Slovakian-born Holocaust survivor Fred Friedman, who has lived in the same corner house in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens for 46 years, will turn 90 on Monday, a few days before Yom HaShoah. And if this landmark birthday is like past ones, the mazel tov calls Friedman receives will include a special group of well-wishers: fellow survivors who were saved by Friedman from the Nazi genocide.
Friedman, a retired plastics manufacturer, spent the final years of World War II living in Budapest with false papers, in German, which identified him as Nagy Istvan, a non-Jew. And with other false papers that identified him as a member of the Gestapo.
During the war, he traveled by train around Hungary, which was an Axis supporter of Germany during most of WWII, to rescue endangered Jewish children and adults. To look the part of a member of the Nazi secret police, he wore a Gestapo-type leather jacket, the type of green Tyrolean hat with a small feather stuck in the band favored by Gestapo officers, and sometimes a Hungarian-style swastika. He carried a German pistol, but never had to use it.
Friedman’s story mirrors that of Salomon Perel, the German Jew who successfully posed during the war as a member of the Hitler Youth and was portrayed in the 1990 German-language film “Europa Europa.” While Perel managed to save his own life, Friedman risked his own life to save others’.
Raised in a traditional Jewish home in Presov, central Slovakia, and educated at a yeshiva, Friedman (original name, Ferdinand), made himself think as a non-Jew while living incognito in Budapest. “During the war I was a gentile – I was a gentile through and through.”
After the war, while working in Budapest as a translator for the predecessor of the KGB, he continued to bring to safety Jews who faced deportation to forced labor in Russia.
Friedman says he lost count of how many people he saved. “Maybe it’s 60, 70.”
About to enter his 10th decade, he’s in good health, despite a glass eye, two replacement knees and two recent concussions.
Some of his old friends know what he did during after the war, but he is reluctant to discuss it; he has turned down frequent requests to be honored by Jewish organizations.
Why did he agree to speak to The Jewish Week?
“My wife forced me,” he says — as a legacy for his children.
At weddings and other simchas, Friedman’s wife, Ruth, hears stories about his heroics from strangers, people who recognize him, people he saved. Sometimes their children approach her. “People come up to me and ask, ‘Do you know what your husband did for me, for my mother, for my sister? These stories will go on and on.’”
In the Friedman’s house, which is lined with Jewish art and Jewish books, are a few plaques that Friedman accepted at low-key events.
“I don’t want to get paid by human beings if I did something” in this world, he says; in the next world, God will judge.
“He’s a very humble person. He’s an extraordinary human being,” says Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff, spiritual leader of the Kew Gardens Synagogue-Adath Yeshurun, Friedman’s congregation. “He risked his life on more than one occasion.”
Friedman, in his early 20s at the end of the war, embarked upon his rescue missions a few years earlier because he could not say no to a mother.
In 1942, when the deportations of Slovakia’s Jews to Nazi death camps were underway, he smuggled himself over the border, eventually reaching relative safety in Hungary, after beating up a ruffian in his hometown who had threatened him; he later sneaked back to surreptitiously recover a stash of jewels and dollars his father had hidden in the family’s home, funds that supported Friedman when he lived in a rented apartment in Budapest.
With contacts in the underground, he obtained the realistic-looking false documents — the I.D. papers to establish his Aryan identity; the Gestapo papers in case he needed to travel around the country to help other Jews. “I knew I would need them.”
In June of 1944, as the Nazi roundups of Jews in the rural parts of Hungary were escalating, Friedman visited a young Jewish mother who was recuperating in Budapest from recent surgery. The mother, who lived in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-biggest city, 120 miles from the capital, told Friedman her two young daughters back in Debrecen faced imminent deportation, to their likely deaths.
He offered to help.
Friedman took the train to Debrecen and located the woman’s daughters. Traveling in the train’s third-class section, the least-conspicuous section, he delivered them — and a dozen other children and three mothers, who had begged him to help — to safe farms outside of Budapest.
“All survived” the war, Friedman says.
Along the way that day, at one train station, he aroused the suspicion of a Hungarian gendarme; the group with Friedman appeared to be Jewish. Friedman showed the police officer his Gestapo I.D. “He got white.” No one who valued his life challenged the Nazi secret police. Friedman’s group left the train station intact.
Later, Friedman made other trips to other cities, again rescuing children who faced deportation. Sometimes, he “saved people off the street,” in Budapest, he says. Each time, he relied on his false papers to fend off suspicion. Each time, he lived by his wits and ability to pose as someone he wasn’t.
“He’s a great actor,” says his wife.
Yes, Friedman says.
Why did he do it? Why did he succeed?
A man of faith, he shrugs, at a loss for words. It clearly makes him uncomfortable to cast himself as a hero or as a recipient of divine providence.
“He did what he thought needed to be done,” says Rabbi Sokoloff, who has known Friedman 15 years. “There’s an inner drive … to make a difference.” Then, in Europe, now in the States, “He wants to rebuild, to rebuild what was lost in the war,” the rabbi says.
Judith Lazar, who at age 3 was among the children he shepherded to safety from Debrecen in 1944, was too young to remember Friedman, but she grew up hearing about him from her mother and other Jews who knew him then. “[Her mother] was crazy about him, about how courageous he was.”
Lazar, a longtime Lubavitch emissary in Milan whose son is Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, says she’s heard a now-legendary story of how an innocent remark she made on the Hungarian train put the whole group under Friedman’s care in danger, and how his quick thinking saved the day.
She was a little girl and she blurted out, “I don’t have a Jewish star, but my mother does.”
The other passengers looked at the group with suspicion. Obviously, Jews. Was he? “If I were Jewish, I’d have to wear a star,” like the Jews, Friedman said to the children in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. Then, in the version of the story passed along to Lazar, putative Gestapo member Friedman added, “I’m taking these little [he used a crude Hungarian term for women, a word that normally would not pass his lips] to a place where they will kill these dirty Jews.”
The danger passed.
In Lazar’s family alone there are eight children (all of them Lubavitch emissaries) and more than 50 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. “We owe our lives to him,” Lazar says. “Who knows how many others” are alive because of Friedman?
Lazar says her children known Friedman’s story. “I told them what he did and how courageous he was.”
Friedman, who came to the United States in 1948, is an active member of Adath Yeshurun in Kew Gardens, usually walking the several blocks to shul for Shabbat services Saturday morning.
Often, he says, he will go back in the afternoon if someone in the congregation invites him to a Shabbat meal between Mincha and Maariv. “I cannot say no,” Friedman says.