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Survivor Tova Friedman's new memoir reflects on life as 'The Daughter of Auschwitz'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tova Friedman's memoir helps us see the Holocaust not only as a monstrous crime of history, but puts us inside the life and eyes of a little girl living in a ghetto of central Poland who was sent to a Nazi labor camp and even a gas chamber and has somehow lived to tell her extraordinary story. She still has a number on her left forearm - A27633. Tova Friedman's book, "The Daughter Of Auschwitz: My Story Of Resilience, Survival And Hope," written with the veteran correspondent Malcolm Brabant - and Tova Friedman joins us from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

TOVA FRIEDMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You say in this book that you never saw a person with white hair until you survived the Holocaust and came to America after the war...

FRIEDMAN: Right.

SIMON: ...Because the Nazis didn't have much use for people with gray hair or children.

FRIEDMAN: Exactly. By the time you are 50, you are useless. Anybody who cannot work 10 or 12 or 15 hours a day and survive and eat very little, they were useless. That were two categories - the elderly and the children.

SIMON: I absolutely feel the need to remind people of details that'll be very hard to hear and horrific and maybe upsetting. And they should be. But it's the best way to understand your story. Even before you were sent to a labor camp, you were in the Jewish ghetto in a town in central Poland.

FRIEDMAN: Right.

SIMON: What was life there like?

FRIEDMAN: I remember from the age of 2 or 3 - in absolutely horrific circumstances, which I thought were normal because I knew nothing else. We lived in a ghetto with a lot of people in a very, very tight, small apartment. And it was so crowded that I remember being mostly under the table for two reasons: for space - I could eat there, I'd sleep there, I had blankets there - and for safety. Because if they would come in, they - the Nazi - they would immediately look for children and for the elderly. It was a safe place for me to be.

SIMON: You were eventually brought by a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

FRIEDMAN: Right.

SIMON: I have to ask you about life there. I have to ask you about death there. Dr. Mengele - Josef Mengele was at Auschwitz. I think it's fair to call him a human monster.

FRIEDMAN: That's true. But I don't know if I saw him because, you see, earlier in ghetto, my mother taught me not to have any eye contact. Because she thought that if you have an eye contact with any of the SS or the Gestapo, they will recognize you. They will know you. When I arrived to Auschwitz, I just remember the hands that were holding the straps of the gigantic German shepherds whose eyes I did see...

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...Because I was their height. So I did not see Mengele. If he was there, I certainly would not know. I never looked up to anybody.

SIMON: Ms. Friedman, let me ask you to tell us about the day you were - well, you were taken to Crematorium III.

FRIEDMAN: Yup. The barrack next to us was emptied - no children. It was freezing outside, utterly freezing. But we went outside, and I walked into the other barrack. It was - nobody was there, so the door was open. And I said, oh, they took this barrack. So I knew - we all knew our time was going to come; we just didn't know when. And then, when they called us for a special breakfast, I want you to know, all the children knew that we're going - you're going to the crematorium. But nobody cared that I know of. We just wanted to eat. And there's no way for me to describe the hunger or the cold.

So that morning, we got a very special breakfast - something sweet, something warm, something wet. It was like porridge, but it was the best meal I can remember ever in the war. And after we ate, we got dressed, and we walked. And as I'm walking to the crematorium, I hear a voice. It was calling me by my name. And I said, oh, that must be my mother, because there were women standing there.

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: And I remember her voice. Where are you going? I said, to the crematorium. And all the women were, like, so upset that they were screaming and crying. And I turned to the little girl next to me, and I said to her, why are they crying? Doesn't every Jewish child go to the crematorium? So we walked down. And then, we came, and we went down the steps. It was a very gigantic room. I think it was cement floor. We stood there for hours. We were freezing...

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...Utterly freezing. And after a number of hours of utter freezing, I heard screaming and yelling. And they told us, go back, get dressed. We got dressed, and we returned walking on the same path. And it was dark already. I heard my mother's voice. What happened? And I said, they couldn't do it this time. They'll do it next time.

SIMON: We should note that about 230,000 children entered the Auschwitz complex, and, save for you and perhaps a few others, almost all of them died, and quickly. When you got to America, a doctor, a well-meaning doctor...

FRIEDMAN: Very, yeah.

SIMON: ...Offered to remove that tattoo on your left forearm that says A27633. What did you tell him?

FRIEDMAN: No. You know what I said to him? The story from the Bible, Abel and Cain...

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...When one of them killed the other and God put a sign on his forehead that he's a murderer so the world should see. And I said, you know what? If the number would be on my forehead so the world could see what happened, I wouldn't take it off. I was only 12, but I said, I think people should know.

SIMON: There's a moment in this extraordinary memoir when you recollect that your father remembered seeing a rabbi at one point.

FRIEDMAN: Right.

SIMON: Well, the rabbi said, lord of the universe, how can you let this happen?

FRIEDMAN: He said, remember us. That was the cry for most people who went on the cattle car (ph). They knew they would be exterminated.

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: There was no question about it. And they wanted people to remember them. Remember us. Remember us. And that's what I'm doing. One of the reasons...

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: ...I wrote the book is to remember them.

SIMON: I have to ask you a terribly tough question. How could God permit this?

FRIEDMAN: I don't know. I don't know. You know, I don't know the different theories that God didn't do it, that man did it.

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: But I can never let him up so easily. I don't think so. We're coming up to the Jewish holidays.

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: And Yom Kippur is a time of atonement where I have to stand and say all the sins that I committed during the year. And I can't help thinking every year in my head, I say, God, forgive me for the sins I committed. Can I forgive you for the sins that you committed? I always feel like this. You know,

it's not Judaism, you know? It's not religious. But this comes up in my head.

SIMON: Tova Friedman's book, "The Daughter Of Auschwitz: My Story Of Resilience, Survival And Hope," written with Malcolm Brabant. Thank you so much for being with us.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you very, very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRL IN RED SONG, "IT WOULD FEEL LIKE THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.