Cover image for I'm no hero : journeys of a Holocaust survivor
I'm no hero : journeys of a Holocaust survivor
Friedman, Henry, 1928-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2001.

Physical Description:
xiv, 178 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm
General Note:
"A Samuel & Althea Stroum book."
Personal Subject:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library DS135.U43 F754 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Henry Friedman was robbed of his childhood by the monstrous evil that annihilated millions of European Jews and changed forever the lives of those who survived. In this text, he confronts the pain, the shame and the bizarre comedy of his passage to adulthood.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Friedman was born in 1928 in Brody, Poland, a town near the Polish-Ukrainian border. The region came under Soviet occupation after the partition of Poland in 1939, and Brody fell to the Germans in July 1941. Persecution and murder of the Jews began immediately. The Friedman family was saved by two Ukrainian Christian women who hid them in barn lofts half a mile from each other. During that time the author's mother gave birth to a girl, who had to be suffocated so her cries would not reveal their hiding place. They were liberated by the Russians after 18 months; the author was 15. The family eventually reached a displaced-persons camp in Austria (where Friedman made a lot of money buying and selling on the black market) and came to Seattle in 1949. Part of Friedman's memoir deals with his life in America; he served in the U.S. Army in Korea, went into the jewelry business, married, and--along with his wife--raised three children. Friedman writes with sensitivity, clarity, and honesty. --George Cohen

School Library Journal Review

YA-Eleven-year-old Henry Friedman was living in Poland when World War II began. By the end of 1943, most of the Jewish citizens living in his small town had been killed or sent to concentration camps. The Friedmans, however, survived due to the planning and foresight of Henry's father. He moved the family into the tiny attic over a barn of some Christian neighbors, while he hid alone in a hayloft belonging to another family, and they remained in hiding for a year and a half. During that time, Henry's mother gave birth and killed the baby before her cries could give them away. Finally, in 1944, when Henry was 15, the Friedmans were able to make their way to the U.S., with years spent in displaced-person camps. Henry embarked on a life of quick money (usually from black marketing), seducing as many women as possible, and savoring every indulgence that presented itself to him, much to his family's shame and anger. Eventually he redirected himself and became a successful businessman in Seattle. Friedman shows the toll the Holocaust took on him and his family as they learned to live again, homeless, unwelcome in their own country, having lost the rest of their family, and trying to find a place to begin again. It is an honest, harrowing, and vivid account of a living nightmare that should be read by young adults, so far removed from that time and place, to gain a little understanding of the power of the will to survive.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One My Boyhood in Brody, Poland I AM IN MY DEN WATCHING A VIDEO PRODUCED by my daughter. On the television screen are talking heads. A man explains how he ran into the forest and lived there like an animal for two years. A deaf woman contorts her face violently and gestures to describe her captors and her escape. An old couple with white hair talk about their time in hiding, how hungry they had been. All their faces look tired, yet their eyes say they are happy to be alive.     Outside, tall evergreens surround my house on Mercer Island, near Seattle. Lake Washington, with its sailboats and beaches, is only a stone's throw away. How far this is from my birthplace in Brody, Poland. What impossibly different worlds!     Soon, I too come up on the screen. Yes, that's me. My face is tanned, and I am wearing a gold neck chain with the golden letter chai ("life"). I begin to talk of that other world. Of my mother. Of my father. Of my aunts and uncles. I REMEMBER PROUDLY carrying my father's prayer shawl in his blue bag with its embroidered Star of David to the Great Synagogue in Brody on Saturdays.     I used to sit beside him on a wooden bench near the reading table at the front of the synagogue. The candles burned all through the service. You could smell the tallow in the air, mixed with perspiration and the stale breath of the worshipers. On Yom Kippur, father sat in synagogue the entire day. I longed for fresh air and counted the pages in the prayer book until Yizkor , the memorial service for the dead. When father stood, I rushed outside with the other children. JEWS SETTLED IN BRODY IN 1588. Overtime, the Jewish community established itself and thrived, a vigorous mix of scholars, professionals, merchants, and artisans. By the middle of the eighteenth century, trade in Brody was concentrated in Jewish hands. For many years Jews constituted a majority of the town's population, and at the outbreak of World War II, nearly 10,000 Jews lived in Brody itself, with some 5,000 more in the surrounding rural area.     