Natur & Kultur, 2017.
Reviewed by B J Epstein in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Non-Fiction
Another possible title for Hédi Fried’s latest non-fiction book, Frågor jag fått om Förintelsen, could have been ‘Things You Always Wanted To Know About the Holocaust But Were Afraid To Ask’. In this short, powerful text, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Fried answers some of the most common questions put to her by secondary school students when she gives talks about her experiences during the Holocaust. She states quite clearly that there are no stupid questions and no forbidden ones, and she sees it as necessary to tell people as much as they want to know. She bears witness, and she bares everything, with the aim of helping the young – and their elders – to learn from the tragedy of World War II and to avoid genocide in the future.
Fried writes in a lucid, frank, easy-to-read style even when discussing painful subjects. The question that starts the book is ‘What was the worst thing you experienced?’ Her answer is simple: ‘The moment I was separated from my parents.’ She never saw her parents again, and she states how she never got to say goodbye, never got to hug them one last time. That honest reply, along with all the others in this work, cannot fail to touch readers and make them think.
The subjects in this book range from the deeply intimate (‘What was it like to have a period in the camp?’ – a question many have no doubt wondered about but been too embarrassed to ask) to the practical (‘What languages were spoken in Auschwitz?’ – if you didn’t know German, Fried points out, you were at a distinct disadvantage). And the questions likewise vary between the slightly aggressive (‘Why didn’t you resist?’ – because we were apathetic, she says: ‘We didn’t have the energy to think; we just followed orders.’) to the philosophical (‘Can you forgive?’, to which she replies that she doesn’t think in those terms and instead wants to learn from the past and focus on the future).
Fried has previously published four other memoirs, starting in 1992 with Skärvor av ett liv (Fragments of a Life) and most recently in 2003 with Livets pendel (Life’s Pendulum), but this book is different in that she fills in the gaps that other people have perceived in the narratives she has shared. She discusses how she gradually understood that the Jews were in danger and how she thought she wouldn’t adjust to and accept the new situation, but then did so anyway. There is a lesson in that for us all, as there is in her discussions of why people began to hate Jews and to support Hitler. Fried offers historical information while making it personal, which generally tends to help readers absorb the story and feel empathy. She talks about how she was not afraid of death itself, but rather of how she would die, given the Nazis’ efforts to make people suffer as much as possible. She writes about her struggles with anxiety, and with not knowing what would happen, and about how helpful and important it was for her to have her sister in the camp with her.
At the end of her book, Hédi Fried gently offers suggestions for how we can go forward and she encourages everyone to recognise that we all have a responsibility to each other and to society. She reminds us that witnesses to the Holocaust will soon be gone, and we must hear from them while we can. Although there is so much to be worried about today, she says that she is hopeful for the future, and that she believes things will improve again. She is optimistic because she thinks that the youth of today are ‘more self-aware, more wellinformed and more interested in the world. I really believe that they have the desire and the opportunity to solve today’s problems.’ If we pay attention to what Hédi Fried and other survivors tell us, we will learn from the mistakes of the past, try to take responsibility for the future, and work on finding solutions.