In 1943, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazis were well into his “final solution” for exterminating the Jews in the many European countries his armies occupied, three Jews — Margot Friedlander, her mother and brother — hatched a plan to escape from their home in Berlin.
Just hours before they planned to leave, the Gestapo picked up Margo’s brother. Her mother, distraught and concerned about her son, went to Gestapo headquarters and was never seen again. Margo, then 21, who learned all this from a neighbor, began a new life in hiding.
It was also the beginning of her horrific Holocaust tale that Friedlander, now 92, shared Friday with students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.
“Talking to students and telling them what happened helps me because I talk for the people who can’t talk anymore,” Friedlander said. “Not only for the 6 million Jews, but for the many others who were not Jews and were killed.”
Friedlander read to the students from her book, “Try to Make Your Life,” the story of her survival from Jan. 25, 1943, the day her family was separated, never to be reunited, to May 8, 1945, when she was liberated from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
The title came from the message her neighbor gave her from her mother — just five short words of advice that she has remembered for more than 70 years.
As the students listened attentively, Friedlander read to them about her 15 months in hiding in Berlin, moving from safe house to safe house and learning not to ask questions or share information. She also knew when to disappear, once jumping from a balcony to the ground below when she believed “visitors” to the safe house were Gestapo agents. It was a jump that saved her life, she said, because another person at the home was taken away.
Hiding was difficult for her, Friedlander said, and she had 16 helpers in 15 months.
Finally, one day she was stopped and asked for her papers, which she did not have.
“I am Jewish,” she said.
Though that statement led to her internment in a concentration camp, she was relieved, she said.
“I felt reunited with my family and lost the sense of isolation,” she said.
The concentration camp was neither life nor death.
“People were emptied out, they longed for empathy,” she said. “I was determined to survive but life after liberation was unimaginable.”
Friedlander immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 and lived in New York until 2008. She now lives, again, in Berlin.
She started her book as a memoir after her husband, also a Holocaust survivor, died in 1997 and she published it in German in 2008. The English translation was published this year.
“My brother was 17. What would he have become? He didn’t have the chance you have,” she told the Churchill students. “Don’t throw it away.”
When she finished speaking many students spoke to Friedlander.
Jacob Glassman, 15, a ninth-grader, thanked her for sharing her story.
“I thought it was very important [for] Mrs. Friedlander to share her experiences and help students understand and be aware of the incomprehensible,” he said.
Eugenia Cardinale, 14, another ninth-grader, said listening to the talk was very emotional.
“I knew about the Holocaust, but never heard anything from the perspective of a survivor,” she said.
Friedlander’s book is available in English at friedlanderbook.com.