YM&YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood

Charlie and Lilli’s Stories

In conjunction with our “Partners in Caring” program funded by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Y will feature interviews from six local survivors to better understand each individual’s story. These interviews will be showcased at the Hebrew Tabernacle gallery “Experiencing a Time of War and Beyond: Portraits of Spirited Holocaust Survivors”. The gallery will be opening on Friday November 8th.

Charlie and Lilli are long-time members of the Y. Lilli volunteers at the Y 2 days a week.

Lilli Friedman(photography by Roj Rodriguez: www.rojrodriguez.com)

Lilli Friedman was born in Berlin, Germany on April 8, 1925.  She was an only child.  Her father worked as a textile representative for various companies in Berlin.  The business was run out of a home office where Lilli’s mother worked as a secretary.  Lilli recalls that there was a large Jewish community in Berlin.  She and her family belonged to a temple called Prinzregenten Strasse, which was run by a beloved rabbi named Rabbi Swarsensky. 

As a child, Lilli and her family had a lot of Jewish and non-Jewish friends.  Lilli recalls that her best friend was not Jewish and her father was a Nazi.  At a certain point, she was forbidden to play with Lilli.  This was true for all of their non-Jewish friends.

While in public school, Lilli does not recall outright anti-Semitism, but she does remember that the teachers did not make it pleasant for her or other Jewish students.  Lilli attended public school until 1935, when she was 10 years old.  In 1935, Jewish children were no longer able to attend regular public schools, Lilli and her parents moved to another district in called Berlin-Schӧneberg.  When she moved here, Lilli began to attend a Jewish school, Zickel schule.  The school was on the same street that she lived on.  It was one of about five schools that started when it became illegal for Jews to attend public school.  When reminiscing about her classmates, Lilli remembers, “we had a strong bond, whatever anti-Semitism there was, we stuck together…”  While at Zickel schule, Lilli learned English from a teacher who was brought to the school from England.  Lilli remembers the school having a homey feeling. 

Around 1938, Lilli’s father received letters from the companies that he was representing letting him know that they could no longer do business with him because it was against the law.  At this time, there was no income. 

On November 9, 1938, Kritsallnacht began.  Lilli’s father was working and her mother was out so she was home alone with her grandmother who lived with the family.  Lilli was 13 at the time.  She remembers on that day that the doorbell rang and her grandmother went to go open the door.  When she opened the door, there were two SS officers who came to arrest Lilli’s father.  When her grandmother realized what was going on, she called Lilli out from her room and told her to come and say hello to the officers.  Lilli remembers coming out and making a curtsey in front of the men.  While telling the story, Lilli recalls, “I was scared silly.  My grandmother sort of pleaded with them…she told them that he was a wonderful man, this is his only child…and whatever else good she said about my father.”  The SS officers left their card and said that when her father returns home, he should call the number for instructions.  Lilli believes that it was because of her grandmother’s cleverness that the officers left and did not wait around all day to arrest her father.  When her father came home, he was informed of what happened and he decided to go into hiding with a non-Jewish family, who were friends of her grandmother.  He did not come home for two weeks.  Before he would come home, he would call to make sure it was safe.  They never heard from the SS officers again. 

This is when the family began planning to get out of Germany.  They received an affidavit from a cousin of theirs who lived in Fort Worth, Texas.  The cousin owned a small department store and offered them an affidavit and a job for Lilli’s father.  The quota to enter America was very small and the family had to wait for their number to be called.  Lilli’s father was born in a part of Poland, which belonged to Germany.  Most Jews in this area were counted toward the Polish quota instead of the German quota.  Even though Lilli had never been to Poland, she and her father were put on the Polish quota.  Lilli remembers, “Between the German quota and the Polish quota, it looked hopeless for us to emigrate.”  Lilli’s mother had a friend who lived in London, England who was a very wealthy woman.  Earlier on, the woman asked Lilli’s mother to come to Amsterdam for a short trip.  On this trip, the woman promised Lilli’s mother that she would help in any way that she could.  They decided to go to London until their quota was called.   

