By: Yvette Miller
With his white beard, erect bearing and melodious voice, Mr. Friedman has been a fixture in our synagogue for decades. Whenever we need someone to lead services, he steps in—and fills the sanctuary with old-fashioned melodies that come directly from prewar Europe. At times—during services, Shabbat meals or kiddush—he hums loudly: operatic Jewish tunes I’ve heard only on old records, their melody swelling briefly. Reminders of the sounds of his youth.
For years, I learned about his past only in pieces—snatches of information gleaned from brief conversations. “Did you know that Mr. Friedman sailed on the Exodus?” my husband asked years ago, referring to the clandestine ship carrying hundreds of broken Holocaust survivors to what would soon become the state of Israel. The ship was intercepted and attacked by British forces, and its broken human cargo of desperate passengers was imprisoned behind barbed wire in Cyprus. Looking at the elderly man, I could scarcely believe it, and asked another elderly member of our synagogue who nodded grimly: “There’s a lot more to Mr. Friedman than meets the eye.”
Word spread, and we began asking Mr. Friedman questions, until finally one day he brought photos and newspaper clippings into synagogue and told his story to the enthralled congregation over Shabbat lunch.
He was a teenager in 1947, recently released from a concentration camp, orphaned and bereft. The Haganah (the precursor to Israel’s military) organized the secret journey on the Exodus 1947. Mr. Friedman was one of those allowed on board the ship, which was named by its hopeful Jewish occupants. He described the overcrowded conditions, the fear as the rickety ship was attacked by British fighters, and the joy at being allowed to take a few steps on the shores of the Holy Land before being forced back on a ship and imprisoned by the British for months.
Once he settled in Israel, Mr. Friedman told the spellbound congregation, he was drafted into the new Jewish state’s fledgling army and fought in Israel’s war of independence.
“You’re a hero!” somebody cried, and Mr. Friedman gave a characteristic shake of his head. Explaining that he did a lot of guard duty, he brushed aside all compliments. “I drank a lot of coffee,” he shrugged, ending the conversation. He could be like that: brusque, cutting through sentimentality.
“You’re a pretty girl, but I can’t see your face with that hat,” he told me many times after Shabbat services. I started wearing hats with smaller brims to synagogue just to please him.
He could be prickly. When I invited him for a holiday meal, he insisted that he wanted to stay home, alone. “Who will you talk to?” I asked. “Look,” he replied, “I’ll put a mirror on the table in front of me, and talk to myself.”
He hadn’t always been alone. His wife, Lilly, was beautiful and sweet. I remember sitting next to her once in synagogue on Shavuot. She was eyeing the flowers decorating the synagogue for the holiday. “You should have seen the flowers we had back in Europe,” she sighed. “They filled the synagogue. And the sweet smell!” But Lilly had passed away several years ago, and Mr. Friedman was now alone, living in the small apartment they’d shared, every wall decorated with the vibrant needlepoint copies of famous paintings that Lilly loved to sew.
There were lots of things I knew about Mr. Friedman, and many I didn’t. One fact I thought I understood was that he’s always been a man of ordinary means. I’d seen his small apartment, and I’d asked him about his life once he moved to Chicago. “I worked for a candle manufacturer,” he had told me. Once, when I’d asked him why he didn’t visit Lilly’s relatives in Israel, he explained that he couldn’t afford the trip.
So when I first heard about the Holocaust Torah, I thought I’d misunderstood. “Who’s sponsoring the Torah?” I asked. I had participated in many campaigns to raise money for new Torah scrolls. Torah scrolls are painstakingly handwritten by scribes, using special handmade ink and parchment. It typically takes a scribe a year of full-time work to complete a Torah. The cost is very high. New Torah scrolls can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s customary to invite everyone in a community to help contribute to the cost, and the fundraising to complete such a work can take years.
