Henry Friedman, 91, a Holocaust survivor, talks with Creekland Middle students about his life story on Monday. The eighth-graders are studying “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank and learning about World War II. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
LAWRENCEVILLE — Henry Friedman suffered unspeakable beatings and abuse, and once hid during World War II by wearing charcoal, only to return home to find his family had perished at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Yet he brought a message of acceptance and love to about 150 eighth-graders at Creekland Middle on Monday morning. Friedman, 91, is a Holocaust survivor who eventually escaped to Italy for three years, and later to Atlanta in 1950.
Friedman, who was born in Oradea Mare in Romania, later called Nagyvarad, told students how he was rounded up to work in a factory to pour molten lead, and was beaten by guards during work. That was after his father, an insurance broker, was taken to forced labor. His brother and sister’s husband were also taken to forced labor.
“I hugged them and kissed them,” he said, “not knowing that I would ever see them again.”
After the factory work, Friedman distributed food to German soldiers and suffered a leg injury by shrapnel from a shell fired by Allied forces.
He escaped, along with three other Jews, in a wagon with four German corpses being driven to a cemetary. The Jews were put in front of a firing squad because they weren’t useful as workers anymore. Unable to breathe, Friedman said he woke up early in the morning as two of the Jews’ bodies, though bleeding, kept him from freezing.
He learned what happened to his family by a postcard his sister sent from Auschwitz. But he’s not sure if his brother died of a gunshot wound or typhus.
After it all, he credited a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, with helping him escape, and with saving the lives of nearly 30,000 Jews.
“I think it’s amazing he survived something so terrible,” eighth-grader Catie Hester said.
Once Friedman made it to Atlanta, he worked as a buyer for two food distributors before retirement.
Creekland language arts teacher Lisa Joiner has become friends with Friedman since they met eight years ago after she called the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum looking for a speaker. Joiner and several other teachers brought their students to the media center to hear Friedman’s message.
“We’re hoping that they understand history, so we’re not doomed to repeat it,” Joiner said. “There are people who have been through horrific tragedies and don’t hate. They have acceptance and love, and that’s Henry’s message. He’s such a nice, kind, giving person. There’s no hate in him.”
Friedman told the students that he doesn’t hate all Germans because of what happened to his family and others.
Several students related Friedman’s message to the anti-bullying message they hear often.
“It’s pretty much the same thing as what the Germans did to the Jews,” eighth-grader Camron Ratliff said. “I really think he’s blessed because it’s amazing how he got through all that stuff.”
Reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, learning vocabulary and watching videos to learn accents helped students like eighth-grader Charlie Hale understand Friedman.
“It was a sad story,” Hale said. “I give him credit to survive all that and still not hate the Germans. It takes a big heart to be able to do that. It was just an amazing story.”