The months of March and April remind Henry Friedman of his rebirth.
Friedman was 16 years old when he and his family were liberated by Russian soldiers in March 1944 from their hiding space in a Polish village. Friedman weighed 84 pounds. His body was infested with lice and fleas, and his skin was pockmarked from the insects’ bites.
For 18 months, the Jewish Friedman family had hidden in the loft of a barn. It was a space the size of a queen-size mattress, shared by Friedman, his brother, their mother and a teacher who had come to live with them when World War II started. They had been unable to stand without hitting their heads. There had been little food to share. They lived in constant fear of detection and death.
Two weeks after being liberated, Friedman became sick with typhus and spent a month in the hospital. His muscles had atrophied from the time in the loft, and doctors warned he may not walk again.
“This is probably the most important month in my life because 74 years ago I was hanging onto life. Any hour I could have been dead,” Friedman said Tuesday from his hotel in Corvallis. “So this is like being born again.”
Friedman is now 89 years old and lives in Seattle. He will tell his story during a public lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center.
The lecture is part of OSU's 32nd annual observance of Holocaust Memorial Week. The program seeks to promote awareness of the Holocaust in an effort to combat prejudice and foster respect for diversity.
Friedman was born in Brody, Poland, a town that was home to nearly 10,000 Jews prior to World War II. Fewer than 100 remained by the end of the war. Brody fell to the Germans in 1941, and many Jews were sent to death camps. Others were forced to live in a ghetto before later being deported to death camps. Germans took over the Friedman family farm, forcing the family members to work for no pay.
In February 1942, a teenage girl who worked as a maid in the local police station alerted Friedman’s father that the Gestapo was coming for him. That’s when the family went into hiding, with Friedman’s father finding refuge in a hayloft near the barn were they hid. Friedman’s mother was pregnant when they went into hiding. They suffocated the baby to prevent detection.
After liberation, in 1945, the Friedman family fled to a displaced persons camp in Austria. In 1949, the family arrived in the United States and settled in Seattle. Ten months later, the Army drafted Friedman to serve in the Korean War. In 1955, Friedman met the woman who would become his wife, and they had three children.
For many years, Friedman struggled to tell his story because it was too painful. In 1983, he attended the First American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Washington, D.C. He felt gratified to be alive and living in the United States. Yet, as the country prepared to build an official memorial to the Holocaust, Friedman came across an article written by a man who believed the Holocaust was a hoax.
“I turned to my wife, I said, ‘Honey, if the Holocaust didn’t happen, what happened to all my family? Where are they?’” Friedman said. “And I decided at that time I couldn’t be silent any longer.”
In 1989, Friedman started the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, providing curricula about the Holocaust to Washington teachers. In 2015, the center opened to the public with a museum and classroom dedicated to Holocaust education.
Friedman also travels the world to share his family’s story and has published a book about his experiences, titled “I’m No Hero: Journeys of a Holocaust Survivor.”
He said his goal is to encourage people that they can make a positive difference in others’ lives.
“One person can make a difference,” Friedman said. “So my point always is, don’t be indifferent when you can make a difference.”
He remembers the teenage maid who risked her life to save his family.
“This lady was asked, ‘Why did you risk your life?’ and she said ‘How could I not?” Friedman said.
“So how could I not?” he said about sharing his story.