Henry Friedman was robbed of his adolescence by the monstrous evil that annihilated millions of European Jews and changed forever the lives of those who survived. When the Nazis overran their home town near the Polish-Ukrainian border, the Friedman family was saved by Ukrainian Christians who had worked at their farm. Henry, his mother, his younger brother, and a young schoolteacher who had been hired by his father when Jews were forbidden to attend school were hidden in a loft over the animal stalls at a neighbor s farm; his father hid in another hayloft half a mile away.
When the family was liberated by the Russians after eighteen months in hiding, Henry, at age fifteen, was emaciated and too weak to walk. The Friedmans eventually made their way to a displaced persons camp in Austria where Henry learned quickly to wheel and deal, seducing women of various ages and nationalities and mastering the intricacies of dealing in the black market. In I m No Hero, he confronts with unblinking honesty the pain, the shame, and the bizarre comedy of his passage to adulthood.
The family came to Seattle in 1949, where Henry Friedman has made his home ever since. In 1988 he returned with his wife to Brody and Suchowola, where he succeeded in finding Julia Symchuk, who, as a young girl, had warned his father that the Gestapo was looking for him, and whose family had hidden the Friedmans in their loft. The following year he was able to bring Julia to Seattle for a triumphal visit, where she was honored in many ways, although, as Friedman writes, in her own country she had never been honored with anything except hard work.
Like many other survivors, Henry Friedman has found it difficult to confront his past. Like others, too, he has felt the obligation to bear witness. Now retired, he devotes much of his time to telling his story, which he believes is a message of hope, to thousands of schoolchildren throughout the Pacific Northwest. He has received national recognition for his role in establishing the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and as a founder of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
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I AM IN MY DEN WATCHING A VIDEO PRODUCEDby my daughter. On the television screen are talking heads. A manexplains how he ran into the forest and lived there like an animalfor two years. A deaf woman contorts her face violently and gestures todescribe her captors and her escape. An old couple with white hair talkabout their time in hiding, how hungry they had been. All their faceslook tired, yet their eyes say they are happy to be alive.
Outside, tall evergreens surround my house on Mercer Island, nearSeattle. Lake Washington, with its sailboats and beaches, is only a stone'sthrow away. How far this is from my birthplace in Brody, Poland. Whatimpossibly different worlds!
Soon, I too come up on the screen. Yes, that's me. My face is tanned,and I am wearing a gold neck chain with the golden letter chai ("life").I begin to talk of that other world. Of my mother. Of my father. Of myaunts and uncles.
I REMEMBER PROUDLY carrying my father's prayer shawl inhis blue bag with its embroidered Star of David to the Great Synagoguein Brody on Saturdays.
I used to sit beside him on a wooden bench near the reading tableat the front of the synagogue. The candles burned all through the service.You could smell the tallow in the air, mixed with perspiration andthe stale breath of the worshipers. On Yom Kippur, father sat in synagoguethe entire day. Ilonged for fresh air and counted the pages in theprayer book until Yizkor, the memorial service for the dead. When fatherstood, I rushed outside with the other children.
JEWS SETTLED IN BRODY IN 1588. Overtime, the Jewishcommunity established itself and thrived, a vigorous mix of scholars, professionals,merchants, and artisans. By the middle of the eighteenth century,trade in Brody was concentrated in Jewish hands. For many yearsJews constituted a majority of the town's population, and at the outbreakof World War II, nearly 10,000 Jews lived in Brody itself, with some 5,000more in the surrounding rural area.
The town of Brody lies in the West Ukraine region, which was partof Poland at the time of my birth in 1928. The region came under Sovietoccupation following the partition of Poland in 1939, and Brody fell tothe Germans in July 1941. Persecution and murder of the Jews began immediatelythereafter. Between September and November 1942, in twoaktions, a total of 4,500 Jews were sent to the Belzek death camp, and aghetto was established in December 1942 for the 6,500 remaining Jewsof Brody. By the end of 1942, young Jews formed a fighting unit in theghetto which maintained contacts with partisans in the surroundingforest and with the non-Jewish resistance. From May to June, 1943, theBrody ghetto and labor camp were liquidated and the surviving 2,500Jews were deported to the death camp at Majdanek. By all reports, noJewish community has existed in Brody since World War II.
