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Holocaust survivor shares his story

April 11, 2008

Holocaust survivor shares his story

Holocaust survivor Henry Friedman recounted his experience under the unspeakable horror of Nazism and stressed the importance of sharing survival stories at the 12th annual Raphael Lemkin Essay Awards Banquet.

The banquet also featured the work of student essayists, who submitted papers on topics related to genocide. The winners, senior Ethan Jennings and junior Kristen McCabe, were recognized during the banquet program.

“I’m not a scholar or a historian,” Friedman began. “I am an eyewitness to history that no human eyes should have to see.”

He took the audience back 69 years to 1939, when the Russians bombed his hometown of Brody, Poland. He was 11 years old. The Nazis invaded in 1941 and quickly deprived Jews of their basic rights.

When the ghetto formed in 1942, the Friedmans went into hiding in a nearby village with two different Ukrainian families. Friedman, his mother, younger brother and their female teacher stayed in a barn. The tiny space only had room enough for the four to sit or lay down.

The family remained in hiding for 18 months, freezing from the cold and slowly starving as food became scarce. His mother was pregnant when the family went into hiding, and as the weeks stretched to months, the four living in the barn had to decide what to do with the baby.

“We were infested with lice and fleas, and living hour by hour in fear,” Friedman said. “When the time came to vote, I could only think that I didn’t want to die, I wanted to live.”

Ultimately, it was decided to kill the baby, a girl, after she was born. Today, at nearly 80 years old, Friedman is still haunted by that decision.

“I tell you this so you can understand how inhumane those times were,” he told the audience. “The worst part is I have to take that guilt to my grave.”

The Russians liberated the family in March 1944. They returned to Brody in July 1944 to find the once bustling community of 15,000 Jews reduced to less than 100. His family was the only one to survive intact.

He came to Seattle in 1949, served in the U.S. Army, married and had three children. He continually struggled with the question: why did I survive?

When asked to be a member of the Special Advisory Council of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors to help establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., he wasn’t sure he should participate. He quickly changed his mind after reading an article in the Washington Post denying the Holocaust ever happened.

“It got me very angry,” he said. “My survival finally had a purpose.”

Since then, Friedman has continued to share his stories and those of his fellow survivors. He is founder and chairman of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, and the author of the memoir, “I’m No Hero: Journeys of a Holocaust Survivor.”

“We must not allow the memory of what happened to six million Jews disappear,” he said. “As a survivor, I desire and long to forget what our lives were like during the Holocaust, yet I must resist forgetting.”

The annual banquet honors Raphael Lemkin, an author, international lawyer and Polish Jew who coined the term “genocide” in 1943. He derived the term from the Greek “genos” meaning race or clan and the Latin “cide” meaning killing. In 1948, he persuaded the United Nations to adopt the Genocide Convention, which outlaws the destruction of races and groups.

Students submit essays on genocide that reflect Lemkin’s ideals and concerns. Eleven students submitted essays this year and a panel of faculty members judged the essays. The winning essayists were recognized at the banquet.

First place and $750 prize was awarded to Jennings for his essay, “Der Giftpilz: Nazi Propaganda for Children.” McCabe received second place and a $250 prize for her essay, “‘Blunder’ or ‘Policy of Extermination’? Intent, Effects and Genocide in the Second Anglo-Boer War.”

The essay competition is made possible by alumnus and Board of Regents member Don Morken ’60 and his colleague, Bruce Littman. To learn more about the competition, visit the history department’s Web site.