Surviving The Hatred -- A Witness To The Holocaust Hopes His Story Gets Through To A Generation Desensitized By TV And Movie Violence
Henry Friedman can't sleep the night before he goes to tell students about hiding from Nazi soldiers.
And after he's stirred his own memories, he can't sleep the next night, either.
He tells this group of students at Shorewood High School how he survived for 18 months living with three other people in a crawlspace the size of a queen-size bed.
And they who listened, like other groups of students who've listened, responded in a way that is perhaps unexpected for a generation calloused by witnessing thousands of deaths a year on television and movie screens.
They offered Friedman absolute silence for nearly 90 minutes.
"I'm a teen-ager, now," said Eddie Anderson. He's 15. He's only one year older than Friedman was when he started the confinement that left him temporarily unable to walk. "It was really sad to think about what he had to go through."
Friedman's story scraped like a razor, exposing nerves. Danny Rock, 16, made the leap that Friedman prayed for. No one is safe if people get picked off for being different, Rock said. Hate crimes are rising. A presidential candidate questions the extent of the Holocaust.
"That's scary," said Rock.
Friedman is the founder of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. Among its services is a speakers bureau, which draws from the 130 Holocaust survivors in this state. Time is running out. Many of the survivors are in their late 70s and in poor health.
Last month the state passed a bill that encourages expanded teaching about the estimated 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany. But too soon memories will be on videotape only, which is what Sarah McFarlane emphasized to her U.S. history students at Shorewood when she asked Friedman to speak as part of their Holocaust unit.
"Their kids won't have the opportunity to listen to a true survivor," said McFarlane, who earlier this year invited a Japanese-American internment camp survivor to speak. "We're trying to integrate what we're doing into the community because history can seem so far removed."
Ten parents joined the two combined history classes at Shorewood to hear Friedman. They wanted to listen and they wanted to be there when their kids discovered the gruesome capabilities of our species.
One daughter whispered to her mother that had it been her, she would have rebelled. But by the end of Friedman's talk, she understood. Those who fought back had no more chance than those who didn't.
Friedman began by drawing students into the idea of confinement.
How many had been grounded, he asked, and for how long? What privileges did they have to give up?
"That's a long time," Friedman said to a boy who was grounded seven months, giving weight to the idea that losing telephone and television privileges is a sacrifice.
As he told his story in even voice in front of a microphone, Friedman held up a map of Poland before 1939. He lived in an area that is now Ukraine, in the city of Brody.
His community had 15,000 Jews. By war's end in 1945, all but 100 had been killed.
Friedman's family had a business and a home in the city and a family farm outside of town. When other Jews were rounded up and put behind barbed wire in ghettos, his family escaped because of the bravery of a 17-year-old gentile.
Julia Symchuck was sweeping floors at the police station when she overheard the Gestapo say they were going to pick up Friedman's father. She ran to his house to warn him.
The Friedmans fled to the farm, which had been taken over by the state. When it came time for Jewish farm workers to be arrested, Friedman's father was saved because he had critical knowledge of crop rotation.
But he knew time was limited and worked with his wife to find hiding places. When word came that he was about to be arrested, the family took refuge above the animal stalls at Julia Symchuck's family farm.
There was room only for young Friedman, his brother, mother and a young teacher, who was taken in when the children had to leave school. Friedman's father hid at a different farm.
There was room to live, but not to stand, only to sit or lie. It was so tight, two would sleep in one direction and two in the other.
They poked a hole in the crawlspace to get a small amount of light, but that was almost worse, Friedman said.
"It created lots of pain," he recalled. "I could see kids playing ball and having lots of fun."
For entertainment, he and his brother counted straws in the roof. Or, when lucky, they slept.
"I could not speak a loud word. I could only whisper and only at certain times."
There was worse to come.
Friedman moved aside from the microphone, took water from a glass and spoke in an unamplified voice that was easily heard in the otherwise silent auditorium.
"When we went into hiding, my mother was pregnant. I have told you we couldn't speak in loud voices. As it came closer to the birth, a decision had to be made, what to do with the baby.
"I had a vote. Do I live, or do I let a baby live that is just being born and is going to endanger my life?"
They knew they couldn't control a baby's crying. He and his brother, who is three years younger, voted to kill the baby.
As the baby was being born, Friedman's mother stifled her screams and bit into the blanket. Friedman and his brother were told to turn their backs. The teacher suffocated the baby girl even as she helped deliver it.
"I live with that guilt."
If silence can deepen, it did at Shorewood. And yet, as if to answer an unspoken "How can you be sure that was necessary?", Friedman goes on, reminding the students that they don't know what they'd do to survive.
The Nazis found three people hiding in the woods near the farm and ordered nearby farmers to watch them butcher first the father, then the mother and then the little girl.
Julia Symchuck's father watched the slaughter. He came back and got drunk. Friedman, who could crawl from the stable portion of the house to above the Symchuck living quarters, heard him tell his wife the Friedmans were leading them to almost certain death.
What had started as an offer to hide the family for a few weeks or months now had lasted more than a year. To murder them was the only way to save their own lives, Mr. Symchuck said.
The Friedman family sneaked out that night and went to the barn, where their father was hiding in a space the size of a single bed. He was being fed by a woman with severe disabilities who pretended she was going out to the barn each night to feed food scraps to the pigs so her husband would not know she was feeding a Jew.
Now they could only sit up. Instead of dividing bread and soup for four people once a day, they were five trying to survive on scraps for one.
Friedman's father came up with another plan. Jewish women could pass as Russian relatives, if caught. Jewish men, however, were identifiable because they were circumcised. The women returned to the Symchucks', talking their way back in on that premise.
But eventually it became clear that Friedman was starving to death. His father wrapped rags on his own feet and carried him back to where his mother was hiding.
At last, on March 14, 1944, Friedman watched ragged German soldiers, bent over in fear, running from the Soviets.
"That (sight) alone was worthwhile living for," he said.
The Friedmans' determination - and the conviction of the Symchucks and the other farm wife to risk their own lives rather than go along with what they knew was wrong - had very graphic results:
When the Friedmans returned to their city in June of 1944, theirs was the only complete family that had survived.
"Can you imagine?" he asked the Shorewood students.
In recent years, Julia Symchuck's bravery has been honored all over the world. Friedman, as an adult, stepped forward in India to save a man about to be killed because of his religion.
"Individuals do make a difference."
----------------------------------- RESOURCE MATERIALS ON THE HOLOCAUST -----------------------------------
The Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center works with the Jewish Education Council to provide educators and others with audio-video and written material on the Holocaust. Call the JEC at 448-1202 or 441-5747. For information on the center, teacher workshops, or to arrange to have a Holocaust speaker come to speak to students, call 441-5747.
The center recently completed a statewide student writing contest. Results will be presented at 7 p.m. April 29 at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island during the national commemoration of the Days of Remembrance, April 26-May 3. Stories of local survivors will be told by their grandchildren.
An Oral History Project, sponsored by the Surviving Generations of the Holocaust, is videotaping the stories of local survivors and preparing a videotape to raise cultural awareness.
Local students have contributed to the Wall of Remembrance Tile Project for two years. The tiles will be sent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum under construction in Washington, D.C.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.