Ques­tions I Am Asked About the Holocaust

Hédi Fried; Alice E. Ols­son, trans.

  • Review
By – July 21, 2020

With so many Holo­caust accounts and memiors in print, one is often skep­ti­cal that an author can approach the sub­ject in a new way. How­ev­er, in her infor­ma­tive new book, Ques­tions I Am Asked About the Holo­caust, sur­vivor and mem­oirist Hédi Fried does just that.

For decades Fried has been trav­el­ing around Swe­den to meet with chil­dren and speak to them about her expe­ri­ence as a young per­son grow­ing up in Sighet, Roma­nia and lat­er as a pris­on­er in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Her book is split into dozens of short chap­ters framed by ques­tions; it reads like a tran­script of a Q&A ses­sion after one of her lec­tures. The ques­tions are diverse, rang­ing in sub­ject from what she ate in capi­tiv­i­ty, to why she didn’t fight back, to whether she still believes in God post-Holocaust.

Fried has writ­ten a best­selling mem­oir, Frag­ments of a Life: The Road to Auschwitz, but her lat­est book is more than just a sto­ry of sur­vival. Ques­tions I Am Asked About the Holo­caust defies genre. True, it is a deeply per­son­al account of her past, told in sim­ple, straight­for­ward lan­guage that most pre­teens can under­stand. How­ev­er, since children’s ques­tions are at once par­tic­u­lar­ly con­crete and high­ly asso­cia­tive, Fried is forced to tack­le top­ics that one doesn’t often find in Holo­caust mem­oirs. Who but a child would have the chutz­pah to ask whether Fried had her peri­od in the camp, whether she was afraid to die, or what it feels like to grow old? And who but a child would have the imag­i­na­tion to ques­tion if she still hates Ger­mans, or to won­der, enig­mat­i­cal­ly, what was the best” part of her expe­ri­ence in Auschwitz?

Since the book is intend­ed for younger read­ers, Fried is free to be didac­tic. Every­thing is a les­son. Some­times this is overt, such as in a chap­ter titled What Can We Learn from the Holo­caust?”. At oth­er times her approach is more sub­tle, framed in the con­text of anoth­er sto­ry. She describes an SS doc­tor who iden­ti­fied with a young Jew­ish pris­on­er who had stud­ied med­i­cine, and ulti­mate­ly saved her life. In an aside that one can eas­i­ly imag­ine being giv­en in a class­room, Fried writes, The same per­son who felt no pangs of con­science when send­ing some­one to their death saved another’s life. We some­times meet this same duplic­i­ty in the rest of society.”

Because the book is struc­tured around ques­tions, Fried had the dif­fi­cult job of order­ing those ques­tions in such a way that a lin­ear read­ing of the book would tell her sto­ry. At the same time, she tasked her­self with answer­ing each ques­tion ful­ly, which eas­i­ly could have meant address­ing mate­r­i­al that over­lapped with pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sions. But Fried accom­plish­es both of her objec­tives with aplomb. One walks away from the book with a sense of not only what hap­pened to Fried, but also who she is. And with a few excep­tions, each chap­ter is unique; Fried ful­ly explores what­ev­er issue she laid out in her ques­tion while at the same time avoids hew­ing too close to top­ics dis­cussed in oth­er chap­ters. This allows the book to stand as an entire work of art or as a ped­a­gog­i­cal tool, from which teach­ers can select chap­ters to pair with oth­er material.

There is an urgency to Ques­tions I Am Asked About the Holo­caust. Since Fried is a nona­ge­nar­i­an, this book will be her lega­cy. She will soon be unable to speak to stu­dents, and thus her writ­ing will ensure she is still able to teach from beyond grave. Toward the end of her book, Fried explains that the rea­son she speaks to stu­dents is twofold. First, so that her par­ents, Fri­da Klein Szmuk and Ignatz Szmuk, will live on. Sec­ond, so that com­ing gen­er­a­tions shall take the lessons of the Holo­caust to heart, so that they will nev­er have to expere­ince any­thing like what I have been through.” There is lit­tle doubt that the book does both of those things. But it also accom­plish­es still more. Ques­tions I Am Asked About the Holo­caust is an invalu­able means of intro­duc­ing stu­dents to the com­plex­i­ties of the Holo­caust. And it will do for Fried what she seeks to do for her par­ents: to keep her mem­o­ry and name alive.

Edi­tor’s Note: Hedi Fried z“l passed away on Novem­ber 19 2022

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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