PAYING IT FORWARD
Janice Friebaum experienced a metamorphosis in her life. Her father was a Holocaust survivor and she was always aware of the fact that he had lived through terrible ordeals and that his education had ended at the age of 12. Her childish embarrassment of her father's lack of education and accent conflicted with her sympathy for him and desire to protect him. As she grew up and matured, her attitude toward her dad changed. She shed her embarrassment and became filled with pride and understanding. She also began to identify with her father's wartime experiences, even replicating them to some degree. In addition, she became inspired to work in the field of Holocaust education as a form of paying it forward.
Here is Janice's story:
My mother Ruth was not a Holocaust survivor. She was a first generation American whose parents had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s after waves of pogroms in Lutsk (Luck) in Ukraine.
My father Morris Friebaum (Moniek Frajbaum) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1927. He lived with his parents, grandmother, and three siblings in a two-room apartment in a working class neighborhood in the center of the city. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, my dad was 12 years old. His formal education came to an abrupt end. He never became a bar mitzvah.
The Frajbaum's apartment building was inside the area established by the Nazis as the Warsaw Ghetto. His family suffered terribly; they were not wealthy, and two additional Jewish families from elsewhere in Poland were forced to move into and share their apartment. As a street-smart, athletic child, my father was the designated "smuggler" for his family; he found ways to escape the ghetto via connected underground basements. He snuck out to the "Christian side" of Warsaw to buy or trade for food. On one of his smuggling runs, at the age of 14, he found himself unable to safely re-enter the ghetto. He never saw his family again.
After this inadvertent escape from the ghetto in late 1941 until his "liberation" at the end of the war, my father:
1. Was on the run for many months at the age of 14 -- hopping trains, sleeping in barns and hayfields, stealing and begging for food from Polish farmers, trying to stay alive and out of the hands of the Nazis.
2. Contracted typhus, then passed out with high fever on a rural road, was found by Polish farmers and taken to the Jewish ghetto in Radom where he was put in a Jewish children's hospital and recovered after three weeks of being critically ill.
3. Spent two years working as a slave laborer at the Viz ammunitions factory (run by the Nazis) in Radom while being a prisoner in a nearby concentration camp.
4. At 17 years old, during the summer of 1944, endured a 50+-mile death march from Radom to Tomaszow, where he and hundreds of other Jewish men were put on a cattle car train and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There he was subjected to a selection (to work or to be killed) and after one or two days, was put back on the train and sent to Germany.
5. Spent several weeks as a prisoner at the Vaihingen concentration camp -- a new, hastily and primitively constructed facility, where he dug ditches and hauled stones.
6. Barely survived six months at the Hessental concentration camp. where his work was clearing an airstrip of rubble from Allied bombings. He was 18 years old at the beginning of April, 1945 when the camp was evacuated by train and he was injured when Allied bombs fell close to his train.
7. Waited for days by the damaged train before the tracks and train could be repaired and was finally sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he spent a week or so in the camp infirmary (unable to walk on his injured leg) and then another two-plus weeks in Barracks 28, “lying around, waiting to die” until the camp was evacuated at the end of April.
8. Was sent on a final, two-day death march, in the snow, in the high mountains near the German-Austrian border, and was “liberated” by the U.S. 3rd Armored Division near Garmisch-Partenkirchen on May 2, 1945.
I remember asking my father about the tattooed number on his left forearm when I was perhaps just four or five years old. His response: "the war." Nothing more, nothing less. Not long after, I asked about his parents or if he had brothers or sisters and he offered the same paltry, two-word response: "the war." When it became apparent that my dad was unable to help me with schoolwork, I was curious and asked about his own education. He explained that he had finished the sixth grade but then... "the war." By the time I was six or seven years old, I had observed enough to conclude that this "war" was a very, very bad thing that had happened to my father and his family and it was something I probably shouldn't ask about ever again. His wartime experience was the "elephant in the room" throughout my childhood.
I learned bits and pieces about this "war" that had robbed me of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. From school lessons, TV programs, and adult conversations, I pieced together that "the war" meant the Holocaust. By the time I entered junior high school, I understood that my father was a Holocaust survivor, that his entire family had been killed in that awful event, and that my father must have suffered unimaginable horrors. As I learned more, I would lie awake at night imagining what my dad and his family had experienced. I had vivid dreams about being chased by and hiding from Nazis.
