Courage and Resilience: Inspiration from a Holocaust survivor
Holocaust survivor Morris Freschman allowed me a freedom I have never before experienced, and he inspired me to design Courage and Resilience, a project that began as a poster commemorating Morris and all Holocaust survivors, liberators, and righteous gentiles.
“You cannot keep a grudge; you cannot have hate because it destroys people. You have to forgive people or it will destroy you.” – Morris Freschman, Holocaust Survivor
Anyone who’s shopped the New Castle Farmers Market in Delaware may recall Freschies Deli, where Morris Freschman sold delicious fresh food for many years. He warmly greeted his customers with a twinkle in his eye and an infectious smile. Behind those sparkling eyes, Morris carries the memories of losing most of his family to murder, and suffering four horrific years of his youth in the concentration camps of Blechhammer (a satellite camp of Auschwitz), Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. Underneath the sleeve of his crisply ironed shirt, the number 177060 is emblazoned on his arm, tattooing more than just his survival, but his courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable suffering.
Morris was born in Sarnov, Poland on May 3, 1929 to David and Ida Freschman. David and Ida, along with all but one of Morris’ eight siblings, would perish along with millions in the Holocaust. Somehow, through a series of miracles, Morris survived. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Morris was able to speak publicly about his Holocaust experience, when he was interviewed by documentary producer Steve Gonser. In April 2016, I had the honor of meeting Morris and five other Holocaust survivors at the home of my parents’ friends, Roger and Danna Levy, where more than 60 people gathered to hear the stories of survivors, liberators and righteous gentiles through an excerpted screening of the documentary “No Denying: Delawareans Bear Witness to the Holocaust,” by filmmaker by Steve Gonzer on behalf of the Halina Wind Preston Holocaust Education Center.
Once the film snippets concluded, and with hesitation and heavy sighs, Morris stood among the crowd and spoke of his own times of courage and resistance. He shared five miracles that kept him alive during the Holocaust:
- Miracle 1: The first miracle happened when Morris was ten years old and was forced along with his family to live in the Polish ghetto. Morris was working to smuggle food to his cousin’s store, and was hiding two packages of eggs in his shirt when a Gestapo policeman stopped him. When asked what he was carrying in his shirt, Morris replied “potatoes.” The policeman “smacked against my shirt and broke all the eggs.” A moment of terror. Morris bravely told the officer that if he would release him, Morris would have his cousin pay, but instead the officer took him to the police station. Morris knew that he would be executed on sight at the police station, as smuggling bore a death sentence. Just as they arrived at the station’s door, the Gestapo policeman kicked Morris hard and said he would come that night for the money, and released Morris.
- Miracle 2: At age 12, Morris was taken by cattle car to Blechhammer. One of the Jewish overseers recognized Morris’ face and spared him by moving him to the line of those destined for labor camp, rather than being immediately killed. “Every day, you saw death. Everywhere you turned,” he said. “As a skinny 12 year-old kid torn from my family, I spent the rest of my days praying to live another hour or day. All of my energy was spent looking behind my back and trying not to become obvious to the guards, who would not hesitate to shoot you or send you to the gas chambers.”
- Miracle 3: In June of 1944, Morris was an inmate working at a chemical plant. As allies bombed the plant Morris and 14 other boys tried to run to a bunker. The 14 other boys sneaked past the Germans who had at first forced them away, but Morris went into a sewer filled with human waste. Bombs killed all of the people in the bunker, but Morris survived.
- Miracle 4: Somehow, Morris avoided being killed at Buchenwald during his four months there, where 85,000 people were murdered. That’s nearly the entire population of the city Wilmington, Delaware. All murdered at a single concentration camp between January and April of 1945. “They couldn’t burn the bodies fast enough,” Morris remembered. An African American Unit of the United States Army liberated Buchenwald on April 12, 1945 – the same day that President Roosevelt died. “The first American I ever saw – and I will never forget it – he was a 6-foot-4 black man. The joy when we were liberated, you cannot imagine.” Morris had spoken English, German and Polish, so the American liberators asked him to join them as an interpreter. After all he’d been through, Morris gladly enlisted and served a year in a Medical Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit with the United State Army.
- “As for the other miracle? What are you ladies doing tonight?” Morris asked, and the room erupted with laughter.
How Morris Impacted Me
Amazingly, at 87 years old and with all he suffered among the worst of human atrocities, Morris carries his sparkly spirit to this day. “So, how does a person who has been through so much, have still so much to give?” I asked myself, sensing that it was time for me to change.
My prior exposure to World War II history was academic – focusing on the suffering and the numbers of the masses. Rarely did I connect to the individual lives of those impacted. I’d read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” several times in high school and college, but somehow maintained a scholarly distance from any emotional impact. I simply could not fathom that such things could happen to people – my people. Instead, I distanced myself from a part of my own being. My Jewishness.
This April, for the first time in my life, thanks to Morris, I decided to own a part of myself that until now I had hidden. That day of Holocaust remembrance opened a channel of courage for me.
As a child of a mixed religion marriage, I’d clung to my mother’s Christianity both out of familiarity, and because my father was not religious and rarely spoke of his Jewish heritage. When I asked, he always seemed sad and said that his family never spoke of being Jewish and that they actively tried to “fit in” within the Brooklyn community where they lived during World War II and beyond. I internalized shame and fear associated with my Jewish side. Stories of Jews being persecuted in the Bible, coupled with witnessing anti-Semitism in my early schooling, made me fearful of acknowledging my Jewish heritage. I recognized my avoidance as a form of cowardice, but rationalized it as being a product of the society in which I live.
Shame. Fear. Sadness. Disbelief. Anger…Emotions I was avoiding. Hearing Morris speak of these same emotions as part of his Holocaust experience, I connected the freedoms I enjoy today as an American citizen with the Courage and Resilience shown by Morris and so many others like him, who refused to be silenced even in the face of death. In that moment of insight and realizing how small my fears are compared to what Morris had suffered, I made a pledge to learn about and embrace my own family’s Jewish history. Writing this article is part of that pledge, however small or inconsequential it may seem.
I now have begun to research my Jewish heritage, thanks in part to Morris’ courage, and to the resilience of those who survived, those who liberated, and those who righteously stood up for Holocaust victims’ survival, dignity and honor.
I hope you enjoy this poster, and thank you for taking time to read my story.
Susan E. Hendrich
- Personal interview with Morris Freschman, April 3, 2016.