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Memories of our survivors - Freda Kon

posted 10 Nov 2016, 12:20 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin   [ updated 10 Nov 2016, 14:06 ]

Memories of our survivors - Freda Kon - As told to Susan Yellin

As Holocaust Education Week ends, it’s important to remember that the Lodzer was built by survivors of the Shoah. Many are no longer with us. But here is the story of one of them, Freda Kon, who is alive and well and living in Toronto.20161104_121440_Lodzer_FredaKon_600.jpg

In 1944, Freda Kon made a promise: a vow she has steadfastly kept all these years.

At the time, Freda (Franka) Szpigiel was 22, surviving in the hell that was the Auschwitz concentration camp after first being rounded up with her family in Lodz and then sent to a number of other detention camps.

At Auschwitz an unknown woman approached her, showed the numbers on her arm to Freda and told her: “Maybe you are going to live through the war. Maybe. Our number indicates that we are going to the crematorium soon. But you, you should tell the world what happened here because otherwise nobody will know about it.”

Since that day, Freda has told her story a number of times, including as part of noted director Steven Spielberg’s Film and Video Archive of the Shoah.  But her account bears repeating because it speaks to the inner strength of many Jews during the Second World War who endured incessant beatings, slave labour, starvation and the loss of dozens of friends and family.

Freda tells of how she, her mother and sister managed to survive after German troops rolled into Lodz in 1940 when it was closed off as a ghetto for Jews. Even walking around the ghetto was difficult, like the time a German guard stopped her suddenly and forced her to wash toilets and floors in a nearby theatre, not knowing what would happen to her afterwards.

Before they closed the ghetto, German troops rounded up Jewish men, including Freda’s father, and took them to a field where horses were running free. The soldiers put the men on the horses then whipped both man and animal. Many fell off and were trampled under horses’ hooves. But Freda’s father, Yechiel, had come from a small town and was used to riding horses. He survived -- this time.  

Starvation was constant. “One night we heard there was a bakery that was selling bread,” she says. “Everybody in the family stayed for two hours each in the middle of the night to be there when the bakery opened. When it did open, the owners and others pointed to the Jews, who were then pulled out of the line. A boy came to me and pointing at me he said in Polish: you are a Jew. I swore at him so he let me go and I got the bread.”

When the ghetto was created, people started organizing the area into a mini-city – with a hospital, stores and workplaces.

Freda got a job in a kitchen set up for professionals, like doctors and lawyers. It was there at the age of 17 that she met Lolek Kon, the love of her life and the man who would one day be her husband.

Lolek eventually went to Freda’s father and told him that he wanted to marry his daughter, but her father told him war was not a good time to get married.

They left Lodz suddenly in 1944, when German soldiers packed the residents of the ghetto 80 people to a train car, gave them no food or water and sent them on to Auschwitz.

When they arrived, the men and women were separated.  Some were immediately led away to the camp’s notorious gas chambers, where about 1.1 million people died during the war. “Lolek’s mother put her arm around my shoulder and said: ‘Don’t cry. You will be with Lolek again.’  And that was the last word we heard her speak.”

Others were told they were going to get a shower and were told to strip, shaved and forced to sit naked on the floor for hours. Some, like Freda, her mother and her sister, were then told to get up and leave and were given clothes.

Every day the only nourishment was a bowl of thin soup and a piece of bread no bigger than a fist, says Freda. Her family survived because her mother, Bluma, hid all the bread and allotted a certain amount to the three of them every day.  

From Auschwitz the three women were sent to Stuffhof and forced on a death march, unbeknownst to them that the war was coming to an end.

They walked for eight days in ankle-deep snow, sleeping at night in barns where the horses, cows and pigs let them use their bodies to warm up the prisoners’ hands and feet. “Til today I remember those animals and I love them for it.”

At one point, Freda’s mother suddenly stopped and said she was not going another step, even while a soldier threatened to shoot them.  Oddly enough, when they refused to budge, the soldier left.

The next morning, they made their way to city hall and stayed in the area until they were liberated by the Russians.

One day, a Russian soldier came up to them and asked them who they were. “We’re Jews,” Freda said. “Impossible,” said the soldier. “All the Jews are dead.” Then he made her write down something in Yiddish and told them he was sending the note to his parents to prove to them amidst all the death, some Jews still remained alive. The soldier, of course, was Jewish.   

Freda, her mother and sister slowly travelled back to Lodz, honouring a pact they had all made before the war to go back to their hometown if they survived.

When they arrived, they discovered their home had been taken over by someone else who wasn’t about to let Freda and her family back in – a situation that befell many survivors.

The trio went to a registration centre where the Jews entered their names to let other surviving family members know they had made it through the war. Freda, who was hired on at the centre, would come home to her waiting mother every day with the sombre news that no one they knew had made it back. She said to her mother, “we have to forget it.”

A week later, May 24, she had just come home from work when she heard someone banging on the door. “I ran to the door and I opened it and standing there was my fiancé,” she says, still smiling at the memory. “He came in and told us that my brother was alive, that his father was alive, but that my father perished. Lolek knew he had to come back that day because it was my birthday because if there was any day that I would be back, it would be then.”

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The two married on October 6, 1945. They spent three more years in Poland, where they had their daughter Lily. Two years, later the family all went to Israel where they spent two more years, stopped in France to visit relatives and finally to Canada.

When in Toronto, word spread that Lodz survivors often congregated at Blady’s butcher shop on College Street, where Freda says a bowl of hot soup was ready for every newcomer.

It was here that the first seeds of the Lodzer Mutual Society were planted, a group that later bought the property on Heaton Street in North York where the Lodzer Centre Congregation still stands.

And it is at the shul where you will occasionally find Freda Kon, a vibrant 94 years old, still holding fast to her 72-year-old promise.


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