Felicia Friedman survived the Nazis. She survived the Red Army, dodging her way across Eastern Europe after World War II. She survived immigration and a new life in America. The only thing she didn’t survive was a Long Island nursing home infected with Covid-19. She died on May 19, 2020, at 94.
Born Felicia Deutscher, a Jewish girl in Poland, she was 13 when the Germans invaded in 1939. From the ghetto in Kraków to the Płaszów labor camp, from Auschwitz to a death march west to Neustadt-Glewe, she would spend the next 5½ years caught up in the Holocaust. She saw her 6-year-old cousin shot for picking a flower. She was beaten repeatedly for the offense of being a Jew with a German-sounding surname. She was chased by military dogs and hounded by SS guards. She watched a friend executed for humming a Russian tune.
Along the way, she saw thousands put to death or succumb to frostbite and starvation. Somehow, through it all, she kept her faith intact. After hearing a fellow teenager claim that their horrific situation proved God did not exist, she answered that the oppression of the Jews proved God’s reality, for all that was happening to them came from evil people. A young man named Elias Friedman overheard her and vowed to marry her—if they survived.
Felicia was a tiny woman, only 5 foot 2 as an adult, but she was always quick on her feet. Ambitious, too. Decades later she would boast of having been valedictorian of her grade school. Perhaps her overarching characteristic, though, was her ferocity. As a teenager, she was the family breadwinner, allowed out of the ghetto (with an armband) to sell her knitting and sewing. Told a beating would stop if she begged, she refused. Marched through the snow, she wouldn’t lie down and die.
When the Nazis emptied Kraków’s ghetto in the spring of 1943, she was separated from her family and sent to the Płaszów camp, where she worked on Bakelite radios and munitions for the German military. The notorious commandant, Amon Göth, “would beat people mercilessly,” she would remember. One guard “had this huge German dog, and the dog really didn’t like noise,” so he would set the dog on any who bothered him. “I survived,” she liked to say. “He didn’t.”