Campus News

Escaping Auschwitz: Holocaust survivor says ‘pure luck’ helped save her

It was early 1945 when 6 year-old Tova Friedman and her mother escaped the extermination camp of  Auschwitz II-Birkenau in occupied Poland after hiding under corpses in a women’s infirmary. Liberating Russian troops had arrived and Nazi soldiers, attempting to erase their crimes, were killing prisoners, for, as Tova notes, “It was madness at the end.”

Kirkwood Community College students and local community members filled Ballantyne Auditorium to capacity on Tuesday, March 28, to hear Tova speak about her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust. 

Tova, who lives in Highland Park, NJ, was visiting Iowa for the first time and also gave presentations at Cornell College and Mount Mercy University and participated in a Yom HaShoah Holocaust remembrance event at Coe College.

These events were sponsored by the Thaler Holocaust Memorial Fund which brings Holocaust speakers to Iowa annually to speak at colleges and high schools in Linn County. The fund was established by Dr. David and Joan Thaler in 1995 when Dr. Thaler, whose immediate relatives were victims of the Nazis, noticed Iowa college students lacked knowledge about the Holocaust.

Kirkwood History Professor David McMahon noted, “The Thaler fund is one of our area’s most important educational resources. It deserves our thanks for bringing such extraordinary speakers to our college and for raising awareness of the Holocaust more generally.”

Through the course of her presentation, Tova recounted the horrifying events that occurred in her home town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki and other Jewish communities throughout Poland. 

In a process, she described as having been “thought up in Berlin by the smartest people” the Germans began to kill children and then the elderly. Then teachers, doctors and rabbis were killed in an attempt to further weaken and demoralize the Jewish populations. People were starved and isolated from the residents of other towns. The punishment for being caught with a newspaper or radio was death.

Eventually the Nazis rounded up the adults who remained, many of whom had had their children and parents murdered, and began transporting them to the extermination camps. Tova and her parents were kept behind with a few others of their community and forced to clean the homes of those who had been deported or murdered in their homes. The Germans wanted “no sign of murder” and “no witnesses.”

Soon after this period the family of three were themselves deported with Tova and her mother being sent to  Birkenau while Tova’s father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Tova was the only child on her transport and does not know why the guards let her live.

During her time at Birkenau Tova was at one point taken with a group of children to a gas chamber. However, no gases were released and after a period of time she and the others were returned to the barracks without knowing what had happened. Then came the day when Tova’s mother whom she hadn’t seen in six months appeared at the door of her barrack in such a state of starvation Tova didn’t even recognize her. But eventually the realization set in and the mother and daughter made their daring and miraculous escape.

Two elements that contributed to Tova’s survival were the strict and insightful instructions of her mother which she followed without questioning and what Tova described as “pure luck.” 

McMahon pointed out that, “Although she emphasized her mother’s wisdom in guiding her through this tragedy, her ultimate point was that she survived because of luck. It is an important point because most people didn’t survive, and random chance was as much a factor as any character trait or tactic. She saw herself as lucky and then went on to build a great life out of the ashes of Auschwitz – although she lives with it every day.”

In reflection, McMahon, who gave the introduction for Tova  at the Kirkwood event, stated, “The particular value of this event is that it is a first-hand account of someone who was there and who experienced it. It is the best refutation of those who say it didn’t happen or who try to minimize it. Each day there are fewer and fewer people who can personally attest to this event and who can teach us about World War II and the Holocaust from their experience. We owe them our attention.” 

He added, “In a way, just being in the audience listening to a Holocaust survivor’s story promotes healing. People in the camps thought the world had abandoned them.”

The Kirkwood event also included a Q&A session and a book signing and attendees could purchase copies of Tova’s recently published book “The Daughter of Auschwitz” in which she tells her story in-depth. The book contains photographs of Tova, her family and community before, during and after the war, including a photo of her Aunt Helen’s body lying in a pool of blood where she was shot and murdered by an anti-Semitic gang.

At the conclusion of the event, Tova mentioned her gratitude to her family members (including her grandson with whom she makes TikTok videos about the Holocaust) who assist her in traveling to speaking events. Then an amazing moment occurred when she lightheartedly noted that while she could navigate Auschwitz, airports were another matter, to which the audience responded with laughter. 

This moment speaks to Tova’s personal strength and her ability to take the horrifying events she suffered and build her life around speaking to and warning about those events, while not being psychologically held captive by those events or brought low. It should be mentioned that Tova is a practicing therapist and social worker.

Contrary to what some might expect of an event remembering the Holocaust, the presentation portion of the event was not particularly didactic as Tova did not speak to parallels between her experiences and modern political-cultural concerns. Instead she simply sought to bear witness to what happened in the Holocaust. 

The Nazi’s attempted to eliminate the children, who were according to Hitler, by Tova’s account, the enemies of Germany and the most likely long term witnesses of the atrocities and injustices committed. 

Despite this, Tova, a child herself at the time, survived to tell her story. Early on in the extermination Tova remembers that she herself could not believe the dehumanization and genocide of her Jewish family and community members was really happening but to those gathered at the Kirkwood presentation she said, “You have to believe it – I’m a witness.”

McMahon said there is value “in understanding that a civilized state such as Germany could devolve into such madness as to attempt to eradicate an entire group of people. It is important to know we aren’t necessarily any smarter than Germans in the 1930s. If it could happen there, it could happen here.”

Students interested in learning more about this topic can take the Kirkwood class “Holocaust and Genocide in Memory and Literature.”

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