The town of Brody lies in the West Ukraine region, which was part of Poland at the time of my birth in 1928. The region came under Soviet occupation following the partition of Poland in 1939, and Brody fell to the Germans in July 1941. Persecution and murder of the Jews began immediately thereafter. Between September and November 1942, in two aktions , a total of 4,500 Jews were sent to the Belzek death camp, and a ghetto was established in December 1942 for the 6,500 remaining Jews of Brody. By the end of 1942, young Jews formed a fighting unit in the ghetto which maintained contacts with partisans in the surrounding forest and with the non-Jewish resistance. From May to June, 1943, the Brody ghetto and labor camp were liquidated and the surviving 2,500 Jews were deported to the death camp at Majdanek. By all reports, no Jewish community has existed in Brody since World War II.     We had a very old shul , or synagogue, which took up an entire city block. Several little shuls surrounded the Great Synagogue, and in them, tailors, shoemakers, and butchers could pray in small groups with fellow tradesmen.     Each small group was under the jurisdiction of Brody's chief rabbi. He was the law of the land. If there was a dispute over property, he would preside over the Rabbinical Court's decision. If a man wanted to divorce his wife, he would need to petition the chief rabbi. If a young fellow wanted to get married, he would request the chief rabbi's signature. Even the Polish officers would salute the chief rabbi of Brody.     As a child, however, I was ruled by my mother and father. Mother, who kept a strictly kosher home, permitted us to eat non-kosher food outside our home and at restaurants.     "Just don't tell your father," she said.     My mother came from a family of lawyers and professionals. She, too, was well educated. She was very pretty and loved to dance at weddings. Father came from a family of farmers and merchants. He worked very hard, rising by five o'clock each morning to start his day. He admired mother, though they had the usual lively disagreements on small issues.     I remember once when I was seven or eight, I petitioned father to let me wear long side-locks, the type worn by Hasidic boys at the religious school I attended each afternoon.     "You don't have any rabbis in your family," he said. "You're not going to be the first one."     "But my friends all have side-locks," I said.     "I'm sorry," he said. "You're not going to change my mind. My sons will dress in suits, not black robes. Your hair will be cut at the ears."     We lived in a house attached to our busy textile store, which sold fabrics imported from as far away as London. Uncle Salomon, my father's youngest brother, lived in a neighboring village on a large farm that had once belonged to my paternal grandfather. My grandmother Klara lived with Salomon, his wife, Fanny, and their daughter, Sara. On the same parcel of land, in a house of their own, lived my father's sister, Aunt Freda, and her husband, Abraham, their son, Anschul, and their daughters, Pepe and Yite. The two families shared the barns and the equipment, but each maintained separate animals and managed separate finances. Grandma Klara kept peace between the two families, ruling with a strong hand and a strong sense of religion. She had been one of eleven children, and some of her brothers and sisters were poor, so she helped them out with food.     Uncle Joseph, the second of my father's brothers, also lived on a farm in the country with his wife, Lea, and their son, Mendel. Each of the three brothers lived in a separate district, about twenty-five kilometers (or just over fifteen miles) distant from one another, but close enough to share many good times. In 1942 we lost contact with my uncle Joseph and his family and never found them again. THE FIRST WEDDING I attended was that of my uncle Salomon, who was the youngest child in my father's family. There was a great deal of excitement because the wedding was going to take place in Busk, which was about forty kilometers from Brody. Back then that was a long trip, and a decision had to be made whether we would travel by horse or take the train. We finally decided to go by train because the weather was not very nice at that time of the year. This would be my first train ride, and for two weeks all I could think of was meeting some of my cousins for the first time, and the wedding.     