German Jewish Holocaust survivor Margot Friedländer, who moved back to Berlin at the age of 88, celebrates her 100th birthday on Friday. Her late years of education and reconciliation are being honored this week.
Margot Friedländer says she has lived four different lives in her 100 years, but it was the moment when her first life became her second that marked her forever. That was when her early, mainly happy years in Berlin turned into 15 months of hiding in various houses in Berlin, evading the Nazi authorities as long as she could, and then another year of surviving the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
In her 2008 memoir, Friedländer recounts an incident on January 20, 1943, in the apartment of a couple she barely knew in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. She knew that her mother had recently been there.
The acquaintance told Friedländer — then 21-year-old Margot Bendheim — that her mother had left. She had gone to report herself to the authorities to join her son, Margot’s brother Ralph, who had been arrested that afternoon by the Gestapo. The woman then handed Margot her mother’s handbag containing her last connection with her family: An address book and an amber necklace. And there was a message, passed on verbally: “Try to make your life.”
“These words shaped my life,” Friedländer told DW this week at one of the events taking place in Berlin to mark her 100th birthday on Friday — this one the opening of an exhibition of portraits of her. “I feel that I have accomplished something, not just for my mother, not just for six million Jews, but for the many million people who were killed because they didn’t want to do what they were told to do.”
‘Try to make your life’
Though she was not to find out until decades later, Friedländer’s mother and brother were murdered in Auschwitz within weeks of that January day. Her father, who had fled to Belgium years before, had already been gassed, too.
Sixty-five years later, her mother’s hastily delivered final message became the title of Friedländer’s memoir, a book that began the work of remembrance and education that has taken up the last decade in Berlin, where she moved back for good in 2010.
It wasn’t an easy move to make, and there were many people who tried to dissuade her. Other Holocaust survivors she knew in New York, including her cousin Jean, objected to her visits to Germany. Her husband Adolf Friedländer, another Holocaust survivor who she had met in Theresienstadt and who died in 1997, had always rejected the occasional invitations that had arrived over the years from the Berlin government.
“I often ask myself if coming back here was the right thing to do,” Friedländer said in “A Long Way Home,” a 2010 documentary co-produced by DW. In the same film, Margot admitted to uncomfortable feelings around some Berliners: “I’m still very guarded about the people of my generation whom I meet here. They were the ones who cheered the Nazis back then. And did nothing to put a stop to what was going on. Everybody knew about it, and they looked away. Although I came back, it’s still something that affects me very deeply.”
For the next generation
But those doubts were answered in the work she undertook after the age of 87, when her memoirs were published, and she began to give readings around Germany, especially in schools. “They listen to me intently,” she says now of the students. “I have received — I don’t know — a thousand letters. I tell them: What happened can’t be changed, but this is for you. That became my mission.”
Friedländer’s journey in Berlin has been documented in a loose trilogy of documentaries made by Thomas Halaczinsky, a German filmmaker living in New York. The first of them, “Don’t Call It Heimweh,” became the occasion for her first visit to Berlin in 2003.
Halaczinsky said he was interested in the crisis Friedländer experienced when he first met her in the early 2000s. “I was seeing how the effects of German history, of fascism, of oppression, of the Holocaust, actually continue to exist in the lives of people like Margot, who were struggling to come to terms with their lives and their own identity,” he told DW.
Friedländer’s specific situation contained a peculiar conflict: She had spent 15 months in hiding in Berlin, being protected by non-Jewish Germans, while at the same time other Germans were murdering her family. “She was struggling with exactly that, and she was trying to find some way to figure out how she could balance that,” he said. “How does somebody at that age actually find the center point of herself?”
In the second of Halaczinsky’s films, “A Long Way Home,” Friedländer answers the question herself: “How can I possibly feel homesick for Germany, after the Germans killed my parents?” she says.
“To that, I’d have to reply: This is precisely why I’ve come here — I’ve come here to meet the young people who had nothing to do with it.”
A service for Germany
Those early struggles seem a long way away 18 years later. Friedländer has since been showered with state awards and honorary citizenships. Portraits have been painted, busts cast, her story told in exhibitions, films, books, and a graphic novel. The Schwarzkopf Foundation, set up to empower young people to engage in politics, founded an annual prize in her honor in 2014, the latest of which was presented by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Politicians have lined up to laud her, among them Berlin’s likely next mayor, Franziska Giffey, who was also at Tuesday’s exhibition opening. “I think she’s a model for all of us,” she told DW. “She goes to children and young people and people of all ages and shares her life. And this act of commemoration is very, very important for our political education today. To hear this voice, in her 100th year, is very important for all of us defending a free and open society.”
“She reaches out a hand of reconciliation,” said Schwarzkopf Foundation Chairman André Schmitz, who befriended Friedländer after welcoming her to Berlin as state culture secretary in 2003. “She makes it easy for us Germans: She’s charming, she’s joyful, she enjoys being heard — she doesn’t make accusations against us, but says: Watch out, this was possible once, and is always possible. That’s an invaluable service.”
The last of Halaczinsky’s films, which covers these last few years of her work, has recently been aired by public broadcaster ARD. It is entitled “Angekommen” (“Arrived”), and its very last scene catches Friedländer in an unusually uncertain moment.
“I don’t make many presumptions that very much will remain after I have died,” she says. “There are great people who have done something. But my contribution is after all, very, very small. Perhaps the generation now that hears me in schools will say something to their children. I have no idea how far that will go, because so many people keep saying we don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Pessimistic as this may sound, Halaczinsky sees the ending as a call to action, because soon we won’t be able to rely on Holocaust survivors for first-hand accounts of the real horrors of fascism.
“Even though her work is being acknowledged, this is not a work that can be finished. It’s a process, it continues,” Halaczinsky said. “Her doubts are a warning to all of us.”