. I’m going to speak as long as I can, but please: Now that I’ve told you my story, it’s your story. Please share it with other people,” she said.
“If you ever meet people that tell you that it didn’t happen, that it’s all a made-up story, you know it happened. And especially the young people in the audience who will be going to high school, college and jobs, you’ll always meet somebody who says, ‘This is just a ridiculous thing. People don’t do this to other people.’ They do. And let me tell you, they do more than I could possibly even describe to you. It’s absolutely indescribable,” Friedman said. “Share it with anybody you can. That’s the greatest gift that you could give me.”
Established in 1988, the Hope Academy of Senior Professionals (HASP) that brought Auschwitz survivor Tova Friedman to campus is a voluntary, lifelong learning program designed to enrich the intellectual, cultural and social lives of its more than 750 retired members. Through a variety of classes, lectures, book discussions, service projects, special-interest groups and events, members pursue avenues of study and engage in the exchange of ideas. More information about HASP is available at hope.edu/hasp.
Friedman’s visit to Hope developed through her long-time connection with HASP member Milton Nieuwsma ’63 of Holland, Michigan. An Emmy-winning writer, Nieuwsma had interviewed her and two other women who had been among the children liberated — Frieda Tenenbaum and Rachel Hyams — for his 1998 book Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah, and wrote and co-produced a documentary with the same title based on the book and produced in 2005 by PBS affiliate by WGVU of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The film centers on Friedman and Tenenbaum as they returned to Auschwitz in the summer of 2004 accompanied by their own children and reflected on both their experience at the camp and their lives before and since.
She previously spoke at Hope in conjunction with a screening of Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah on Jan. 27, 2010, the 65th anniversary of her liberation from the Nazi death camp. The January 27 anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005.
The film was shown at Hope again on Oct. 9, to provide context in advance of her HASP-sponsored talk. The screening included a panel discussion with Nieuwsma; Ken Kolbe, who was the documentary’s executive producer and retired in 2021 as general manager for WGVU Public Media; and Phil Lane, who was director and cinematographer, and is director of content for WGVU Public Media. Following the Oct. 10 presentation, Nieuwsma also moderated a question-and-answer session with Friedman and her daughter, Taya, who is also in the film.