We had a very old shul, or synagogue, which took up an entire cityblock. Several little shuls surrounded the Great Synagogue, and inthem, tailors, shoemakers, and butchers could pray in small groups withfellow tradesmen.
Each small group was under the jurisdiction of Brody's chief rabbi.He was the law of the land. If there was a dispute over property, he wouldpreside over the Rabbinical Court's decision. If a man wanted to divorcehis wife, he would need to petition the chief rabbi. If a young fellowwanted to get married, he would request the chief rabbi's signature.Even the Polish officers would salute the chief rabbi of Brody.
As a child, however, I was ruled by my mother and father. Mother,who kept a strictly kosher home, permitted us to eat non-kosher food outsideour home and at restaurants.
"Just don't tell your father," she said.
My mother came from a family of lawyers and professionals. She,too, was well educated. She was very pretty and loved to dance at weddings.Father came from a family of farmers and merchants. He workedvery hard, rising by five o'clock each morning to start his day. He admiredmother, though they had the usual lively disagreements on small issues.
I remember once when I was seven or eight, I petitioned father tolet me wear long side-locks, the type worn by Hasidic boys at the religiousschool I attended each afternoon.
"You don't have any rabbis in your family," he said. "You're not goingto be the first one."
"But my friends all have side-locks," I said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You're not going to change my mind. My sonswill dress in suits, not black robes. Your hair will be cut at the ears."
We lived in a house attached to our busy textile store, which soldfabrics imported from as far away as London. Uncle Salomon, my father'syoungest brother, lived in a neighboring village on a large farmthat had once belonged to my paternal grandfather. My grandmotherKlara lived with Salomon, his wife, Fanny, and their daughter, Sara. Onthe same parcel of land, in a house of their own, lived my father's sister,Aunt Freda, and her husband, Abraham, their son, Anschul, and theirdaughters, Pepe and Yite. The two families shared the barns and theequipment, but each maintained separate animals and managed separatefinances. Grandma Klara kept peace between the two families, rulingwith a strong hand and a strong sense of religion. She had been oneof eleven children, and some of her brothers and sisters were poor, so shehelped them out with food.
Uncle Joseph, the second of my father's brothers, also lived on afarm in the country with his wife, Lea, and their son, Mendel. Each ofthe three brothers lived in a separate district, about twenty-five kilometers(or just over fifteen miles) distant from one another, but close enoughto share many good times. In 1942 we lost contact with my uncle Josephand his family and never found them again.
THE FIRST WEDDING I attended was that of my uncle Salomon,who was the youngest child in my father's family. There was a great dealof excitement because the wedding was going to take place in Busk,which was about forty kilometers from Brody. Back then that was a longtrip, and a decision had to be made whether we would travel by horse ortake the train. We finally decided to go by train because the weather wasnot very nice at that time of the year. This would be my first train ride, andfor two weeks all I could think of was meeting some of my cousins forthe first time, and the wedding.
Most of my cousins at the wedding were older than I, and they likedme but they also got me in trouble. At their urging, another cousin andI crawled under the table and stole the shoes of some of the women;when the ladies wanted them back, my cousins made them pay ransom.This was very wrong, but, on the whole, we had a good time at the wedding.On our way home, however, my father wanted to know if I had hadany part in the shoe-stealing seam, and I admitted that I had, not withouta bit of pride. My mother instantly demanded that I be punished,while my father had to restrain himself from smiling. My mother cameout on top by saying that I would never be allowed to attend another wedding,and I would receive more punishment when we got home. But myparents never did punish meeither they forgot, or decided to let meoff this time.