Mr. Friedman had commissioned a sefer Torah, our rabbi announced—an entire scroll—and had paid for the undertaking himself, in memory of his parents and his wife. When congregants asked to be allowed to contribute, he asked our rabbi to explain that this wasn’t possible. (In the end, a “deal” was struck: congregants were able to contribute towards purchasing a silver crown for the Torah, but the scroll itself was Mr. Friedman’s alone.) The next time I saw Mr. Friedman—tidy as ever, his white hair brushed neatly back, wearing what looked like an old, much-mended suit and a tie—I asked him about the Torah scroll.
“It’s in memory of my parents and my wife,” he explained, nodding.
I glanced at his frayed cuffs, his old and much-polished shoes. “However did you save enough to pay for it?” I asked.
Mr. Friedman fixed me with a piercing stare and enunciated slowly: “I’ve been saving for this Torah all my life.”
Shortly after this exchange, I brought a meal to Mr. Friedman’s apartment, and asked if he minded if I stayed and asked him about his parents. He led me to two old pictures hanging on his wall. They showed a very young man in a hat, and a girl—she looked scarcely out of her teens—wearing a wig. “These are my parents,” he said. He gazed at the pictures tenderly for a moment. “Ask what you like,” he said with a sigh.
Mr. Friedman (Mordechai was his given name) was born in Sárospatak, a Hungarian town of two thousand people, a quarter of whom were Jewish. His family was chassidic. He had an older sister, Sarah. “It was unusual for a chassidic family to have only two children,” he acknowledged. There had been complications at his birth, and his mother hadn’t been able to have more children.
“There was very little anti-Semitism,” Mr. Friedman said. “I complained once that a boy selling newspapers yelled at me and chased me. My father was a muscular man. He owned a hardware store.” The boy was warned, and other than that incident, there was little tension in his town.
“What were your parents like?” I asked. Mr. Friedman thought for a moment, settling on a story to tell.
Sometime in the early years of World War II, a tall German major came into his father’s store. “He was wearing medals,” Mr. Friedman recalled, and a familiar impish tone crept into his voice. “Where did he get the medals? He must have bought them, because he sure wasn’t born before World War I.” The major addressed Mr. Friedman’s father as “dirty Jew” and explained that everyone in town said his was the only hardware store that could supply all the building materials he needed to construct two military camps nearby, and at a reasonable price. “The major said he was sorry he couldn’t go elsewhere, and kept saying, ‘dirty Jew,’” Mr. Friedman said with a sad chuckle.
“Father sat and listened, and asked what was needed. When the major gave him a list, he said he could handle it and it wouldn’t be a problem. The major said that it had better not be a problem, and left without saying goodbye.
“On Shabbat, my father was wearing his shtreimel and kapota (a special Shabbat hat and coat) and was going to shul. The major’s sergeant showed up and said that they had an emergency and needed materials. My father turned to my mother and said, ‘Give the keys to the maid, and tell her to let the sergeant take what he needs.’ Then he went to shul.
“When he came home from shul, he didn’t mention the matter again. At the beginning of the month my father wrote an invoice, and my sister went to the military command and handed in the invoice. Two days later, the major came into the store and started yelling, saying that the invoice wasn’t right.” Mr. Friedman sighed. His father hadn’t charged for the items the sergeant took on Shabbat. As the major screamed and threatened his life, his father reluctantly wrote up an invoice—overlooking the many items the sergeant had stolen—and presented the official invoice to the major. After the major paid his bill, Mr. Friedman recalled, his father gave the money straight to charity.
When Mr. Friedman was 14, his father was taken away to perform slave labor for a military camp on the Russian front.
They never saw each other again. “Before my father left,” Mr. Friedman recalled, “he took me aside and said, ‘I have a job for you, but you have to swear you won’t tell anybody.’ Then he showed me a list with half a dozen relatives’ names and addresses, and the amount he gave them for Shabbat every week.”
