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'Daughter of Auschwitz' chronicles the life of one of the youngest Holocaust survivors
Judy Woodruff: A new book is out today that tells the harrowing story of one young girl's survival through the Holocaust.
I spoke recently with that once young girl and her co-author, who is well-known to our "NewsHour" viewers.
Tola Grossman was just a 5-year-old Jewish girl in 1944 when she and her parents were shipped in cattle cars to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She would become one of the youngest survivors of the camp, freed as the Red Army swept across Poland and into Germany in 1945, and the depths of the horrors inflicted on the Jews of Europe became apparent.
She and her mother had been separated from her father at Auschwitz, not knowing his fate. They left the camp in April 1945. Her mother uttered one word: "Remember."
Tola Grossman is now Tova Friedman. And she's written a deeply vivid and affecting account of her life then and since. It's called "The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope."
Her co-author is our very own Malcolm Brabant. And we are just delighted to have them joining us from London.
Hello to both of you, Tova and to Malcolm.
I just have to -- this book came about as a result of Malcolm coming to report on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. And he was talking to you.
Tova, how did this book idea come about?
Tova Friedman, Co-Author, "The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope": Well, he was talking to me.
And I told him that, for years, I wanted to write a book about my life. I started many times, but I just wasn't disciplined enough. And I'm not really a very good writer, at least not such a serious book.
So, the first thing what he did, though, he made a short program for your -- I think for your TV, right? And it was fabulous.
We are here to uncover evil. That's what we're here for.
All my friends that everybody said it was one of the best short programs about me, because he combines music and background and my story, and what he wrote was very appropriate.
So, shortly after that, I think he called and -- right, and we said something about, maybe we should really write the book that you have been talking about.
Malcolm Brabant: No, that's not how it happened.
Tova Friedman: That's not what happened? How did it happen?
Tova Friedman: You see, this is what happens.
Malcolm Brabant: Yes, what happened...
Tova Friedman: We're not even married.
Tova Friedman: Go ahead.
Malcolm Brabant: What happened was that...
Tova Friedman: Yes.
Malcolm Brabant: ... Tova mentioned once, about a year later...
Tova Friedman: Oh, a year later, OK.
Malcolm Brabant: It was a year later.
Tova Friedman: OK.
Malcolm Brabant: And we stayed friends in this time. We had been in touch.
Tova Friedman: Right. Right. Right.
Malcolm Brabant: And you said: "I really want to write a book."
Tova Friedman: Right.
Malcolm Brabant: And I said: "Well, actually, I can help you do that."
Tova Friedman: Right. Sorry.
Malcolm Brabant: And she wanted to write it for her grandchildren. And I said, well, actually, I know some publishers, and we can actually write this book for the grandchildren of the world.
Tova Friedman: Right. And...
Judy Woodruff: The result is completely riveting.
And the stories of how the Nazis terrorized the entire Jewish population of your town, and, of course, they murdered many of them, and you witnessed this with your family.
Tova Friedman: They murdered most of them, not some of them, most of them.
I just want to tell you, there were about 15,000 Jews in this town in the beginning of the war. When the war ended in 1945, 300 returned out of 15,000. All these were murdered, some in Auschwitz, some in Treblinka, some starvation. And from hundreds, and many, many, many children, five survived.
So, in a sense, the entire town was destroyed.
Judy Woodruff: And, Malcolm, I think one of the hardest things for me to read about of the many was the complicity of the non-Germans, the Poles and others, who were -- they were not Nazis, but they went along, silently or otherwise, with what the Nazis were doing.
Malcolm Brabant: This is really sort of one of the kind of key lessons, I think, of the Holocaust, which is that, if you stand aside and you don't do anything, then disaster and murder and genocide takes place.
And the worst thing of all is complicity. And, at the time, there was an awful lot of antisemitism in Poland. Not everybody in Poland was antisemitic. There were lots of people who actually fought really hard.
But in the town that Tova came from, it was quite bad.
Tova Friedman: I and my mother, the two of us, we didn't know anybody else who survived, just two of us walking into the town.
And my mother met somebody she knew, a Polish neighbor. And the neighbor was coming towards us. And my mother was so happy to see somebody she knew. And the Polish woman said to her, which I remember very well: "What are you still doing here? I thought Hitler killed you all."