My father never willingly spoke of his past during my childhood. Not once. Neither did my American-born mother ever ask him to. I grew up in a conspiracy of silence. Even on those childhood occasions when I socialized with other children of survivors, we never discussed our shared status. There seemed to be a pact of silence among us.
I did learn about my father's early experiences in the U.S. He arrived at the age of 19, with no knowledge of English, no money or possessions, nothing but a sixth grade education, and no trade. HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) had helped him immigrate but his life was full of hardship. HIAS found him assembly-line jobs in factories but these jobs never paid enough for his rent and sufficient food. He served overseas in the Korean conflict and when he returned, found work he liked in hotels in Miami Beach and the Catskills, which paid a living wage. He was eventually promoted to dining room waiter and later became a waiter in a busy NY restaurant. This led to a position as restaurant manager. In 1967, he purchased his own donut-coffee shop in Queens. The business was profitable but involved taxing work and long hours. He later sold the shop and purchased a NYC taxi medallion, and drove his own cab for 15 years until retiring.
Janice, as a child, with her dad, at a Catskills Mountain hotel
As a child, I felt ashamed of the conflicting feelings I had about my dad. I straddled these feelings, wishing he was more like my friends' dads but also feeling so sorry about his past. There was sometimes a far-away look in his eyes that spoke volumes. I adored him and wanted to protect him at the same time that I envied my friends who had educated fathers with jobs in offices, able to help with homework, and willing to tell stories of their childhoods. I felt ashamed because I knew my dad was a good, good man. I believe my situation was not unlike the bifurcated existence many children experience growing up with parents who have suffered trauma and loss. I strove to excel at everything for I wanted my dad to know he had survived for something good.
Shortly after I graduated college, my father required major heart surgery. The possibility of him dying was a turning point for me. What if he didn't survive and I could never learn more about his family, my family? What if he was permanently disabled after surgery and could never tell me how he had survived the Holocaust?
Although I had always been terrified of broaching the topic of his past and cringed at the thought of upsetting him, I felt I could no longer dance around the elephant in the room. I began by taking a deep dive into learning as much as I could about the Holocaust and Jewish history in Poland, trying to piece together a rough idea of my dad's past. And so began my lifelong immersion into all-things-Holocaust.
As I learned more, I went from being a child who was sometimes embarrassed about my father to an adult who was immensely proud of him, his survival, and who he was as a father and human being. Instead of feeling disadvantaged because I had no family and did not have an educated, white-collar father, I developed an understanding and appreciation for my legacy.
Being the child of a Holocaust survivor taught me to be sensitive to immigrants and to the plight of all people who are oppressed and persecuted. My career choices reflected a desire to help people and our environment. I learned to strive for and value self-sufficiency (one never knows when the rug will be pulled out from under her). I have always worked hard to be physically strong and healthy (in order to be prepared for and surmount trying circumstances). And because, as a child, I often helped explain things to my dad or helped someone understand what my dad was trying to say, I developed strong communication skills, which have served me well in my adult life.
I believe I have always had a seriousness about life that is directly tied to being a 2G. I have never forgotten that my existence is miraculous, that but for the "dumb luck" my father ascribed to his survival, I would not have been born. Consequently, I have always felt an obligation to live a meaningful, productive, and worthy life. I've not renounced the joyful or trivial pleasures of living, but my guiding light has been to make meaning of my existence and to make my father and my murdered family proud.
Janice on a backpacking trip in Oregon
One of the ways I have found to connect with my legacy is through backpacking. As an avid backpacker, I have encountered many challenging circumstances. One episode in particular that affected me occurred when I was 35 years old and had embarked on a four-night, 35-mile trek with a friend in the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. After the second night, we awoke to a raging, unseasonal August snowstorm. It was a life-threatening situation. We faced a complete white-out with no visibility and with already more than a foot of snow. Because it was summer, we were not prepared for winter conditions. We knew we had to break camp, abort our planned itinerary, and head to lower elevations. some 16 miles away. At this point, the snow drifts were waist-high and we had no idea if we were close to our desired trail.
After slogging through over 10 miles, we realized we were two miles shy of our goal -- a campsite where we'd stayed previously. Ahead of us, however, was a 400-foot climb. We were thoroughly depleted, my partner was faring worse than I was, and daylight was dwindling.