I WAS SENT TO cheder (religious school) when I was four becausemy grandmother Klara became very upset with my father. He was raisinga non-Jew, she said. When I visited Grandma, I could not speak anyYiddish because my nanny spoke to me only in Polish. The cheder wasnear the Great Synagogue. Its entrance had huge doors, and inside it wasvery dark, with just one light bulb. When I was seven, I went to publicschool during the day and cheder after school. This was until 1939. Duringthe Soviet occupation, my brother and I had private tutoring in Jewishreligion. A teacher would come all the way from Brody on a bicycleto our farm.
I attended public school with children from all over the city. I can'tremember the day, or even the year, when I first heard my classmatesmention Hitler. Perhaps it was 1937 or 1938. I had been playing socceroutside with my Jewish friends, while our non-Jewish schoolmates tooka religious class.
We didn't mind. After all, we would go to cheder after school andstudy the Talmud. Besides, our absence gave us an excuse to play ball.Usually our Christian classmates joined us for a few minutes after theirclass. Recently one of them had kicked our soccer ball over the fence.
"Christ killer!" he said. "Wait until Hitler comes. He'll take careof you."
"Coy!" I shouted back.
"Kike!" he spat.
I reached out to hit him. My friend held me back.
"Come on," he said. "Forget about it."
WE COULDN'T FORGET about it, though. "Wait until Hitlercomes" became a daily refrain in our schoolyard. I listened to storiesabout Hitler at home. My parents talked in the living room at night, andI could hear their voices from my bedroom. They spoke of leaving forCanada.
Grandmother, however, didn't want to leave her brothers and otherrelatives behind. She had no desire to start a new life in a differentworld. My aunt Freda was afraid to leave because her husband was nothealthy. To start over in a foreign country with a sick husband and threechildren would not be easy. Uncle Salomon sided with grandmother.They would argue their point by saying "Look at Markus Pieniaker, howwell he is doing in Germany!" Uncle Markus was my mother's brotherwho had come to visit us from Berlin in 1938, arriving in a chauffeur-drivencar and looking wonderful. I remember a white handkerchiefsticking out of his suit pocket like a three-pointed crown. "If Markuslived in Brody, he would be riding a horse, not a fancy car," they said."So Hitler can't be all that bad to the Jews. The newspaper stories are justto frighten us, to fool us into leaving Poland and selling our propertycheap to the goyim [non-Jews]."
"Salomon keeps dragging his feet," my father told my mother. "We'remissing a good opportunity." What he had heard about the Nazis, heknew to be true, and he feared for our future. Still, like many families,ours made a decision collectively. Whenever it came to a vote, Salomonsided with Grandma and his sister Freda, leaving the two older brothersin the minority. After two years of arguments, Father and Joseph convincedthe family to leave, but the war came to Poland sooner than anyoneexpected. Although our papers were almost ready, the borders wereclosed.
MY WISH WAS TO BE an officer in the cavalry unit of the Polisharmy when I grew up. I used to watch the army parade through my city,and I would visualize myself leading the whole cavalry. I even had thecolor of my horse picked outit had to be black. But if I could not becomea cavalry officer, my second choice was to become a lawyer becausesome of my uncles were lawyers. Unfortunately, as I was to learn,the Polish cavalry was no match for the German tanks.
The start of the war on September 22, 1939, was frightening. I waseleven years old. The first bombing began on a Friday night, the Shabbes.We spent that night in our coal cellar beneath the house. It was an eeriespace, with candles flickering on the shelves. The earth shook with eachexplosion. All that night we shuddered through the storming of thetown. We prayed more than once that we would not be buried alive. Fatherhad counted the hours to dawn, when the bombing would stop, andat the first possible moment he rose to go upstairs.
He looked out on a desolate city, debris strewn everywhere. He cameimmediately downstairs to tell us we would be leaving.
"But it's Shabbes," Mother said.
"So what," my father retorted. "Our lives are at stake. The Germanswill pound away again tonight."
"Where will we go?" she asked.
"To the farm," he replied. "They won't attack the countryside."
When I came out of our basement, what my eyes saw was a shockthat I remember to this daybuildings burning, parts of human bodies,dead and wounded animals. I was mesmerized by a wounded horse. Hisblood was bubbling from his stomach, and my mother put her hand overmy eyes and dragged me away. I must have seen more than my parentsthought I saw, because as I merely write these words I find myself shaking,wet with perspiration.