His father never used to eat breakfast with the family on Thursdays, and now at last young Mordechai understood why: Thursday morning was when his father went door to door distributing funds. As his father was taken away, Mr. Friedman hid the precious list under his mattress. “On Thursday, I took the list out, but I realized I didn’t know where to get the money. I went to my mother and told her the story. She started laughing, and I asked what was so funny. She said, ‘You think that living with your father so many years, I didn’t know what he was doing every Thursday morning? But he wanted to keep it a secret, so I let him.’” His mother gave him the money, and he was able to continue the tradition for a little while longer.
The Jews of Sárospatak were deported in 1944. Mr. Friedman doesn’t often talk of the events of the following year. “We went to the ghetto for a week or two,” he said. The truth of what was happening to European Jewry dawned on him slowly then. “Everybody found out the same way. You could smell it in Auschwitz.” Sent to Auschwitz, Mr. Friedman was assigned to a section next to a small area where Jewish men, women and children lived in almost normal conditions. “They had normal clothes, and the children played with toys,” Mr. Friedman recalls. He later found out that this was an area set up for the Red Cross, to show humanitarian observers that all was well in Auschwitz so that they could reassure the world that Jews there were treated well.
From Auschwitz he was sent to be a slave laborer in Dachau. “I worked at the BMW factory,” Mr. Friedman recalled. “At that time they made airplane engines. I worked on huge bomb shelters (for the factory workers), because the Americans were bombing them day and night. When we saw an American plane we would sometimes jump up and down, asking them to bomb us and put us out of our misery.” His characteristic humor emerging, Mr. Friedman’s voice took on a wry tone. “One day I had a little pleasure, if you can call it that. I was sent to Munich. It was really ruined then, late in the war. A police officer said, ‘Hook up a hose to the fire hydrant,’ and people lined up with bottles.” Mr. Friedman’s job was to hold the spigot, but it was the middle of winter and bitterly cold
“My hand was shaking, so I spilled the water on the Germans, so I made for them a little problem,” he said with a bitter laugh.
After the war, and his experiences fighting for Israel, Mr. Friedman met his wife, Lilly, in the early 1950s. He saw her on a street corner of the Israeli city of Netanya, and she was so beautiful, he explained, that he had to find out who she was. I found myself nodding in agreement. Even in old age, when I knew her, Lilly was lovely, with beautiful sparkly blue eyes. My reverie about Lilly was broken as Mr. Friedman continued to tell me about Lilly’s horrific experiences in the Holocaust. I had not realized that she had a twin. She and her sister became subjects of Mengele’s gruesome twin experiments. The sisters survived, but the rest of their large family was wiped out. Lilly lived in London after the war, and told Mr. Friedman that she had to go back home. “I said that we would get married first,” he recalled, and they did.
Eventually settling in Chicago, Mr. Friedman and Lilly lived frugally. They both worked hard, and seldom recalled their early lives or wartime experiences. They never told people that through the decades they were quietly setting aside funds to one day honor their families and memorialize those they had lost.
Finally, on December 21, 2014, Mr. Friedman’s dream came true. The Torah he had commissioned was ready, and on a cold, brisk day, dozens of friends joined him as he led the Torah to its new home. His beloved wife didn’t live to see this day, but Mr. Friedman made sure that her memory was honored by the new scroll, too. Dedicated to his parents, Mendel and Raizy, and to his wife, Lilly, Mr. Friedman’s Holocaust Torah was his answer to all that was taken from him. “I didn’t want to pay for a plaque or a stone, something that people never look at or use,” he explained. For years, he had considered ways to best remember his loved ones. A Torah scroll is used each week, he said. It seemed a warmer, more fitting way to remember them.
Mr. Friedman insisted on carrying the scroll himself, up the synagogue driveway and into the building. A normally wry, taciturn man, he delivered a brief address to the congregation. But as he placed the Torah in its cabinet, he wept. At long last, his beloved parents, his beloved wife, were coming home.
Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat