Auschwitz survivor writes memoir and becomes TikTok star
Tova Friedman remembers being taken as a small child by her mother to look at the body of a woman killed by a Nazi soldier for daring to look at him. She warned her that she would meet the same fate for that offense.
“My mother told me if a soldier looked at me to look away,” said the Highland Park resident. “If you are wearing something like a hat or kerchief, take it off. Take your hands and put them in the back. Eye contact means death.”
Friedman was barely 5 years old.
From the age of 2 she survived the ghetto, a labor camp in her native Poland, arriving at Auschwitz at age 5.
“My story is just not my story, or it wouldn’t have been that important,” Friedman said. “My story has been duplicated by a million and a half children who were murdered, starved, drowned, shot for only one reason—they were Jewish.”
But her mother’s ingenuity and unflinching resolve to never hide the truth from her daughter, coupled with a bit of luck, helped Friedman– liberated at age 6– become one of the youngest survivors of the infamous death camp.
Friedman has vivid memories to this day of being taken with other starving children to eat a delicious meal. Even at her young age, she knew what it meant because the barracks next door was now empty after its occupants were taken for a such a repast.
Women screamed and cried as they were led out and Freidman thought to herself, “Why are they screaming? Doesn’t every Jewish child go to the crematorium?”
After a day they were inexplicably sent back. She doesn’t understand why they let her live “when 99.9 percent of children were taken straight to the crematory.”
Friedman uses her survival to help others and live a meaningful life.
She went on to earn two graduate degrees, one in social work and the other in Black literature and teach at the Hebrew University in Israel. She is the former executive director of the Jewish Family Service of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties, where at 84 she still works as a therapist. She is the mother four and grandmother of eight.
“I have this idea I’d like to leave this place better than when I found it,” she said during a February virtual program sponsored by East Brunswick Hadassah and the East Brunswick Library, and in a subsequent phone interview with JLife.
Friedman has a following of several million on TikTok thanks to her 17-year-old grandson, Aron Goodman, who handles her posts. She has appeared on ABC’s Nightline, among other broadcast media appearances, and is now the author of a memoir, “Daughter of Auschwitz,” with journalist Malcolm Brabant. The book is a New York Times bestseller that has been translated into other languages.
Friedman and her message are more important than ever with antisemitism and hate crimes spiking, said Linda Lidor, programming chair for East Brunswick Hadassah.
“We all wish we could live in a kinder, gentler nation, but in truth hate crimes abound and we all need to pay attention,” she said. She cited recent surveys documenting widespread ignorance about the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the shocking revelation that 11 percent of millennials and Gen Z Americans believe Jews caused the Holocaust. Half had seen Holocaust denial on social media.
“Those numbers are really disturbing to me because Auschwitz was in our lifetime,” Friedman said. “It’s not like it’s history or happened 500 years ago. Yet people are forgetting and forgetting is very, very dangerous, because as someone said, if we don’t see the horrendous effect of the Holocaust and hatred, it may happen again.”
Friedman recalls that when German soldiers moved into her hometown they killed those over 50 who were useless to them as workers, and then went after the children. The town’s almost 50,000 population included 15,000 Jews. By war’s end, only 200 survived and only a couple of those are still alive.
“I am one of the last to represent an entire Jewish community, and I feel it is a very big responsibility,” said Freidman, whose mother was the lone survivor among 150 members of her Hasidic family.
Her father, who survived Dachau, had three sisters who also survived, although one was later killed by a roaming gang of Polish antisemites.
Friedman remembers that while in the ghetto, her maternal grandmother was taken out and shot. She recalls her father coming in with tears running down his face and telling them he had been forced to dig the graves for his parents. She watched as the Nazis broke up families, killing the old people and then the intellectuals, including, teachers, doctors and rabbis. She saw people die from starvation and disease.
Most of the ghetto population was taken to Treblinka, one of three Nazi killing centers; her family was among 36 left behind. They were taken to a labor camp where her parents worked in a munitions factory.
One day her father learned they were coming for the few children left and Friedman was hidden in a crawl space. Afterward, the small child was kept in a darkened locked room and forbidden to go near the window.
Later, they were packed tightly for a 38-hour train ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau with no food, water or bathrooms. Friedman and her mother were separated from her father.
She recalled standing on a bench while they shaved her head. She was given a tin bowl, spoon and cup and again warned by her mother to never to lose them and to hide them from others, because “If you don’t have a bowl, you won’t get food.” She was told to only go to the bathroom when she was taken once in the morning and once at night “or you will die.”
Friedman contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria, she believes from falling into the latrine because of her small size. She tried to hide her illness because she had watched sick people be removed from their bunks and gassed.
However, they took her to a locked room with sick women, leaving her without medicine or doctors. She has few memories of being there because of her high fever, until the door opened.
A woman took her to a section where they kept Romani people, 400,000 of whom had been gassed, leaving room for children. The spot was near the lab where the diabolical Dr. Josef Mengele was conducting his infamous experimentation on twins.
“When we went for a walk outside, the Mengele kids told us what was going on,” Friedman said. “They were taking an eye from one child and putting it into the other one. We knew nothing about anesthesia.”
In early 1945, with the Russians closing in, her mother found Friedman and told her they were to be taken on a long walk to Germany. Instead, amid the chaos, they sneaked out of the camp and went to a local hospital. In its morgue, her mother found a still-warm corpse and put Friedman under the blanket with instructions not to move or come out.
“I heard shooting and yelling,” Friedman said. “The Germans were taking sick people out of bed. And then somebody stops by my bed and I stop breathing.”
Soon after, her mother, who had also used a corpse to save herself, came over and told her, “They are gone.”
The camp was liberated Jan. 27, 1945. Friedman held up the laminated Red Cross card given her to enable free transportation back home. But their Polish neighbors there made clear they weren’t welcome. Friedman was called “a dirty Jew.”
The family went to a displaced persons camp and immigrated to New York City when she was 12. She met her then-13-year-old husband a few weeks later and knew she would marry him someday because he offered in Yiddish to buy her a cheese sandwich.
“One of my mishigases, my craziness, is that I wanted to undo what Hitler did,” she said in response to a question about how she can remain so upbeat. ”I don’t want to survive; I want to thrive. He wanted me dead; I will live. He wanted me hungry; I’ll eat the best food. He wanted to kill Judaism; I study Judaism to this day.”
Tova Friedman is making her way around the area and is speaking on Sunday, May 7 at 11 a.m. both in-person and on Zoom at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. The program is being co-sponsored by Metuchen, Edison & Colonia Hadassah, Neve Shalom’s Adult Education Committee,Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County.
Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.