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'Learn from yesterday' -- Holocaust survivor shares story with students

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

NORCROSS -- Henry Friedman knows every day is a gift.

The 87-year-old wanted to impart that lesson on middle-schoolers this week, not just because of his longevity but because of the miracle it took for him to survive the Holocaust.

In two sessions Friday, Friedman spoke to about 250 eighth-graders at Summerour Middle School, bringing to life the lessons they learned reading "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"The subject is quite painful, but I felt there had to be a reason, why did I not perish with the millions of people (who died in concentration camps)," Friendman told the students. "For that reason, I'm volunteering to tell the story ... of what hatred and intolerance can do."

Friedman recounted his life as a Jew in Hungary during the 1940s, including taunts and abuse as he worked at a foundry, blocked access to air raid shelters, being ripped from his family, surviving shrapnel as he carried German soldiers from the frontlines, life in a Budapest ghetto and waking up in a cemetery after surviving a firing squad.

His life, he said, was spared after his grandmother arranged for an encounter with a rabbi the day Friedman left his family at age 21 to be drafted into a work camp.

"That blessing is with me even today," he said of the ritual passed along by the rabbi. "I was lucky. I was fortunate, but I don't believe it was me who led me to survive."

While Friedman called out some kids who snickered during his remarks, for the most part, the students listened intently, as they prepared to open a student-created Anne Frank Museum later in the day.

"He made me think he had a hard life, but he made it out of it," said Ta'Tianya Gardner, who said she was struck that Anne Frank was her age when she was taken to a concentration camp.

Teacher Rose Torres said the kids have responded to the Holocaust lessons.

"We're just trying to do more beyond the book," she said.

Friedman, who talks about his experiences through the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, said he never spoke to his family about his experiences during the Holocaust, until he read about time capsules found in a Warsaw ghetto, explaining the fear of Jews that no one would know how people and lived and died.

"It was very painful, like pulling a scab from an old wound," he told the students. "On the positive end, we can learn from yesterday. ... You've got the gift of today."