Most of my cousins at the wedding were older than I, and they liked me but they also got me in trouble. At their urging, another cousin and I crawled under the table and stole the shoes of some of the women; when the ladies wanted them back, my cousins made them pay ransom. This was very wrong, but, on the whole, we had a good time at the wedding. On our way home, however, my father wanted to know if I had had any part in the shoe-stealing seam, and I admitted that I had, not without a bit of pride. My mother instantly demanded that I be punished, while my father had to restrain himself from smiling. My mother came out on top by saying that I would never be allowed to attend another wedding, and I would receive more punishment when we got home. But my parents never did punish me--either they forgot, or decided to let me off this time. I WAS SENT TO cheder (religious school) when I was four because my grandmother Klara became very upset with my father. He was raising a non-Jew, she said. When I visited Grandma, I could not speak any Yiddish because my nanny spoke to me only in Polish. The cheder was near the Great Synagogue. Its entrance had huge doors, and inside it was very dark, with just one light bulb. When I was seven, I went to public school during the day and cheder after school. This was until 1939. During the Soviet occupation, my brother and I had private tutoring in Jewish religion. A teacher would come all the way from Brody on a bicycle to our farm.     I attended public school with children from all over the city. I can't remember the day, or even the year, when I first heard my classmates mention Hitler. Perhaps it was 1937 or 1938. I had been playing soccer outside with my Jewish friends, while our non-Jewish schoolmates took a religious class.     We didn't mind. After all, we would go to cheder after school and study the Talmud. Besides, our absence gave us an excuse to play ball. Usually our Christian classmates joined us for a few minutes after their class. Recently one of them had kicked our soccer ball over the fence.     "Christ killer!" he said. "Wait until Hitler comes. He'll take care of you."     "Coy!" I shouted back.     "Kike!" he spat.     I reached out to hit him. My friend held me back.     "Come on," he said. "Forget about it." WE COULDN'T FORGET about it, though. "Wait until Hitler comes" became a daily refrain in our schoolyard. I listened to stories about Hitler at home. My parents talked in the living room at night, and I could hear their voices from my bedroom. They spoke of leaving for Canada.     Grandmother, however, didn't want to leave her brothers and other relatives behind. She had no desire to start a new life in a different world. My aunt Freda was afraid to leave because her husband was not healthy. To start over in a foreign country with a sick husband and three children would not be easy. Uncle Salomon sided with grandmother. They would argue their point by saying "Look at Markus Pieniaker, how well he is doing in Germany!" Uncle Markus was my mother's brother who had come to visit us from Berlin in 1938, arriving in a chauffeur-driven car and looking wonderful. I remember a white handkerchief sticking out of his suit pocket like a three-pointed crown. "If Markus lived in Brody, he would be riding a horse, not a fancy car," they said. "So Hitler can't be all that bad to the Jews. The newspaper stories are just to frighten us, to fool us into leaving Poland and selling our property cheap to the goyim [non-Jews]."     "Salomon keeps dragging his feet," my father told my mother. "We're missing a good opportunity." What he had heard about the Nazis, he knew to be true, and he feared for our future. Still, like many families, ours made a decision collectively. Whenever it came to a vote, Salomon sided with Grandma and his sister Freda, leaving the two older brothers in the minority. After two years of arguments, Father and Joseph convinced the family to leave, but the war came to Poland sooner than anyone expected. Although our papers were almost ready, the borders were closed. MY WISH WAS TO BE an officer in the cavalry unit of the Polish army when I grew up. I used to watch the army parade through my city, and I would visualize myself leading the whole cavalry. I even had the color of my horse picked out--it had to be black. But if I could not become a cavalry officer, my second choice was to become a lawyer because some of my uncles were lawyers. Unfortunately, as I was to learn, the Polish cavalry was no match for the German tanks.     The start of the war on September 22, 1939, was frightening. I was eleven years old. The first bombing began on a Friday night, the Shabbes . We spent that night in our coal cellar beneath the house. It was an eerie space, with candles flickering on the shelves. The earth shook with each explosion. All that night we shuddered through the storming of the town. We prayed more than once that we would not be buried alive. Father had counted the hours to dawn, when the bombing would stop, and at the first possible moment he rose to go upstairs.     