In February 1942, Julia Symchuk was a 17-year-old maid in a Ukraine police station when she overheard her employers and the Gestapo planning to arrest a family friend. An innocent man. A Jew.
Symchuk ran through the snow to the farm of Jacob Friedman to tell him he was in danger. Friedman ran from the house and into the loft of his barn, where the police tried and failed to find him. He stayed there for months.
Later, as the Friedman family saw their Jewish neighbors rounded up, Jacob’s wife, Dora, their two sons, Henry and David, and a Jewish schoolteacher hid in the Symchuks’ barn, in Suchowola — about 6 miles from their hometown of Brody — while Jacob Friedman hid in another home.
“I could only lay or sit up,” Henry Friedman, now 92, remembered of that time. “I could never stand up. I couldn’t sneeze or cough the entire time.”
Friedman now lives in a spacious home on Mercer Island with his wife, Sandra, with whom he has three children.
And while the end of the war was 75 years ago, Henry Friedman’s memories of the war — and his journey to success and happiness in America — are fresh. The experience has shaped every aspect of his life, from his work ethic to his love of family to his appreciation for the simplest things. (“Have you ever been thirsty?” he asked at one point.)
When the area was liberated by the Russian army in 1944, Friedman weighed 80 pounds and his muscles had atrophied. He had to learn how to walk again.
When the family returned to the newly liberated Brody, they found it 70% in ruins, and that out of 9,000 or 10,000 Jewish residents, fewer than 90 had survived, or came back.
The Friedmans had planned to move to Palestine but only made it as far as Austria. In 1949, Henry Friedman came to Seattle. Ten months later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and deployed to Japan and Korea. He returned to Seattle in October 1952 and found work at a jewelry company.
One day, he and a friend crashed a wedding, where he met the woman who would become his wife.
“He was a great dancer, and so was I,” Sandra Friedman remembered. (Years later, their daughter would marry the son of the couple whose wedding Henry Friedman crashed.)
Together, they raised a family, built a jewelry business and, for 30 years, worked to raise money to open Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity in 2014 “as a thank you for giving me that opportunity,” Henry Friedman said.
“I have met Pope John Paul, presidents,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. Those are dreams, really. I never imagined. All I wanted was a full stomach.”
Friedman also started an essay contest at the Holocaust Center and named it for his father, who put a premium on education.
He is upset by what he sees happening in America: the division, the destruction, the way people disparage the country that has given him so much.
“You have a person like me, who comes not knowing the language, not knowing a soul, not knowing the customs,” he said. “And yet, I was able to raise a family, all my children went to college, when I didn’t finish high school.
“Where else can a person accomplish these things, than in America?”
In 1988, the Friedmans went back to Brody, where Henry walked the same streets he did as a boy, and, from memory, found his way to Symchuk’s house. He knocked and Julia answered the door. Ten years later, he flew her to Seattle. Only then would she admit that it was her family who sheltered the Friedmans.
For years after, Friedman had a hard time believing in God.
“I had a difficult time understanding how God could allow so many people to be killed,” he said. “It took me years to make peace.”
But he believes that someone was watching over him, which gives him hope — something he has spoken of many times, all over the world, as recently as 2017 in China.
Dee Simon, the executive director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, said some survivors build walls around their past; remembering and speaking about it is too hard.
“It’s the people who speak out who are truly heroes,” she said of survivors like Friedman. “Every time they spoke, it was painful for them.”
What drives them, Simon said, is that people didn’t speak out for them, so they are making sure that young people know the importance of speaking out for others.
“It wasn’t about the Jewish experience, it was, ‘How do we protect people?’ so that people will have empathy and connect with humanity when there is violence,” Simon said. “We’re giving them the tools and helping them find strength in stories.”
Simon, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, knows that many of them “can’t stop fighting the good fight.”
“That’s why they survived,” she said. “It’s their responsibility, almost.”
The pandemic has stopped Friedman’s speaking engagements, which worries him. He believes his message is especially important right now.
“By speaking about my experiences, it was to give young people a look at the future,” he said, “to never give up hope. I tell them, ‘You are looking at a person who has risen from the ashes, and if I can make it, you can make it.’
“The reason I am here is because I didn’t give up hope, and I was living hour to hour, in fear that this might be my last hour. Instead of hate, though, you have to turn to love.”