By Carl Zebrowski
“It’s up to us to make sure their memory never dies,” Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, told those gathered at the JCC for the Yom Hashoah commemoration on April 17.
Local students had just finished their reading of Holocaust victims’ names had begun an hour earlier. Then the focus of this night when the Jewish community remembered the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis became especially personal as Fay Kun stepped to the podium.
Kun was there to tell “Frieda’s Story: Life, Love and Survival,” about her mother’s experience as a teenage survivor of the concentration camps. The highlight was a 1987 video of her late mother, at age 59, discussing her experience. Fay had possessed the video for some time, but had not been able to bring herself to watch it until recently.
“My mother felt the need to talk about her past daily,” said Fay, who over the years since her mother’s death in 2011 has visited local schools to educate students about the Holocaust. “I didn’t always have the patience to listen to her talk about this part of her life.”
In the video, Frieda recalls her family living in her native Palana, Czechoslovakia. She, her parents, and two older sisters and brother were friendly with their non-Jewish neighbors. At Christmastime, they’d visit houses visit to sing carols. The neighbors enjoyed the visits and thought they brought good luck.
But in 1938 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and began to take over and occupy the country. Things got progressively worse for the Czech Jews. Kids were not schooled, workers lost jobs, food was withheld. Jews were eventually made to wear yellow stars so they could instantly be identified. Finally, on the last day of Passover 1944, Nazis rounded them up and led them from their homes, with minimal belongings packed. How many did they take? “All the Jews,” Frieda says. “We were just hoping the young ones would work, and the old ones would go to a camp.”
The longest year
Troops marched the Jews, including Frieda and her family, away to load onto trains. “Their once-friendly neighbors lined up to watch them being taken out and yelled, “Go home, Jews!” Fay said.
The train reached its destination at Munkacs, Hungary, a ghetto set up near the border to concentrate the Jewish population and steal belongings. There were no lights at night in the ghetto, Fay said. “Each family would receive one pail of food a day.”
Frieda and her family remained in the ghetto just over a month. Then it was back to the trains — to head to Auschwitz in Poland. Jews were crammed into railcars, more of them than would seem to fit. “The entire cattle car was given one pail for bathroom purposes,” Fay said.
“As soon as they disembarked the train,” Fay continued, “everything happened so fast.” One group was sent left, the other right. Families were separated. Frieda’s mother lost track of Frieda and in her confusion got hustled along with the older adults and young children, even though she was visibly in between. “She went in the line that they shaved her head and stripped her clothing,” Fay said, “and she was told she was on the way to the showers to get cleaned up.”
They were not showers. They were gas chambers. The Nazis gassed Frieda’s mom and the rest of the Jews in her line.
The Jews in the other line were tattooed with ID numbers. “If you got a number it meant you were strong enough to work for the Nazis, and you were spared,” Fay said, “for at least a while.” Then they were sent to be showered. “We realized it could be gas,” Frieda says. “But it wasn’t, for us.”
Frieda’s camp job was to sort through piles of clothing that was stripped off the incoming Jews and recover anything in them. She would hide lipstick and other such supplies to give to fellow prisoners to use. “If they could use a little bit of makeup to brighten up their faces,” Fay said, “they could look healthy.”
Frieda finally ended up in the Mauthausen camp in Austria. Even though the war was ending by then, she experienced even more horrors.
On May 5, 1945, the Allies arrived. “I remember seeing tanks,” Frieda says, “and I didn’t know what a tank was.” Soldiers passed by too, and they promised to hand out food.
Frieda soon found her sisters. “It was an amazing reunion,” Fay said, “and they were hardly ever separated after that day.” They found out their brother was also alive.
Their father was not so lucky. He’d fallen ill three weeks before the liberation, and the Nazis sent him to the hospital. He was kept for treatment. Worse then came to worst for the inpatients. “The day before liberation,” Fay said, “the Germans gassed everyone.”
Within a few years, the three sisters and brother had all immigrated to the United States and were settled in Brooklyn. From then on the sisters lived next door to one another. Their brother lived nearby. “My father always said, ‘Stay together, help one another,’” Frieda says.
After Fay finished telling the audience her mother’s story, rabbis from the Lehigh Valley community came forward to lead the assembly in prayers. Third-generation Holocaust survivors lit candles in memory of the Nazis’ victims.
“I would love the world to be in peace, and nobody would hate nobody,” Frieda says at the end of the video. “That’s how my father raised us.”