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Holocaust survivor recalls childhood years in Auschwitz
Tova Friedman, now a published author, to tour local colleges
CEDAR RAPIDS — Before she could even read or write her own name, the only thing 4-year-old Tova Friedman still owned was turned into a number.
“OK, what’s your name?” her tattooist asked after her prisoner number was tattooed into her arm at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Tola Friedman,” the little girl replied with her then-given name.
“No, no — that’s not your name anymore,” the woman replied. “Repeat after me: Your name is 27,633.”
Together, they patiently repeated the number, helping the child with no formal education memorize the way she would be required to identify herself at daily roll calls. Today, the number, unfaded both on her skin and in her mind, is proof of her experience to a world where her history is quickly fading from the public’s memory.
Friedman was 4 when she was sent to the labor camp with her parents, and 6 when she and her mother were packed into a cattle truck to go to Auschwitz II, known as the Birkenau extermination camp. Her father was sent to Dachau.
After six months in Birkenau, she emerged as one of the youngest people to be liberated, and one of only a handful of Jews to live after entering a gas chamber.
For decades, she has spoken about how she and her parents survived Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Soon, the newly-minted author of “The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope,” now 84 years old, will share her story in Cedar Rapids.
If you go
The Thaler Holocaust Remembrance Fund welcomes guest speaker Tova Friedman. The Auschwitz survivor and co-author of “The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope” will share her story through four appearances in Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon.
Sunday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m. for a community Yom HaShoah service in remembrance of the Holocaust at Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
Monday, March 27 at 6 p.m. at Cornell College’s Thomas Commons, 600 First St. W., Mount Vernon
Tuesday, March 28 at 1:30 p.m. in Kirkwood’s Ballantyne Auditorium, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
Wednesday, March 29 at 11:30 a.m. in Mount Mercy University’s Chapel of Mercy, 1330 Elmhurst Dr. NE, Cedar Rapids
Events are free to the public and no tickets are required. Book signings to follow each event
For more information, call Jim Bernstein at (319) 573-2221.
After Friedman eventually immigrated to New York City at age 11, assimilating with other children was difficult in her Brooklyn community.
“It was very hard, because nobody wanted to hear anything,” she said. “I had to cover up my number.”
When a doctor offered to remove her tattoo, she refused. For Friedman, the memories that others need reminded of could not be erased, even superficially.
“There are a lot of things I don’t remember, but the things I remember were so imprinted on my mind,” she told the BBC in a 2022 interview. “You could not help but remember it. The body feels it. A child’s body feels it — the hunger, the cold, the being alone without your family.”
Before she entered Birkenau and was separated, her mother prepared her. The Polish girl learned to always obey the rules, not to be visible, and never to make eye contact with Germans. When hiding under a blanket, she was taught to breathe into the floor so that she could not be detected as living.
“We all knew we were going to die. It was as normal as breathing,” Friedman told The Gazette. “I understood that people disappeared. I knew death. I knew gassing. But I don’t think, emotionally, any of us understand our own deaths, even as adults.”
Her most vivid memories include being beaten by a guard for fidgeting during the hourslong roll calls — one of multiple close calls with death. As her head sustained multiple blows, she locked eyes with her mother nearby, neither uttering a word nor a whimper they knew would jeopardize her life.
To her, refusing to acknowledge the pain was a form of rebellion.
“I could’ve been killed right away. People were killed for less,” she said.
Later during her incarceration, she was taken with a group of children to a gas chamber. After waiting naked and cold for hours, they were sent back to the barracks.
As one of the only people left in the world who entered the gas chambers and lived to tell her story, she still doesn’t know how she survived.
“I understood that once we were going through a certain door, we weren’t coming back,” Friedman said. “I understood a lot — how much, I don’t know.”
Before being liberated in January 1945, she survived Nazi killing squads making a final round through Birkenau by hiding among corpses.
Helping others remember
It was not until she was invited to speak in classrooms in the 1980s that she would start to show her tattoo to groups of children, and later, adults.
With a rise in antisemitism around the world, the New Jersey resident said it’s not only important for her to speak, but to listen to their questions. In addition to in-person lectures, the author connects with younger generations through TikTok thanks to her grandson.
Now, her visibility is her power in combating recurring cycles of hatred. Today, she doesn’t feel a survivor’s guilt — only a survivor’s obligation to use her voice.
“I don’t know if my words will in any way affect someone. But if they understand the dangers and work against it, I’ve done my job,” Friedman said.
The Jewish woman still struggles with her faith. While she “sometimes” believes in God, her faith in humanity doesn’t waiver.
That’s why, after cycles of antisemitism throughout Jewish history, the latest waves of hatred don’t frighten her as she continues to fight against it.
“There has always been antisemitism,” she said. “There are good people everywhere. I count on these good people to keep humanity going and safe.”
With her number and her name intact, hope is what wakes her up every morning.
“It’s the one thing that the Nazis couldn’t kill — our hope,” she said.
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