Lilli and her parents got ready for the move.  Unfortunately, they could not take Lilli’s grandmother with them who was around 83 or 84 years old at the time.  They had put off their departure because Lilli’s mother could not bear the thought of leaving her mother alone in Germany.  They spent some time looking around for an old age home and finally found a place for her, where she would later die a natural death caused by old age. 

In August 1939, the family left through Hamburg by ship to Southampton, England.   The family made their way from Southampton to London.  They reached London by September and they stayed in this couple’s house in London while the couple was evacuated from London.  Lilli attended school, her mother cleaned the house, and her father worked in the garden.  When thinking about the woman who gave her family everything, Lilli states, “Because of her, we were saved.” 

In July-August of 1940, the war was not going well for England at this time so the British decided to intern many of the German- Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man.  Lilli’s father was taken from a police station in London to the Isle of Man.  Lilli and her mother did not really know what happened to her father and they had trouble finding out where he was being taken.  By September 1940, their quota had been called.  They did not see him again until they reached Liverpool to start their journey to America.   

They arrived in America on September 10, 1940 where they were greeted by friends.  Initially, they stayed with friends until they were able to get their own apartment.  They moved to a small, two-furnished roomed apartment in Washington Heights.  Her father was around 55 years old and it was very difficult for him to find a job.  His English was not very good so he went to HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to take a course in upholstery.  He needed this skill in order to help him obtain a job.  Lilli’s mother worked as a maid cleaning houses.  Lilli began school at George Washington high school.  A few years later, Lilli’s father got a job as a bookkeeper for a large insurance company.  He worked there until he died at the age of 68. 

In 1943, Lilli worked for a textile company while attending night classes at Hunter College.  She went on to work at Berkshire Hathaway.  She went on to serve as the director of admissions at a private special education school for 43 years until she retired in 2012.  Lilli met Charlie in Vermont on the ski slopes.  They have a son, a daughter, and two grandsons.  Lilli is a member and a volunteer at the Y.  

Charlie Friedman

Charlie Friedman was born in Jena, Germany on August 19, 1926 to a middle class family.  His family has become known for being the last Jews to escape Germany.  Jena is a small town that had a population of about 100,000 people at that time.  There were only about 200 Jews.  The Friedman family was extremely active and prominent in Jena.   They are able to trace their German heritage back to the 1600s.  The Friedman’s were well traveled and brought Charlie and his brother along.  When explaining what it was like growing up in Jena, Charlie recalls, “We were not looked upon as Jews; we were looked at as fellow citizens.”  In Jena, the Friedman’s owned and operated an international butcher equipment and supply company that was established in the 1890s.  Charlie’s father, grandfather, and grandmother all ran the business, while Charlie’s mother was very active in Jewish and general activities in the community.  The business did very well.

In Jena, there was no Hebrew school; however, a cantor came from a town nearby to teach the Jewish children twice a week.  Charlie received a general education from the public school.  Around 1935, Charlie noticed that rules began to change at school.  His non-Jewish classmates stopped talking to him.  Even though they still went to school together, the non-Jewish students were not allowed to play with the Jewish students.  He recalls that one teacher in his school wore a swastika to class. 

On Kristallnacht, Charlie remembers hearing the sounds of windows and glass breaking as well as yelling and screaming coming from outside.  His parents came into his room and told him and his brother not to worry, that the police would be there shortly to stop what was going on.  The police were there and they did not try to stop any of the destruction that was taking place.  The department store and other Jewish businesses in town were owned by Jews and after Kristallnacht, the windows were broken and the store had been vandalized.  During that night, Charlie’s parents informed him and his brother that they have to leave them behind for a little while, but not to worry.  Charlie’s father’s secretary was due to come in the next morning and she would check on them.  His parents left them alone in the house.  Charlie’s parents were taken to the police headquarters. 

