By Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman
My mother, Felicia Friedman, of blessed memory, was all of 13 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. She was immediately assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory outside of Krakow, her birthplace. Many other teenagers and young adults endured long hours, hard work, and scant nutrition in that factory. Consequently, many of her peers began to complain and rile against Hashem for allowing them to be persecuted.
My mother took a contrary view; she expressed her abiding belief in Hashem, saying that Hashem is good, but it is man who chooses to be the perpetrator of evil. A young man who overheard this perspective decided on the spot that if he survived the war, he wanted to marry this amazing young girl.
She endured the brutality of the infamous Plaszow Death Camp. She witnessed firsthand the wanton execution of a six-year-old girl who was picking a flower. That girl was her first cousin. Shortly thereafter, she was shipped to another concentration camp and ended up in Auschwitz in 1944. While there, she had many brushes with death. On one occasion, her barracks was picked to be sent to the gas chamber.
Jews who entered never came out. The diabolical Nazis would drop poison gas, Zyklon B (a rat poison) from above, effectively choking the Jews who were trapped in the gas chamber, asphyxiating them and forcing them to die of respiratory failure, unable to say goodbye to family, all alone. This time, my mother’s imminent death was forestalled because of some technical failure and she was sent back to her barracks.
As the Soviets approached sections of Poland in 1945, word of liberation began to circulate in Auschwitz. Hope was finally on the horizon. However, in January 1945, my mother, along with 60,000 other Jews, was sent on a death march towards Germany to keep the Jews from liberation. During these death marches, my mother and thousands of others were forced to trudge in the freezing, snowy cold of Poland, marching up to 30 miles a day. No food, no coats, just Nazi guards and dogs, trained to pounce and maul any Jew who sat down to rest or happened to stumble in the snow. Her next stop was Ravensbruck, a notorious torture and death camp designed specifically for Jewish women who were subjected to horrific conditions and incessant beatings by Nazi guards. A Jewish girl bearing a German-sounding surname was cause enough to be humiliated and beaten.
Finally, liberation came in May 1945 from her next stop, Neustadt-Glewe. Attempting to return to her hometown afterward, she heard some comforting news. Her husband-to-be was alive in Theresienstadt, albeit suffering from typhus. She walked and hitchhiked to Czechoslovakia searching for the young man who had admired her words in Plaszow.
The couple decided to get married and move soon after to the United States. Thankfully, my parents enjoyed a wonderful life with their children, 20+ grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. After my father’s passing in 2015 and after much research and family consultation, we concluded that a rehabilitation center would be the most fitting option for my mom, who was relatively healthy but needed assistance eating. Our mother, like others, refused to be a burden and join us in our home.
She lived there comfortably until a couple weeks ago, when the ill-fated directive from New York State instructed state-funded nursing homes to take COVID patients. My mother and many other residents of nursing homes fell ill to this deadly disease. The poorly thought-out decision to intermingle our nation’s most vulnerable population with one of the most contagious and deadliest diseases was a recipe for contagion and suffering. Having contracted the deadly virus just a few days later, she found herself battling with a “hidden enemy” in the fight of her life. Sadly, her good fortune ran out and she passed away from COVID pneumonia, taking her last breath with no family by her side.