Hedi Fried was just 19 when she arrived at the Auschwitz prison camp in Poland during the Holocaust, which saw 6 million Jews killed by Nazis* during World War II on the orders of German leader Adolf Hitler.
Within an hour, she said goodbye to her parents for the last time before they were taken to the gas chamber*.
She and her sister, however, survived their years in the concentration camp*.
Now 94, she tells her extraordinary life story to raise awareness about the Holocaust when visiting schools in her adopted home of Sweden.
These are some of the questions she is asked most often by students.
Why did Hitler hate the Jews?
At the end of the 19th century, it was claimed the Jews had drawn up a detailed plan for achieving global domination*. Hitler took this paranoid* old wives’ tale* as truth; it led to his fear of the Jews … and his determination to exterminate* every last one of them.
A simple answer to the question: Hitler hated the Jews because they were Jews.
What do you remember from your arrival in Auschwitz?
It was in the middle of the night of 17 May, 1944. The doors (of the cattle train) were flung open with a bang, bright floodlights blinded us, and a hellish noise broke out. The roars of SS officers* mingled with dogs’ barks and children crying. We had to leave the train car as quickly as possible, men to the right, women to the left. Everything we had brought with us had to be left behind. Men in striped clothes with truncheons helped the SS empty the train car. Quickly, quickly, (schnell, schnell), they said. Papa went to speak to one of the men in striped clothing who looked Jewish. After casting a quick glance around, he whispered: “Vernichtungslager.” Extermination camp.
My mother, flanked on each side by my sister and me, followed the queue of women towards a barbed wire fence, where Dr Mengele, the Nazi doctor who would become infamous* for his cruel experiments on Jewish prisoners, stood waiting. With a light flick of his whip, he sent Mama to the right, my sister and me to the left. That was the night I lost my parents. I never got to say goodbye to Mama and Papa, never got to hug them one last time.
What was it like to live in the camps?
In short, you could say that it was like living in a grey bubble. The ground was grey with dust, the barracks* were grey, the prisoners’ clothing was grey, the sky was grey with smoke. It was a life in limbo*. Time did not exist, you did not know whether you had been there for a day, a year, all your life …
I want to quote a survivor, Yehiel De-Nur, who testified at the trial against Adolf Eichmann and said:
Auschwitz was another planet. Time passed on a different scale than here on Earth. No children were born there, and no one died a natural death. Parents had no children, children had no parents.
Because the Germans were not intending to keep us alive for long, the food was as might be expected. Around 300 grams of black bread, which was mostly sawdust, to last all day, together with 5 grams of margarine and sometimes a dab of jam or slice of sausage. In addition, so-called coffee, a black liquid with only one benefit: it was hot.
What helped you to survive?
Many people do not believe in chance, but if I am to answer the question of what helped me to survive, it is all that I can point to. Without chance, nothing could have helped. There was no logic* in the camp; you never knew where to be, or not to be, in order to survive.
You may think so, but dying is not easy. It can be difficult to live, but it is all that we know, and we cling to life until the very end. What helped guard against these gloomy thoughts was having my sister with me. We felt responsible for each other, there was a meaning to the meaninglessness. We would probably not have survived without each other.
Were you afraid of death?
Death was not something that I was afraid of. What felt worse was the uncertainty, the endless waiting, the anxiety. The anxiety never let up. It was like a humming in the background, and would only give way when a sharper, more acute* fear set in. What I was afraid of was how death would come.
Did you get ill?
It was important not to fall ill. We would only survive for as long as we could work, and were we to become ill they would have no use for us. We knew that if we were deemed useless, the gas chamber awaited. As a result, we were rarely seriously ill. Those of us who had previously suffered from chronic* pain were suddenly free of it. No constant headache, no stomach ulcers.
When did you realise that there was a genocide happening?’
During the Second World War, the word ‘genocide’* did not exist, neither in my own nor in anyone else’s vocabulary. It only became clear to me that widespread killing was taking place when I found myself in Auschwitz. Before that, not many understood that this was not just the killing of certain individuals, that it encompassed an entire people who were to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Were you jubilant* when you were liberated?
I was glad, of course, but cheering requires strength, and that took time. The first time I felt jubilant was after we had reached Sweden, when my sister and I were walking across Västerbron, a bridge in Stockholm.
When I looked behind me, there were no SS soldiers. I heard no dogs barking, and all I saw were peaceful Swedish families on tandem* bikes enjoying their Sunday in the sunshine. Livi and I were thinking the same thing. We looked at each other and started dancing in the middle of the bridge
Do you hate the Germans?
While I was in the camps, I hated all Germans, I was filled with vengeful* feelings. Had I been given the opportunity, I would probably have taken my revenge. But after liberation, I and most of the others understood that vengeance* would only make us sink to the same level as the murderers.
Our revenge* is that we, who were supposed to be exterminated*, still live and have new families. Our revenge is that the Nazis of the past are gone; today, more and more of their descendants* listen to our stories and work to make sure that it will never happen again.
Are you able to forgive?
This is a question I have thought about often, until I realised that you do not have to think in those terms. What has been done may not be undone, time cannot be turned back, those who are gone will never come again. Today, we have to look to the future. What we can do today is work to make sure that it never happens again.
What can we learn from the Holocaust?
Each and every one of us has a responsibility, both to the society we live in and to ourselves. People were no different in the 1930s or 1940s than they are today, the same types live on. This is best observed in the schoolyard. There are the perpetrators*, the bullies who deliver the blows, and the victims, and the ones who simply watch without stepping in, the bystanders*. Hopefully, there are also some who come to the victims’ aid. That you should not be a perpetrator is self-evident*, but neither must you be a bystander; it makes you just as guilty.
An edited extract from Questions I am asked about the Holocaust by Hédi Fried, translated by Alice E Olsson (Scribe Australia, $32.99). Available now.
- Nazis: member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party
- gas chamber: airtight room that can be filled with poisonous gas
- concentration camp: a guarded prison to hold people
- global domination: rule the world
- paranoid: fearful or insecure
- old wives’ tale: widely held belief that is not correct
- exterminate: kill
- SS: stands for Schutzstaffel, a mighty military force
- infamous: famous for something bad
- barracks: buildings used to house people or soldiers
- limbo: an uncertain period of waiting
- logic: reasonable assessment
- chronic: strong
- genocide: the deliberate killing of a large group of people
- jubilant: happy
- tandem: in twos
- vengeful: seek to harm someone in return for being hurt
- vengeance: punishment inflicted in return for being hurt
- exterminated: killed
- revenge: an action to harm someone in return for being hurt
- descendants: a child related to you
- bystanders: people at an event who do not take part or step in
- self-evident: doesn’t need to be explained
- Where was the Auschwitz concentration camp?
- What did Hedi Fried eat each day?
- What colour did she describe Auschwitz life as?
- Which country did Hedi Fried move to after the war?
- What was the name of her sister?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. A poetic description
Hedi Fried’s answers painted a very grim picture of life at Auschwitz. Use the information she has shared to help you write a poem that captures the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that prisoners at the concentration camp experienced.
Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History
Hedi compares the events of the Holocaust to schoolyard bullying. How does this make you feel? How would you react if you witnessed or knew about somebody being bullied? Why?
Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Ethical Understanding
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Explain what you found most interesting about Hedi Fried’s story. How did it make you feel?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will show until approved by editors.