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-Belson. 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.
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.