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A Holocaust survivor uses TikTok to share her story with the next generation

Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman stands on the left with her sleeve rolled up on Liberation Day.
Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman stands on the left with her sleeve rolled up on Liberation Day.

In 1944, Tova Friedman and her family were taken to the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. She shares the story in her book The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope — and through TikTok, with the help of her grandson. Friedman visited Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon in her first trip to Iowa.

Tova Friedman was just 4 years old when she was sent to the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although the memories are painful, she says she will not stop sharing her story.

@tovafriedman With Holocaust Remembrance day being just a few days ago, we are showing undeniable evidence of the occurrence of the Shoah. The Red Cross gave THIS card to all survivors to grant them access to free travel to return home after liberation. Homes were destroyed or taken over by neighbors or government. #shoah #evidence #undeniable #truth #jewtok #booktok #daughterofauschwitz #history #education #xyzbca #fyp #foryou ♬ Exciting system spacelike Epic sound - MoppySound

"I'm very dedicated not to forget, not to have the world forget all of those innocent people, children who were murdered only because of their religion," Friedman said on IPR's Talk of Iowa. "It wasn't the war, it was genocide. We didn't fight back. We didn't even have any weapons. We didn't even realize what was going on until it was really too late... Millions of people and children were slaughtered in many different ways, and a few lucky ones did survive, and I need to make sure that the world does not forget those — especially those children — who aren't here to tell their story."

In addition to sharing her memories, Friedman considers her story "a warning," especially as acts of antisemitism around the world are on the rise. In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League tabulated 3,697 antisemitic incidents across the United States — a 36% increase from 2021 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. Incidents occurred in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. Fourteen occurred in Iowa from 2019 - 2021.

"Look what happens if you keep on hating and acting upon your hatred and not thinking about what the consequences are," Friedman said. "The consequences are the deaths of innocent people."

Now 85, the Holocaust survivor made her first trip to Iowa in March, stopping at Coe College, Cornell College, Kirkwood Community College and Mount Mercy University.

Friedman published a book in 2022 that she wrote with journalist Malcolm Brabant, titled: The Daughter of Auschwitz: My Story of Resilience, Survival and Hope. With the encouragement and help of her grandson, she's also posted a few videos about her experiences on TikTok, which have amassed millions of views.

A childhood spent in Auschwitz

Friedman says she doesn't remember moving into the ghetto in central Poland, but she recalls what it was like once she and her family were there.

"It was very crowded," she said. "A very small, crowded apartment, with people coming and going."

Her grandmother was killed early on by Nazi soldiers who targeted children, the sick and the elderly. She said even though she was young, her parents didn't shield her from the violence.

"My parents let me see and let me hear," she said. "They didn't want to protect me from it, because they thought — especially my mother thought — the more I see reality, the more I'll be able to take care of myself if I have to."

After the ghetto closed, Friedman and her family were moved to a labor camp, where her parents worked in an ammunition factory. Not long after, she and her mother were separated from her father and transferred to Auschwitz, the most well-known and deadly of Holocaust extermination camps.

"We were sent Auschwitz to await our deaths," she said.

"My parents let me see and let me hear. They didn't want to protect me from it, because they thought — especially my mother thought — the more I see reality, the more I'll be able to take care of myself if I have to."
Tova Friedman, Holocaust survivor

Friedman quickly learned how to survive and endure the camp's bleakness. Though barely able to read, she memorized the numbers tattooed on her left arm. She learned to look down and not make eye contact with the guards, to protect her assigned tin cup, bowl and spoon — to become invisible to avoid being noticed and killed.

One day, her mother snuck into the children's barrack where Friedman stayed. She moved her from the barrack to the infirmary, where she hid her with a corpse under a blanket until Nazi soldiers had gone, leading other prisoners on a death march.

"I was very careful not to breathe in such a way where the blanket would rise," she remembered.

The camp was liberated by the Red Army during the Vistula–Oder Offensive in 1945.

"I saw that they wore different uniforms," she said. "And what I noticed was they were in excellent moods. They were laughing, and when they opened the gates, one soldier came over to pick me up, threw me in the air like 'she's so little!' I was 6and a half, but I must have been very light.

"And I looked at my mother and she didn't protest. She smiled, so I knew it was safe."

The first thing Friedman said she ate after escaping with her mother was freshly baked bread.

After Auschwitz

Survivors went back to their hometowns after liberation, but things were never the same. Friedman endured discrimination from her classmates at school.

"The Polish children called me 'dirty Jew,'" she said. "The war continued. Not in the same way of course, but it wasn't over."

Other than her mother and father, who both survived, many of Friedman's relatives had died, and her mother became severely depressed. Eventually, the family moved to America. They moved to Queens before settling in Brooklyn and met other Holocaust survivors. Friedman was plagued with the realization that while she had suffered, the lives of others had gone on normally. She recalled meeting a girl in school who whined about attending her piano lessons.

"The kids know nothing about the war... I said to myself, 'She played piano while I was in Auschwitz?' For the first time I realized that there were parallel worlds," she said.

Friedman's mother died early, at 45, and for many years Friedman stayed relatively quiet about her experiences at Auschwitz. However, she chose to keep her tattoo as a reminder to herself and others of what had occurred.

Sharing her story

By middle age, Friedman began to speak publicly.

"I realized that a lot of people don't know about it," she said.

She started small, speaking at her children's school, before expanding her audience. A new way she shares her story is through TikTok, after her grandson asked if she would let him record a two-minute video because some of the kids in his class didn't know about the Holocaust. She said she recorded the video and forgot about it.

A few days later he told her the video had thousands of views, which grew to millions. Today, the page has more than 500,000 followers.

"They're listening," she said. "They’re watching and want to know... it makes me feel that when I’m not here, people will remember... I don't want them ever to forget that my story has to be multiplied by 6 million."

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa