Berlin — By moving back to Berlin three years ago, Margot Friedlander, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, has become an unlikely celebrity in the land where she was once persecuted.
In 1946, when she immigrated to New York with her husband, they both vowed never to set foot again in Germany. Most members of both their families were murdered at Auschwitz.
But today, Friedlander said, young Germans tell her that what they get from being in her presence is different than what they would from any teacher or book. “Because my story is from my heart,” she said. “It’s my story. I speak for the people who can’t speak anymore.”
When Friedlander made the final decision to live in Berlin, her German-Jewish friends in New York tried to dissuade her. How could she return to a place whose inhabitants had murdered so many Jews and all their loved ones?
Friedlander was 21 when the Gestapo came for her family. She escaped and remained in hiding in Berlin for 13 months. While hidden, she dyed her black hair a brownish orange and wore a crucifix. She had to change hiding places frequently to avoid detection. The moves were often on streets darkened because of Allied air raids. She was never to ask the names of those who hid her, nor where they lived. Her protectors feared if the Nazis caught her, she would expose the underground network.
After emerging from a bomb shelter in April 1944, she was apprehended and questioned by the Gestapo. She admitted she was Jewish and was sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
It was in Theresienstadt that Friedlander met and married her husband. They were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony after the Russians liberated the camp. A short time later they came to New York and took up residence in Queens. Her husband became the comptroller at the 92nd Street Y, and she worked for a travel agency. The two never had children.
When Friedlander’s husband died in 1997, she tried to cope with this loss and find new meaning in life by taking classes at the Y. One of these was a memoir class.
“I wrote every night,” she recalled during an interview in her apartment in a high-end Berlin senior residence. Geraniums adorned the apartment’s balcony. Below the apartment complex was a kindergarten, a tableau of hope for the future. “I had all these stories in my head. Everything started coming back to me, many things that I pushed aside for years.”