A year ago, I wrote an article for the Atlanta Jewish Times about a world without Holocaust survivors.
That piece began: “Norbert Friedman sits in a small, soundproof booth at Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters’ Midtown studio. As he has almost weekly for several months, the 92-year-old reads aloud from his memoir, ‘Sun Rays at Midnight: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Life, Before, During and After the Holocaust.’ ”
A year later, with the recording finished, Friedman bought lunch for the AIB staffers to express his appreciation for their help. The next challenge is arranging public access to this chronicle by a Polish Jew who survived 11 Nazi concentration and labor camps. (Full disclosure: As content manager for AIB, my wife helped facilitate the project.)
Friedman rose from his wheelchair and in accented English told the gathering that he had prepared 18 pages of remarks, then laughed and said he would read only three. The years have not dulled his sense of humor.
“Thanks to the dedication of all involved, the promise given to those who could, to survive the catastrophe of mankind, fulfilling the pledge ‘Do not let the world forget what happened to us’ will be enhanced by legacy of a recorded spoken word. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for that,” Friedman said.
He also thanked “the impresario of the project,” Judi Ayal, formerly of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, “who convinced me of its feasibility” and monitored the reading from start to finish.
“Do not let the world forget.” That is what the Jewish community does on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year begins at sunset Wednesday, May 4, based on the Jewish calendar. In Atlanta, the Holocaust will be remembered in commemorations at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 1, at Greenwood Cemetery and at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 8, at the Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden at the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
The number of survivors continues to shrink. A year ago, there were 189,000 in Israel. A recent article pegged their average age at 87 years old. In the United States, last year’s estimate of 130,000 is expected to be reduced by half by 2020.
Amy Neuman, the program manager of Holocaust survivor services at Jewish Family & Career Services, said the arrival of survivors to be near family has kept steady a figure of about 250 in the Atlanta area.
One who recently passed away at age 91 had a unique connection to Friedman. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: “On a Tuesday morning in early June 1950, Maria Geitler Dziewinski opened the door to a familiar face she had not seen since leaving war-torn Europe. It was a friend from her hometown of Krakow, Poland.”
That friend was Norbert Friedman. “We walked up a flight of stairs and knocked on the door,” Friedman told the AJC. “The lady of the house opened the door, and when she saw me, she almost fainted, and so did I. It was Maria Dziewinski.”
Friedman is a raconteur, and at lunch he smiled as he retold the reunion story. He believes in the power of memory, so he continues to write and continues to speak.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has initiated an effort called History Unfolded, crowdsourcing public research of newspapers from 1933 to 1945 to learn what Americans knew about the Holocaust as it happened. What has been learned thus far is that more information was available to the American public than previously believed.
“The sad thing is that, given all that publicity, still the Holocaust happened,” Sandi Auerbach of Somers, N.Y., a member of the museum and contributor to the project, told The Washington Post.
More important than decades-old newspaper articles are the memories of living witnesses. That is why Friedman wrote “Sun Rays at Midnight.” That is why it he felt it important to record the memoir in his own voice.