THAT MORNING, ON OUR horse-and-buggy ride to the countryside,I saw hordes of people running toward the Romanian border. Theroads were jammed with cars, trucks, buses, horses, cows, and people.Many carried with them their most prized possessions in a desperatedash for the south.
War, for those first days, seemed like a game to my brother and me.The planes dogfighting overhead provided us with amusement, andwe would pick and choose the winners. In reality, the Polish army wasdoomed to defeat. Its planes were inferior. But all this was unknown tome as a child of eleven. I felt safe on my father's farm, in Suchowola,protected from the carnage around us.
The bombing lasted only two or three days. When it stopped, wecould hardly believe it.
"Where are the Germans?" Mother asked.
"They'll be back," said Father.
But for now, all was silent. News came shortly that the Russianswould occupy Brody. Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin, ceding Brodyand the rest of the Ukraine to the Russians.
We were relieved, except for Father. He hated the Russians. He hadseen them cross the border into Poland during World War I. He rememberedtheir beating of Jews, their robbing and raping of women. He hadlived near the Russian border in a small village that was then a part ofthe Austro-Hungarian Empire.
THE RUSSIANS NOW CAME on foot, in tanks, and on horses.One of the first acts of the occupying forces was to seize our family's textilestore in town. "It's to be a collective," the lieutenant told my father.
"But we've worked for years to build this store," Father said. "It's ourfamily business."
"It's to be a state-run store," the lieutenant told him.
My parents were given twenty-four hours to clear out. Our house inBrody, including most of our possessions, was also seized by the Russians.Unlike many of our friends who lost their businesses to communism, weat least had someplace else to go. The farm in Suchowola, always a summerretreat for us until now, became our permanent residence.
In Suchowola I attended a Russian school, which I enjoyed muchmore than the Polish school in Brody. I was no longer just another Jewishkid. In the Russian school you would be punished for slandering aJew, or a Pole, or a Ukrainian for that matter. As a Jewish child under theRussians, if you minded your own business, you would be treated no differentlyfrom others. All religious classes were cut from the curriculum.
In 1941 I earned the title of Otlichnik (The Best). When I broughthome my special diploma with a picture of Lenin on it, I handed it toFather proudly.
"You're not to display this diploma at home," he said. He hated Leninas much as he did Hitler.
"But I have been honored," I said.
"No, you haven't."
He threw the diploma on the ground.
During the Russian occupation, my family still observed religioustradition. My mother would light the Friday night candles, but we wouldsay our prayers at home because it was too far to walk from Suchowolato Brody. By custom, religious Jews walked to the synagogue. The daybefore a Jewish Holiday, my father drove us in the horse and buggy toBrody, where we would stay with relatives and could then walk to thesynagogue. After the German occupation, we stopped going to the Brodysynagogue even on High Holy Days. My mother nonetheless made sureto have the Friday night candles lit, and we would pray at homeonlyon a very few occasions did we miss our regular prayers.
THE RUSSIANS RAISED the taxes on our farm. Father, throughsheer force of will, refused to cooperate.
"Kulak," the Russians called him. "Exploiter!"
He was the second largest landowner in Suchowola County, andthe neighbors looked up to him. If Father relinquished his land to theRussians for a commune, the neighbors would have to do the same. Despitepressure, he refused to sign papers to release the farm. In anotheryear or two, the communists would have acted by force, sending him andthe rest of us to Siberian labor camps. For the time being, however, herefused to capitulate.
In the winter of 1940, many Jewish citizens of Brody, as well as Jewishrefugees who had fled the German sector of occupied Poland, wereforced onto trains that took them away to the Siberian camps. ProminentJews from our community were taken. Each family, ours included, fearedit would be in the next train load. The situation was deteriorating quickly.Uncle Salomon was drafted into the Soviet army, a ploy by which thecommunists could seize an absent owner's property to form a commune.
IN JUNE 1941, ON A Saturday night, bombs exploding in Brodyawakened us from our sleepwe could see the city all ablaze. Fatherwent outside and asked a Russian officer what was happening.