On that final slog up the 400-foot knob of a mountain, I had to dig very, very deep for every ounce of physical and mental energy I could muster. And that's when I remembered my father and his family. I imagined myself on the death march my father endured during the bitter, final days of the Holocaust. I pictured burlap wrapped around my frost-bitten feet, and a thin, filthy, rag-torn concentration camp uniform separating my emaciated, undernourished body from a late spring cold snap in the high mountains of southern Germany. I had to walk dozens of miles on muddy roads with melting snow. Could I do it? Could I survive such a thing? I wondered.
These thoughts are what propelled me up that snow-covered mountain. If my father could survive that brutal death march, I reasoned, after all he'd suffered the previous six years, I could and would certainly survive this unanticipated ordeal. I summoned my father's strength, endurance, and resilience. And this pushed me, and my partner in turn, to the summit, where the embers of daylight allowed us to spot our campsite in the forest below. We would live to tell this story. And I would never forget that, in some ways, my father's legacy was a lifelong gift to me, a powerful and personal source of inspiration.
Have I gravitated toward physically challenging activities in my life so I can re-create or vicariously experience hardships similar to ones my dad faced during the Holocaust? It's impossible to know, because maybe I would have behaved this way even if I were not the child of a Holocaust survivor. I can only say that I have always pushed myself to be physically capable -- fast, strong, and agile. To my conscious mind, I want to survive -- yes, like my dad. I want to outrun and outlast those chasing me. I want to walk as far as necessary, know how to find my way in the mountains, live off the land, and endure. I do not want to be easy prey for bad people pursuing me or susceptible to the whims of nature.
Perhaps I also engage in challenging outdoor activities to test my mettle, to simulate circumstances my father survived. I want to be worthy of his impressive strength, an apple who is as resilient as the tree from which she fell.
The physical challenges I embrace are only part of my connection to my dad's past. The other part is my deep-dive into self-education about Judaism, Polish-Jewish history, and the Holocaust, which has led to Holocaust awareness and education being an enormous part of my life for the past 30 years. I began by joining and launching groups for descendants of Holocaust survivors, organizing educational programs with speakers for my places of employment, speaking to school classes and at community events, becoming an interviewer for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Visual History Project, and joining the board of the Washington State Holocaust Resource and Education Center.
Eventually, in order to learn more, I decided I had to visit Poland. To my disappointment, my father did not want to join me. Fortunately, I met a renowned Holocaust survivor of the Sobibor death camp, Thomas Blatt, weeks before my trip. He offered to accompany me to Poland and be my guide.
For eight days, Tom and I visited sites of former concentration camps, cities and towns, and old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. We met local residents and dignitaries. This trip set my life in new directions. Months after returning, I was tapped by the Insurance Commissioner of Washington State to help launch the U.S. effort to assist survivors and their heirs in recovering unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policy benefits. This was a radical departure from my career with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. I spent a whirlwind year assisting Holocaust survivors and working with U.S. and international Jewish and survivor organizations, domestic and foreign governments, and the international insurance industry.
The insurance policy project cemented my desire to pursue graduate work in Holocaust studies. In 2000, I earned a Master's degree in Jewish and Holocaust Studies from the University of Chicago. Since then, I have worked at a number of Holocaust-related jobs, such as community planning for survivors in Broward and South Palm Beach counties in Florida, serving as executive director of a Holocaust education organization, freelancing as a trainer and consultant to organizations on providing sensitive care to elderly Holocaust survivors, forming and managing survivor descendants' groups, and public speaking for descendants.
I have also done volunteer work in this area, which includes interviewing survivors and assisting them with the writing of their memoirs and serving on boards of Holocaust-related organizations.
I continue to do this work for two reasons. First, I consider it a "highest and best use" of my knowledge and skills, and with that comes a great deal of satisfaction. I believe I am employing my unique 2G perspectives and status, along with my natural talents, to deliver relevant and hopefully inspiring information. And second, giving myself to the causes of Holocaust education and remembrance, and support of Holocaust survivors is, for me, a way to pay back and pay forward for the miracle of life I have been given.
Although Janice's father would not go to Poland with her on her first trip, he agreed to accompany her nine years later, in 2005, for the March of the Living. Above, they visit the site of the former Treblinka death camp, where most of his family had been killed. They are standing in an enormous memorial cemetery in front of a symbolic grave marker for the Jews of Warsaw.