The next day, the secretary came for a little while, but that did not comfort the boys.  Charlie went to school.  He was called into the principal’s office.  The principal was part of the same veteran’s organization as Charlie’s father.  When he was brought into the office, the principal told him in a very kind way that he was no longer allowed in school and that he should go home so that his parents could explain to him why this was happening. 

Later that afternoon, Charlie’s mother came back.  They found out that Charlie’s father, grandfather, uncles, and basically every German Jew in town was held for a few days in jail and then sent to Buchenwald, a concentration camp 25 km outside of Jena.  After the men were taking to Buchenwald, Charlie, his brother, and his mother moved into this grandparents’ house, which was a villa right outside the town.  This same house will go on to be a Judenhaus (a Jewish House) that many Jews would move in and out of during their escape.  Charlie’s father spent about four weeks in Buchenwald.  He was released a little bit earlier than everyone else because he was a German officer in World War I.  Charlie vividly remembers his father coming back from Buchenwald 25 pounds less, with no hair, and totally depressed.  His grandfather had come back and was beaten so severely that he died shortly after his release from Buchenwald.  This is when the Friedman’s began making arrangements to escape Germany.

By 1938-39, the Friedman’s realized that they needed to leave Germany for their safety.  In 1938, the Friedman’s tried to sell their business to someone who would still allow the Friedman’s to work there and profit from the business.  However, they were unable to find someone to buy the company and in 1939, the business was seized from the Friedman’s. 

In February 1939, arrangements had been made for Charlie and his brother to go to a Jewish orphan’s home in Leipzig where they received a Jewish education and attended synagogue.  He was taught, English, Hebrew, and Judaism.  He remembers that the principal of this school was a Nazi.  Charlie and his brother were allowed to go home every so often.  Since Charlie’s father lost his business, he started working on a farm for someone who used to buy products from the Friedman business.  Although at this point, it was against the law for Jews to drive or own a car, through his connections, Charlie’s father was able to obtain a driver’s license.  He borrowed a car from someone and came to visit the boys in Leipzig when no other Jew was permitted to drive.  When Charlie became a bar mitzvah, his father drove all of his family to Leipzig to participate in the celebrations.  They brought all kinds of treats for the children in the home that they were not allowed to get. 

While in Leipzig, Charlie served as a messenger when the war started.  He recalls watching bombs being dropped by the British.  Even though the war was going on around him, Charlie remembers feeling very protected in Leipzig and in the orphanage.  He knew that there were certain areas that were off limits, but he was still able to walk around town without being bothered. 

In March or April of 1941, Charlie and his brother were then put on a train from Leipzig to Berlin to meet his parents to go to the American consulate.  They were able to be seen because Charlie’s grandfather’s brother and sister had moved to America in the 1900s.  One of his relatives became an admiral in the American Navy and he had contacted the naval attaché in Berlin and said, “I think these are relatives of mine, see what you can do for them.”  While in the American consulate, they were treated very casually.  Charlie remembers, “I remember we had to walk around naked.  It was the first time I saw my father naked.”  They waited for many hours and still were made to wait many months before they would find out if they would be accepted into America.  He and his brother went back to Leipzig and his parents went back to Jena to wait. 

Suddenly, they were told that arrangements were made and that it was time for them to start their journey to America.  The Friedman’s had enough money to pay for the entire journey.  The boys traveled to Jena to meet their parents.  From Jena, the family went to Berlin and stayed there for about a week.  While in Berlin, they went through the same routine with at the American Consulate.  Once they were approved, the family went to Anhaltaer Bahnhof (railroad station).  There were two reserved cars in fourth class.  The cars had wooden benches and had the shades drawn.  Each person was allowed to travel with one suitcase and 10 dollars.  They had very little food and the toilets in their cars were very mediocre.  There was no place to clean oneself. 