He looked out on a desolate city, debris strewn everywhere. He came immediately downstairs to tell us we would be leaving.     "But it's Shabbes ," Mother said.     "So what," my father retorted. "Our lives are at stake. The Germans will pound away again tonight."     "Where will we go?" she asked.     "To the farm," he replied. "They won't attack the countryside."     When I came out of our basement, what my eyes saw was a shock that I remember to this day--buildings burning, parts of human bodies, dead and wounded animals. I was mesmerized by a wounded horse. His blood was bubbling from his stomach, and my mother put her hand over my eyes and dragged me away. I must have seen more than my parents thought I saw, because as I merely write these words I find myself shaking, wet with perspiration. THAT MORNING, ON OUR horse-and-buggy ride to the countryside, I saw hordes of people running toward the Romanian border. The roads were jammed with cars, trucks, buses, horses, cows, and people. Many carried with them their most prized possessions in a desperate dash for the south.     War, for those first days, seemed like a game to my brother and me. The planes dogfighting overhead provided us with amusement, and we would pick and choose the winners. In reality, the Polish army was doomed to defeat. Its planes were inferior. But all this was unknown to me as a child of eleven. I felt safe on my father's farm, in Suchowola, protected from the carnage around us.     The bombing lasted only two or three days. When it stopped, we could hardly believe it.     "Where are the Germans?" Mother asked.     "They'll be back," said Father.     But for now, all was silent. News came shortly that the Russians would occupy Brody. Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin, ceding Brody and the rest of the Ukraine to the Russians.     We were relieved, except for Father. He hated the Russians. He had seen them cross the border into Poland during World War I. He remembered their beating of Jews, their robbing and raping of women. He had lived near the Russian border in a small village that was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. THE RUSSIANS NOW CAME on foot, in tanks, and on horses. One of the first acts of the occupying forces was to seize our family's textile store in town. "It's to be a collective," the lieutenant told my father.     "But we've worked for years to build this store," Father said. "It's our family business."     "It's to be a state-run store," the lieutenant told him.     My parents were given twenty-four hours to clear out. Our house in Brody, including most of our possessions, was also seized by the Russians. Unlike many of our friends who lost their businesses to communism, we at least had someplace else to go. The farm in Suchowola, always a summer retreat for us until now, became our permanent residence.     In Suchowola I attended a Russian school, which I enjoyed much more than the Polish school in Brody. I was no longer just another Jewish kid. In the Russian school you would be punished for slandering a Jew, or a Pole, or a Ukrainian for that matter. As a Jewish child under the Russians, if you minded your own business, you would be treated no differently from others. All religious classes were cut from the curriculum.     In 1941 I earned the title of Otlichnik (The Best). When I brought home my special diploma with a picture of Lenin on it, I handed it to Father proudly.     "You're not to display this diploma at home," he said. He hated Lenin as much as he did Hitler.     "But I have been honored," I said.     "No, you haven't."     He threw the diploma on the ground.     During the Russian occupation, my family still observed religious tradition. My mother would light the Friday night candles, but we would say our prayers at home because it was too far to walk from Suchowola to Brody. By custom, religious Jews walked to the synagogue. The day before a Jewish Holiday, my father drove us in the horse and buggy to Brody, where we would stay with relatives and could then walk to the synagogue. After the German occupation, we stopped going to the Brody synagogue even on High Holy Days. My mother nonetheless made sure to have the Friday night candles lit, and we would pray at home--only on a very few occasions did we miss our regular prayers. THE RUSSIANS RAISED the taxes on our farm. Father, through sheer force of will, refused to cooperate.     "Kulak," the Russians called him. "Exploiter!"     He was the second largest landowner in Suchowola County, and the neighbors looked up to him. If Father relinquished his land to the Russians for a commune, the neighbors would have to do the same. Despite pressure, he refused to sign papers to release the farm. In another year or two, the communists would have acted by force, sending him and the rest of us to Siberian labor camps. For the time being, however, he refused to capitulate.     