So, the war did not end for us, for many of us, as the liberation.
Judy Woodruff: This is not an easy book to get through, but it is so worthwhile.
But one of the things that was hard for me to read, Tova Friedman, was the impossible choices that the Germans imposed on the Jewish people, the decision your mother had to make when there was a point when the Nazis were choosing which families survived and which didn't. And she had to push away two of your cousins.
Tova Friedman: That was just one thing that caused her early death, because she died at 45 in America. She never stopped talking about it.
She felt this guilt. She lost 150 people, brothers, sisters, cousins. Not a single person survived from her family of origin, not one. And she thought to herself that maybe she could have saved those two little girls, although it wasn't realistic. She could not have saved them, but she thought she could have. And her guilt was just -- permeated her life.
Malcolm Brabant: There were no good decisions. It was either a bad one or a worse one.
And split-second decisions had to be made in order somehow to survive.
Tova Friedman: Right.
Malcolm Brabant: Survival itself was resistance against the regime.
Tova Friedman: Right.
Malcolm Brabant: And what we have tried to do is to take the reader and immerse them into Tova's story, so that they feel as though that they were walking in her shoes.
What it does is, is it takes them all the way through what happened in the ghetto all the way to the camps. And you see these people being stripped of absolutely everything and the awful decisions they have to make.
And the question that every reader should ask is, what would I do in those positions?
Tova Friedman: My story is not that unique, except that I survived to tell it.
Other children, when they arrived into Auschwitz, were taken straight to the gas chamber. They never had a chance. Nobody had a chance. Somehow, I had the chance. So I have to tell it.
Judy Woodruff: Now, Tova, there's more than the book. You have also done a TikTok story about this. Tell us about that.
Tova Friedman: Well, my fabulous grandson Aaron put me on Tic Tac as sort of a...
Malcolm Brabant: TikTok.
Tova Friedman: TikTok. Tic Tac is something else.
TikTok, because he thought that his schoolmates don't know anything about it. And he knew that they watched the platform, that they were comfortable with it.
And he even said to me, it will only be like 10, 15 people. Maybe they will -- maybe they will call you.
If you have any questions at all, I would love to answer them.
All of a sudden, thousands, thousands of young people who have never heard of the Holocaust began to contact him and me and questions. And at one point, there were 50 million. It's mind-boggling.
That means -- that gave me a lot of hope. That means that young people, young people who know nothing about the Holocaust are listening, are watching, and want to know. And that's really fabulous for me. It makes me feel that, when I'm not here, young people will remember.
Judy Woodruff: The Holocaust happened just, what, 70, 80 years ago.
Do you believe it could happen again?
Malcolm Brabant: What you're talking about really is human instinct.
And over the past sort of 20, 30 years, we have seen genocide. There were 100,000 people killed in Bosnia, and there were over a million people killed in Rwanda. So it is possible for people in -- for large numbers of people to be murdered, and for wars, and for these kind of pogroms to happen really, really quickly.
So, actually, what -- we need to be much more sort of reactive, and to knock things on the head before they really start, because trouble can really begin very quickly.
Tova Friedman: Yes.
Malcolm Brabant: It took 20 years for Hitler to write "Mein Kampf."
Tova Friedman: Right. Right.
Malcolm Brabant: And 20 years later, your people were on their way to Treblinka.
Tova Friedman: I didn't wake up in Auschwitz one day.
As Malcolm said, it took 20 years for this deterioration of the human behavior. First, the books were burned, all the literature, everything, right? Everything was burned. And somebody once said that people who are capable of burning books are eventually capable of burning people.
The laws against the Jews, what they're allowed to do, what they're not allowed to do. And people have to somehow, I don't know, get into the sight of their of their psychic, where you want to be there and to save the human race and not kill it.
We're not there yet.
Judy Woodruff: So important to tell these stories and to remember, and to keep talking about it, keep talking about it, to remind us what humanity is capable of.
The book is "The Daughter of Auschwitz," the authors, Tova Friedman, Malcolm Brabant.
We thank you both.
Malcolm Brabant: Thank you very much for having us.
Tova Friedman: Thank you.
Judy Woodruff: Absolutely riveting book. Please read it.
And this quick postscript: A source who will remain named, Malcolm Brabant, advised us that tomorrow is Tova Friedman's 84th birthday. And we all wish her many, many happy returns.