The train started moving west and made its way to Paris, France.  They were let off on the side of the tracks in Paris.  A Jewish help organization met the train.  Each person was given a loaf of white bread.  Charlie was told, “Don’t eat it.  Just take half.  Half you will give to the railroad workers otherwise these two cars will stay here for another week or two.”  They gave the bread to the railroad workers and then began heading towards Spain.  After a week to ten days, the train ended up in San Sebastiane, Spain where they stayed for two nights.  At this stop, they were provided with bathtubs and beds with sheets on them.  The Friedman’s got back on the train and headed for Barcelona.  By now it was July 1941.  They stayed in a hotel in Barcelona for two weeks.  After the two weeks, they were informed that a freighter ship was ready to take them to America.  The day they were supposed to board the ship, Charlie’s brother developed a temperature of 104 degrees.  He would not be allowed on board with a temperature.  They found a German, Jewish doctor who gave his brother a shot and then they all were able to board the ship. 

The Ciudad De Sevilla was one of two of the last ships that brought refugees to America.  The ship had two holds where freight was usually stored, but this is where the passengers were told to stay for their journey to America.  There were approximately 250 bunks in each of these areas where the passengers were meant to sleep.  Charlie remembers his father referring to them as “open coffins.”  After the ship had left Spain, on it’s way through Gibraltar they were stopped by the British.  The British came on board and removed three men, one of whom was Charlie’s father because he was a German officer in World War I.  The ship was held up for two nights, but fortunately Charlie’s father returned and the ship continued on to America.  Two days before getting to New York, the ship ran out of food.   On August 19, 1941, Charlie’s birthday, the Ciudad De Sevilla reached in New York.  Charlie has vivid memories of seeing the Statue of Liberty as the ship made its way to New York.  Friends and other German refugees in New York knew that this ship would be docking and when they got off the ship, they recognized the family.  Since food became scarce for the last few days of the journey, Charlie’s father asked these refugees to bring food for the boys and they were given a ham sandwich on two slices of white bread.  Charlie remembers, “filet mignon couldn’t have tasted better!” 

After settling in, Charlie’s brother began shining shoes while Charlie delivered newspapers and at night, he worked at a secondhand furniture store.  He was able to make at least $1 a week.  Their father was able to find a job at a hotel in Brooklyn washing dishes and their mother worked in a laundromat.  Charlie went on to attend George Washington High School and his brother went to school at PS 115.  The family had a small apartment in the Washington Heights area.  The parents and children alternated sharing the bedroom each night.  When Charlie turned 16, he began taking night classes to finish his high school and attended CCNY because he had to work.  During the day, Charlie was working as an apprentice jeweler.  At 18, Charlie enlisted in the United States Army.  Charlie served in the army for two and a half years.  After the army, Charlie worked for Gimble’s department store as a stock boy.  He was then asked to join the executive training squad and he went on to become an assistant buyer for the store.  Charlie later became a retail executive.

Charlie is married to Lilli Friedman who also is a Holocaust survivor.  The couple met on the ski slopes in Vermont called Lords Prayer.  They have a son, a daughter, and two grandsons who all give him a lot of nachas.  Charlie has returned back to Jena numerous times.  He has been invited to speak on Kristallnacht as well as to speak to local schools and universities.  He volunteers for the Jewish Heritage Museum.  Charlie continues a legacy he and his father shared in his dedication to B’nai B’rith, school, and community activities.  He has been a member of the Y for many years.    

This interview was conducted by Halley Goldberg of the Y’s Partners in Caring initiative and belongs to the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood. The use of this material without written consent from both the Y and the interviewee is strictly prohibited. Find out more about the Partners in Caring program here: http://ywashhts.org/partners-caring-0 

Hebrew Tabernacle’s  Armin and Estelle Gold Wing Gallery in proud partnership with the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood invites you to our November/December, 2013 Exhibit “Experiencing a Time of War and Beyond: Portraits of Spirited Holocaust Survivors” with photographs and sculpture by: YAEL BEN-ZION,  PETER BULOW and ROJ RODRIGUEZIn conjunction with a special Service in memory of the 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht -the Night of Broken Glass Services and Artist’s Opening Reception, Friday, November 8th, 2013 7:30 p.m.

