CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Tova Friedman autographs dozens of books for audience members lined up after hearing her speak about surviving the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp as a child.
“Never forget,” she writes inside the cover of her recent book, “The Daughter of Auschwitz.”
Then, one more request.
“Can I take a picture of your number?” a man asks.
Though worried about missing her flight out of Cedar Rapids, Friedman rolls up her sleeve.
Now faint, A-27633 is still legible on her left forearm where it was tattooed eight decades earlier.
The number, tattooed on her arm when she arrived in Auschwitz at age 5, was among the ways the Germans tried to dehumanize those in the camp.
Friedman, one of the youngest people to survive the concentration camp, told her story to more than 350 people who gathered to hear her speak March 29, 2023, at Mount Mercy University.
“I am a witness,” she said during her hour-long presentation, asking those in attendance to serve as witnesses to the truth when she is gone.
Born Tola Grossman in Gdynia, Poland, in 1938, she was just an infant when World War II began.
After the war, she and her parents moved to the United States, where she became a therapist, married Maier Friedman and began going by the name Tova.
Now 85 and living in New Jersey, Friedman has been speaking about her experiences as a Jewish girl in German-occupied Poland during the war and co-wrote her story, published last year.
Thanks to one of her grandsons, Aron Goodman, she also has become a TikTok celebrity, with millions of views.
Aron’s twin, Noah Goodman, 17, accompanied his grandmother on the trip to Iowa, where Friedman also spoke at Kirkwood Community College and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, and at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
“I’m not that worm that the Germans wanted me to be,” she said of life following the war, citing her long marriage, four children and eight grandchildren. “I am very blessed.”
Friedman lost 150 relatives who were murdered in the war and credits her mother for her survival by teaching her to never make eye contact with the guards and never to run, which would result in being attacked and killed by the camp’s dogs.
Her mother hid her then 6-year-old daughter under a corpse as Germans tried to kill any witnesses to the atrocities just before Russians liberated the camp at the end of the war.
Having lost all of her relatives except for her husband and daughter, Friedman’s mother became despondent after the war and died in her mid-40s.
Friedman said it was important for people to remember the past.
Eighty years later, her memories are still vivid of surviving the over-crowded ghetto where Jews were forced to live in German-occupied Poland and elsewhere; being sent with her parents to a Nazi labor camp at age 4 and being packed into a cattle car with her mother when she was almost 6, and carted off to Auschwitz II — also known as Birkenau extermination camp — while her father was taken to Dachau.
Stripped, with their clothes sent to Germans and shaved bald with their hair used to make mattresses, Friedman detailed the methods used by the Nazis to dehumanize Jews, 6 million of whom were murdered in the Holocaust, along with European Roma, or Gypsies, homosexuals and other targeted groups. The Nazi regime closed gay bars and meeting places, dissolved gay associations, and shuttered gay presses in the lead-up to the Holocaust.
Well-educated Germans were complicit in Hitler’s plans, Friedman said.
“What I don’t understand is why an entire nation followed him,” she said. “They knew. They just didn’t do anything about it.”
Friedman noted that book burnings were among the methods that Nazis utilized leading up to the Holocaust.
“You first kill them psychologically, and then you kill them physically,” she said.
When a member of the audience asked Friedman to comment on the parallels happening then and now, as Republicans in Iowa and other states target members of the LGBTQ community to ban gender-affirming care for minors and other laws, she refused, saying she doesn’t comment on politics.
She did say that the government is a necessary component, but didn’t think the United States would permit a similar genocide.
Her message made an impression on 11-year-old Sawyer Gluba, who is studying the Holocaust in school and was brought with his 10-year-old brother to the presentation by his great-aunt, Kim Wyatt.
“I’m glad I got to see her,” Sawyer said, shortly after Friedman showed him and his brother her numbered tattoo. “It’s important for people my age to hear about it, so hopefully it doesn’t happen in the future.”
Mount Mercy invited Friedman to speak through the David and Joan Thaler Holocaust Remembrance Fund. See more at: holocausteducate.org.