In the winter of 1940, many Jewish citizens of Brody, as well as Jewish refugees who had fled the German sector of occupied Poland, were forced onto trains that took them away to the Siberian camps. Prominent Jews from our community were taken. Each family, ours included, feared it would be in the next train load. The situation was deteriorating quickly. Uncle Salomon was drafted into the Soviet army, a ploy by which the communists could seize an absent owner's property to form a commune. IN JUNE 1941, ON A Saturday night, bombs exploding in Brody awakened us from our sleep--we could see the city all ablaze. Father went outside and asked a Russian officer what was happening.     "It's just maneuvers," the Russian said. The city was burning, however. The Russians didn't know what had hit them.     In the morning we could see dogfights. Russian planes were shot down by the dozens. My heart raced with excitement, partially from the crash of war, partially from being in the midst of so much fear.     Germany again was at war, this time with the Soviet Union.     When the Germans finally moved in, it put a chill in my bones. With the stomping of their goose-stepping black boots and the clatter of their armor, they were very different from the bedraggled array of Russians who had previously occupied Brody. From miles away you could hear the approach of the Germans. Their thunder rippled through the earth.     We were plunged into gloom and fear. It took the Germans less than two weeks to reach Brody after that first Saturday-night bombing. FATHER PREPARED FOR the worst. He began hiding most of our remaining possessions--clothing, furs, silverware, dishes, and shoes. Nearly everything we still owned was buried underground in the safe-keeping of some trusted Ukrainian families. He no longer cared what happened to his store, having given up that dream months before. He was only concerned that the Germans would come and loot the farm.     One of the first acts of the Germans was to register all the local intelligentsia, both Jews and non-Jews. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and accountants were told to register, each profession in a different section of town. Some could foresee what was happening and refused. After registration, the non-Jews were released. The Jews, however, were taken away, never to be heard from again. Jewish doctors were the one exception--they were needed in the town to attend to both Jews and non-Jews. Only recently did I read in an encyclopedia that 250 of the Jewish intellectuals in Brody were executed in cold blood following their "job registration." My family lost three relatives to this purge. THE GERMANS TURNED many of the Ukrainians into policemen by promising them a free and independent state in exchange for their help. I had been wary of the Ukrainians ever since some of them had tried to set fire to my father's farm a couple of years before.     The toughest Jews in Brody were the horse dealers, called koniers . As a kid I was terrified of them. They traded horses, buying and reselling them to farmers. We used to call them horse thieves, because they would threaten those who didn't cooperate. Often a farmer would be forced to sell his horse for much less than its worth, only to discover the horse dealer had turned around and resold it for a much higher price. If you tried to question the koniers' business practices, they would threaten you with the crack of the whip. As a boy, it seemed to me that one of them could beat up ten others.     Although many Jews looked down on Jewish shoemakers and tailors, everyone feared the Jewish horse dealers. The Ukrainians could now prove themselves to the Germans by taking care of these bullies.     On the third day of the German occupation, the Ukrainian police rounded up the koniers and told them they were going to bury Russian soldiers and horses. It had become almost commonplace to see the dead and wounded strewn on the streets of Brody and all over the countryside. Today, it makes my stomach turn to think of it. But at that time walking the streets and seeing what was going on, no matter how barbarous, had become almost a normal part of my daily life in Brody.     Many of the Red Army soldiers killed were at first taken prisoner by the Germans, who then marched these Russians through the town. The Germans were riding motorcycles or horses, while the Russians, on aching feet, were tired and thirsty. If one fell and could not go on, he was promptly shot. If one reached out for water, the Germans would beat him as well as the person who tried to help him. These were the first acts of German brutality I witnessed.     The Ukrainians ordered the koniers to dig mass graves for the Russian dead in the woods at the edge of town. The bodies had been piled there and needed to be buried. (Continues...) Excerpted from I'm No Hero by HENRY FRIEDMAN. Copyright © 1999 by University of Washington Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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