 A statement from the Y :  ” For decades the Washington Heights/Inwood Y has been, and continues to be, a haven for those seeking refuge, respect and understanding. Many who enter our doors and participate in our programs have lived through trials and tribulations that we cannot even begin to imagine.  For some, who will be part of this exhibit, one such horror has come to be known to the world simply as “The Holocaust” – the systematic murder of six million Jews of Europe. 

We at the Y remember the past, honor those who lived and died during that time, and safeguard the truth for future generations.  For the sake of ourselves and our children, we must pass down the stories of those who have experienced the evils of war. There are lessons to be learned for the future.  The interviews are documented by Halley Goldberg, a “Partners in Caring” program supervisor.  This vital program was made possible through a generous grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, designed to enhance relationships with synagogues in Washington Heights and Inwood. “

Our joint art exhibit features portraits and interviews of survivors of the Holocaust, Hannah Eisner, Charlie and Lilli Friedman, Pearl Rosenzveig, Fredy Seidel and Ruth Wertheimer, all of whom are members of the The Hebrew Tabernacle, a Jewish congregation that many German Jews fleeing the Nazis and lucky enough to come to America, joined in the late 1930’s.  In addition we will also honor Holocaust survivor Gizelle Schwartz Bulow- mother of our artist Peter Bulow and WWII survivor Yan Neznanskiy – father of the Y’s Chief Program Officer, Victoria Neznansky.

A special Sabbath Service, with speakers, in memory of the 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) precedes the opening of the Gold Gallery/Y exhibit:Services begin promptly at  7:30 pm. All are invited to attend.

For gallery open hours or for further information please call the synagogue at 212-568-8304 or see http://www.hebrewtabernacle.orgArtist’s Statement: Yael Ben-Zion www.yaelbenzion.comYael Ben-Zion was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Israel.  She is a graduate of the International Center of Photography’s General Studies Program.  Ben-Zion is the recipient of various grants and awards, most recently from the Puffin Foundation and from NoMAA, and her work has been exhibited in the United States and in Europe. She has published two monographs of her work.  She lives in Washington Heights with her husband, and their twin boys. 

Artist’s Statement:  Peter Bulow: www.peterbulow.com

My mother as a child, had been in hiding during the Holocaust. Over the years, her experience, or what I imagined to have been her experience, has had a large influence on me. This influence is reflected both in my personal and in my artistic life. I was born in India, lived as a young child in Berlin and emigrated to the US with my parents at age 8.  I have a Masters in Fine Arts in sculpture. I am also the recipient of a grant that will allow me to make a limited number of bronze busts of Holocaust survivors.  Please let me know if you are interested in being part of this project.

Artist’s Statement :Roj Rodriguez: www.rojrodriguez.com

My body of work reflects my journey from Houston, TX – where I was born and raised – to New York – where, exposed to its ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity and its unique view on immigrants  – I found a renewed respect for everyone’s culture. I’ve apprenticed with well-established photographers, traveled the world extensively and collaborated with many top professionals in the field. Since January, 2006, my career as an independent photographer has become  a process of taking on personal photography projects that emerge from my own understanding of the way we share the world and  exercise our creativity as a whole. 

About the Y
Established in 1917, the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood (the Y) is Northern Manhattan’s premier Jewish community center — serving an ethnically and socio-economically diverse constituency — improving the quality of life for people of all ages through critical social services and innovative programs in health, wellness, education, and social justice, while promoting diversity and inclusion, and caring for those in need.

Share on Social or Email