"It's just maneuvers," the Russian said. The city was burning, however.The Russians didn't know what had hit them.
In the morning we could see dogfights. Russian planes were shotdown by the dozens. My heart raced with excitement, partially from thecrash of war, partially from being in the midst of so much fear.
Germany again was at war, this time with the Soviet Union.
When the Germans finally moved in, it put a chill in my bones. Withthe stomping of their goose-stepping black boots and the clatter of theirarmor, they were very different from the bedraggled array of Russians whohad previously occupied Brody. From miles away you could hear the approachof the Germans. Their thunder rippled through the earth.
We were plunged into gloom and fear. It took the Germans less thantwo weeks to reach Brody after that first Saturday-night bombing.
FATHER PREPARED FOR the worst. He began hiding most ofour remaining possessionsclothing, furs, silverware, dishes, and shoes.Nearly everything we still owned was buried underground in the safe-keepingof some trusted Ukrainian families. He no longer cared whathappened to his store, having given up that dream months before. He wasonly concerned that the Germans would come and loot the farm.
One of the first acts of the Germans was to register all the local intelligentsia,both Jews and non-Jews. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and accountantswere told to register, each profession in a different section oftown. Some could foresee what was happening and refused. After registration,the non-Jews were released. The Jews, however, were taken away,never to be heard from again. Jewish doctors were the one exceptiontheywere needed in the town to attend to both Jews and non-Jews. Onlyrecently did I read in an encyclopedia that 250 of the Jewish intellectualsin Brody were executed in cold blood following their "job registration."My family lost three relatives to this purge.
THE GERMANS TURNED many of the Ukrainians into policemenby promising them a free and independent state in exchange fortheir help. I had been wary of the Ukrainians ever since some of themhad tried to set fire to my father's farm a couple of years before.
The toughest Jews in Brody were the horse dealers, called koniers.As a kid I was terrified of them. They traded horses, buying and resellingthem to farmers. We used to call them horse thieves, because they wouldthreaten those who didn't cooperate. Often a farmer would be forced tosell his horse for much less than its worth, only to discover the horsedealer had turned around and resold it for a much higher price. If youtried to question the koniers' business practices, they would threaten youwith the crack of the whip. As a boy, it seemed to me that one of themcould beat up ten others.
Although many Jews looked down on Jewish shoemakers and tailors,everyone feared the Jewish horse dealers. The Ukrainians could nowprove themselves to the Germans by taking care of these bullies.
On the third day of the German occupation, the Ukrainian policerounded up the koniers and told them they were going to bury Russiansoldiers and horses. It had become almost commonplace to see the deadand wounded strewn on the streets of Brody and all over the countryside.Today, it makes my stomach turn to think of it. But at that time walkingthe streets and seeing what was going on, no matter how barbarous, hadbecome almost a normal part of my daily life in Brody.
Many of the Red Army soldiers killed were at first taken prisoner bythe Germans, who then marched these Russians through the town. TheGermans were riding motorcycles or horses, while the Russians, onaching feet, were tired and thirsty. If one fell and could not go on, he waspromptly shot. If one reached out for water, the Germans would beat himas well as the person who tried to help him. These were the first acts ofGerman brutality I witnessed.
The Ukrainians ordered the koniers to dig mass graves for the Russiandead in the woods at the edge of town. The bodies had been piledthere and needed to be buried.
Excerpted from I'm No Hero by HENRY FRIEDMAN. Copyright © 1999 by University of Washington Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
ForewordAcknowledgmentsSURVIVALMy Boyhood in Brody, PolandCaptivity and LiberationMy New HobbyThe SurvivorsConfusion for My PeopleFleeing PolandThe Black MarketThe Call to PalestineAdulteryAMERICAJourney to AmericaThe Army and KoreaThe Jewelery BusinessSandyThe Arnie Apple Company, the World's Fair, and Family LifeIsrael and Other TravelsFamily NewsA Gathering of SurvivorsIndiaReturn to RussiaReunionA Heroine in SeattleHope