Tova Friedman doesn’t believe in fate or destiny. She doesn’t believe she was “chosen” to survive the Holocaust, she told the audience on Oct. 15 at a program hosted by Chabad of the South Hills.
“I don’t believe in miracles — sorry, I don’t believe in miracles,” she said. “And I don’t believe that I was chosen. Because if I was chosen, there is nothing special about me or my family. Why did the other million-and-a-half children, why did they go to the gas chambers? I just think it was luck. It was luck.”
Friedman, 85, was born in 1938 and lived in Tomaszów Lubelski, a Polish town of 30,000 people, half of whom were Jewish.
When the Nazis invaded her town, the first thing they did was kill the children and elderly because they couldn’t work, she said. Her grandmother was immediately shot right outside their window.
Friedman doesn’t have an explanation for why she survived but noted one factor that may have helped: Her mother taught her the rules. No crying, making noise or asking questions. If she saw a Nazi, she had to step out of the way. Her mother warned her to never look a Nazi in the eye, and Friedman knew if she tried running, the German shepherds would attack.
One day, a woman broke the rules. The Nazis publicly shot the woman while her children watched. Friedman’s mother forced her to watch as well.
Friedman’s memory is a foggy compilation of her own recollections and what her mother told her. She doesn’t remember how old she was or what language she spoke at the time, but she remembers the worst of it.
Her family was taken to a ghetto, and her father had to dig the communal graves his parents would later be buried in.
“They dug the graves for their parents and for the children,” Friedman said. “They used us to kill us, so they don’t have to do the dirty work.”
When the Nazis came to take children, Friedman’s parents hid her in a crawlspace. Her mother gripped her mouth shut so tightly it left a hand-shaped bruise for weeks afterward.
Her parents then hid her in a locked room with a blanket over the window. Her mother told her to never touch the blanket because the Nazis would see the movement. Friedman didn’t even know whether it was day or night; she still doesn’t know how long she was in there.
One day, her mother came in and told her she didn’t have to hide any longer. They were going to Auschwitz.
Friedman was only 5 years old, and her father was separated from them. It was the first time she saw him cry since his parents were killed.
When Friedman and her mother arrived at Auschwitz, she smelled smoke. Her mother told her it was burning bodies as the Nazis forced the new prisoners to undress. Those who were healthy would be put to work and those who were not would be killed.
Friedman and her mother were kept alive and their heads were shaved. When the Nazis counted the prisoners, Friedman knew to stay still. The one day she didn’t, a Nazi beat her in front of her mother.
“My thoughts were, ‘You can kill me. You’ll never know how much you hurt me,’” she said. “I heard stories that if you let them know how much they hurt you, they’ll enjoy it. They’ll hurt you more, so I didn’t.”
But Friedman’s strength did not make her immune to sickness. She slipped into the communal latrine and fell ill. She knew that sickness often meant death in Auschwitz, but for reasons unknown to her, she was taken to something akin to a hospital for prisoners.
She remembers being put in a room, but not much else. The fever blurred time until a Nazi opened the door and brought her out. It was the first time she saw other children her age in the camps.
Then she was tattooed.
“I remember they said, ‘Oh, what’s your name?’ I gave them my name, ‘No, no, no, your name is 27,633,’” she said.
A Jewish woman did the tattooing, and Friedman still recalls her kindness and gentle hands. Friedman never learned the woman’s name, but she told Friedman she would give her a neat tattoo so if she survived, she could cover it with a long sleeve. It was the first time Friedman thought she might survive the Holocaust.
The prospect of death had been so engrained in Friedman’s mind that she didn’t even flinch on the day the Nazis prepared to send her and the other children to the gas chambers. The Nazis promised them a real meal, not the scraps of bread and soup they had been eating. They knew this meant they were going to be killed, but Friedman’s hunger was the only thing on her mind.
“When somebody said ‘Did you ever think of God? Did people ever think of God in Auschwitz?’ And the answer was, yes, it was a piece of bread.” she said.
The children were lined up in pairs and marched to the gas chambers, passing by a women’s camp to their right. Friedman heard her mother’s voice asking where she was going. Friedman answered, “To the gas chambers.” The women, many of whom had children in the line, began to scream. Friedman wondered why they were upset.
“I remember turning to the little girl next to me and I said, ‘Why are they crying? Every Jewish child goes to the gas chambers. That’s the way life is,’” she said.
She doesn’t know why, but the Nazis didn’t kill them. They were undressed, left to wait and eventually told to leave. She passed by her mother and told her that the Nazis couldn’t do it this time, but they’d do it next time.
Next time never came. The Russians did. Her mother found her in the chaos and told her that the Nazis wanted them to march to Germany, but the trek through the snow would be dangerous. Her mother had oozing, swollen feet and said she would not survive the death march.
Friedman remembers her mother asking, ‘Will you die with me here in Auschwitz?’”
The two stayed at the camp. Friedman’s mother took her into the women’s hospital and hid her beneath a blanket covering a dead body. Once again, her mother warned her to never touch the blanket, or the Nazis would find her. Friedman stayed there until she smelled smoke, and her mother returned.
All the prisoners who survived walked to the still-electrified gate. They waited until the Russians came and turned it off. Friedman was 6 years old when she made it out of Auschwitz.
As Friedman wrapped up the story of her time in the death camp, she addressed the children in the audience.
“The reason I love talking to young people is because you have to be my memory after I’m gone,” she said. “I want you to remember that because it’s important for me that the young people remember. Who knows how long I’ll be here to tell it?”
She now makes the decisions that Hitler didn’t want her to make, she said. She grew up without practicing Judaism, but now she is devout. Hitler didn’t want her to live and have children, so she had four. The Nazis never didn’t want her to make any noise, so now she tells her story.
During a Q&A at the end of her talk, an audience member asked her how she found the will to live.
“Some people who get knocked down, stay down, and other people who get knocked down get up and hit the other person. I’m that person,” she said. “Everything he wanted to take away, I wanted to do it.” PJC
Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.