The Last Survivor: Rebirth
The first time we met Hédi Fried, she told us about her love for travel. It was a love affair that had begun when she was just a little girl, living in the small Romanian town of Sighet. There, she would watch the trains pass by and wonder about the majestically dressed people on board and what wonderful adventures they might be off to. And so, at nine-years old, Hédi prepared herself for a life of exotic travel. In the winters she would sleep with her window open and in the summer she wrapped herself in her warmest quilts, an effort to prepare her body for the extreme temperatures she would no doubt encounter on her journeys. As Hédi told us this, the smile on her face evolved into an ironic laugh.
She shook her head: “My first travel was actually to Auschwitz.”
But Hédi survived Auschwitz and in 1945 she and her sister, Livi, were liberated from Bergen Belsen. What has surprised us most about the time we spent with Hédi is that, at 84-years old, having witnessed first-hand the most traumatic horrors the world has ever known, she has not lost the delicate fondness with which she takes in the world around her. Like the little girl watching trains rush past her small town, Hédi remains deeply enamored with life.
She now lives in Stockholm and while she has come to love the city, Héd still prefers her house in the country – a charming yellow house that looks out at the placid Baltic Sea. There, separated from the noise and rush of the city, Hédi can relax and find peace in the simple pleasures that make life endlessly thrilling.
When it is warm, she starts each day with a dip in the refreshing water – she prefers the early morning hours as, despite the tepid temperature, the water is quiet then. She can drift peacefully and bask in the sun, feeling one with nature. In giving us a tour of the house, Hédi’s mind drifted into poetry as she described to us the annual life span of her favorite tree: “Soon it will be yellow and then in the spring it’s so nice…the leaves will be small, small, small like the ears of a mouse…and then later like the ears of a rabbit.”
Hédi points out such beauty wherever she goes. When we returned with her to Bergen Belsen, she picked a small leaf from the shrubs that grew over a mass grave. And in the flower garden where her former labor camp once stood outside of Hamburg, she picked out a beautiful white daisy. Both, she insists are signs of hope – that the world can rejuvenate, that beauty can reemerge and that life can go on.
But we must never forget what happened.
To that end, Hédi and her sister Livi both participate in the Storytelling Project – an innovative program in Stockholm that pairs Holocaust Survivors with youth who are given special training in storytelling tactics. During intimate sessions, the Survivors share their stories with the young storytellers, allowing a new generation to assume the role of witness.
It was in this context that we first met Amanda Glans, a striking 25-year old woman who joined us at Hédi’s home in Stockholm just after breakfast. Armed, with a microphone and tape recorder, Amanda asked Hédi about the evils from which she had emerged and Hédi shared her story of survival – how she was taken to Auschwitz with her family and she and her sister, Livi, were immediately separated from both of their parents; how she was allowed to leave Auschwitz for work detail but Livi was forced to stay behind; how Hédi decided to go back to Auschwitz and remain with her sister, honoring her mother’s final wish that the two should “look after each other.”
And they continue do so. Livi keeps a country house just down the road from Hédi’s and during the warm months, they keep each other company for each meal. Our tour of the house included a walk through the yard where Hédi made note of the various seating areas that were spread out among the grass: breakfast with Livi was taken on the dock, lunch in the center of the yard, and dinner off to the side of the house. Indeed, Hédi had charted out a seating plan that followed the whims of the sun – so that she and her sister need never be without its warmth.
After a long day, Hédi likes to retire to the couch for a few moments. There she takes a brief “cat nap” to reinvigorate herself for the joys of the evening.
In this manner, Hédi showed us how magnificent the world can be. We learned much during our time with her. Namely, that life does not always obey the rules set out by the dreams of our childhood; that evil rises when the good people of the world shirk their responsibility to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves; and that no matter how dark life gets, there is always hope and beauty within it.
Much more about Hédi’s story will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to hold screenings at your home or at a community center on April 2nd or any time there after. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and host your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part four of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org