Berlin - "When do you want to come?" asks Margot Friedländer on the phone. Just a moment, she says, she has to get her diary. She has lots of free days in it now that she has hardly any invitations - the schools are closed, and so are the other institutions where, before corona, she would go to speak about her life. Does that get her down? "Of course," she says, "who knows how much time I have left." She turns 100 this year.
A small, delicate woman with incredibly big eyes opens the apartment door. She wears an elegant grey wool dress and ballerina pumps. We sit down in the seating area, with the sofa full of stuffed animals - the table is loaded with books and newspapers. "For me, nothing - not the Order of Merit or the other honours - is more important than young people," she says, before I've even asked a single question.
Then she jumps up - yes, really - and fetches a folder from her bedroom. It's bulging with letters and cards that students have written to her after she's read to them, answered their questions. "I admire you," one girl writes. "We learned about that time in our history lessons, but when you came, it was something completely different. I really understood it then."
"Try to make your life"
Margot Friedländer used to go out up to three times a week, talking to young people. She calls it her mission. "I don't want to know what your grandparents did," she says. "I'm here to tell you that I don't want you to ever face anything like that."
In 2018, she also visited my daughter's school in Kreuzberg. Her book has been on our shelves ever since, as it probably is for many Berliners. She signed it in her old-fashioned, neat handwriting. She is pleased when I tell her about it. I have the book with me, and she leafs through it. "Eighth edition," she reads. The ninth has since been printed. You can feel how important this is to her.
In recent months she has occasionally appeared online in front of students, but her last visit to a school was almost a year ago. At her senior residence, she's allowed one visitor a day, for an hour. "Stolen time," she says. But she adds: "I've made it, and yes, I'm leaving something behind." She mentions the book, the audiobook she read herself, the hour-long film recording of a reading, the prize named after her. And her words will indeed remain. But they are not what make up her testimony.
Margot and the few other people still alive who bore witness to the Holocaust embody its memory. This terrible number of 6 million; all the shot, gassed, starved people whose lives were simply cut short. Witnesses make the past reach into the present simply by being here, still alive. They are the immediate connection. The student who wrote her the thank-you letter felt it, and I myself feel it now as I sit across from her and listen to her.
She has already jumped up again and fetched the envelope in which she keeps the Star of David patch she wore in Theresienstadt. She takes it out of the envelope, holds it in her hands. It will be something completely different once it is displayed in a museum.
Margot Friedländer is 99. There is no-one still alive who she knew during the time when she was in hiding in Berlin, and no-one she knew from the concentration camp. She was born in Berlin in 1921, at the house where her parents lived in Lindenstraße, Kreuzberg. Margot Bendheim, as she was called then, had a happy childhood and youth, as she recalls. The family had a summer house on the Scharmützelsee in Brandenburg, Margot trained as a fashion illustrator.
She wanted to design clothes; her family owned a button factory supplying the Jewish fashion studios in the area around Hausvogteiplatz in Mitte, the Jewish textile quarter. This was the time that could be called her first life. Her second life began on a January day in 1943.
One afternoon, as she was working as a forced labourer at the Deuta factory on Oranienstraße, her younger brother Ralph was taken away. Their mother, who refused to let him go alone, followed him to the police station. All three of them were just about to leave Berlin, with hopes of making it to safety. It was then that Margot went underground. Her mother left her an amber necklace and a message: "Try to make your life." This is the most important sentence of her life. Now, it is the title of her book.
Breaking the silence
Margot's third life began when she emigrated to New York after the war together with her husband, who never wanted to see Berlin again. They lived in Queens, in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Kew Garden, speaking German to each other. She worked as a seamstress and in a travel agency. The couple traveled a lot. Now she pulls open a cupboard; it's full of photo albums, one for each trip.
That she came back to Berlin, that she survived and is still alive today, is truly a miracle: "I'm happy, every day, every hour, that I came back." Doesn't she have every reason to hate Germans? "I don't hate Germans," she says. "I am German. I belong here, I have nothing to forgive." She focuses on those born after her, she says. "I can't blame them, they didn't do it. It's a different time now."
"I wasn't finished with Germany," she says. Her mother and brother were murdered by Germans in Auschwitz. But it was also Germans who helped her to hide in Berlin. "They shared their food with me, even though they didn't know me at all and it could have cost them their heads. There were good people."
In the end it was Jewish Greifer ("grabbers" who turned other Jews in hiding over to the Gestapo) who sent her to the concentration camps - to Theresienstadt, where she was starved and forced into hard labour, but luckily she survived. That was also where she met the man she knew from the Jewish Cultural Association in Berlin again, and who she married after liberation.
The US didn't help me when I needed them.
Two photos of Adolf Friedländer stand in silver frames on a side table in front of the bookshelf, a tall man with glasses and dark parted hair. He died in 1997, and after his death, Margot took classes at a community centre in Manhattan. She did tai chi, attended a music appreciation course, and also a writing class on the themes of memoires and memory. There, she broke the silence about the past that her husband had imposed on her.
She gets up again and returns with a slim yellow book, containing a few stories that were written at that time. One entry from a course participant tells of a summer holiday to France, another of a six-year-old's move to New York. Margot Friedländer's text is called: "My mother's desperate try to get us out of Germany". Her mother tried tirelessly to get foreign visas, she recalls, first for the US, then for other countries. "We were too far off the quota limits. They never called her."
Margot wrote her testimony at night: "Emotions are much stronger in the dark." It shocked her, she says, how little the other women knew about the story. She felt ambivalent towards her new home: "The US didn't help me when I needed them."
The Friedländers received several invitations from the Berlin Senat to a week-long visitation programme for Jews formerly resident in Berlin who had emigrated and fled during the Nazi era. They declined. Then Margot wrote a letter back herself: maybe the programme still existed? In 2003, she went back to Berlin for the first time. When her book came out in 2008, she went around Germany again, speaking to students, in bookshops, and she felt the interest and appreciation for her story.
Back in Queens, she asked herself: "What are you doing here? You can do so much more there," she says. She lived in Berlin for seven months on a trial basis in 2009, and then the decision was made. In February 2010, she flew back to New York and cleared out her apartment within a month. "How can you go to Germany?" many of her New York friends asked. She was undeterred - and has now lived in Berlin since March 2010. Her fourth life.
"These 10 years have given me an infinite amount," Margot says. "That recognition from the students who say thank you, who say we'll never forget you, you can count on us." At nearly 90, she had to build a new circle of friends: "I didn't know a soul."
Now there are pictures of her Berlin friends all over the apartment. There's her doctor and her family; André Schmitz, Berlin's former state culture secretary, with whom she has a close relationship; and Professor Einhäupl, who presided over the Charité until 2019 and in whose home she celebrates her birthdays, including her upcoming one. "I expect to be there, 100 per cent." She plans to celebrate with 100 guests.
The question of whether I did the right thing goes with me throughout my life.
How does she spend her days now? "Oh, I'm not bored," Margot says. She talks on the phone a lot, including with friends in New York, she answers emails. "When Biden was elected, I sat in front of the TV day and night." In November, she met Leon Goretzka, a football player on the German national team who campaigns against racism. Right now, she's busy cutting her hour-long reading down to a half-hour. She can no longer manage to read for an hour.
It's dark now - but Margot doesn't turn the light on. She speaks now of her brother Ralph - he was 17 when they took him away. "He was brilliant, extraordinary, he played the violin, skipped two grades." She wonders what could have become of him. "I live for my mother and for my brother. I don't blame my mother for leaving with him, there was no more hope for him." She was the only one left with any hope, any chance for the future, but she still grapples with the fact that she took it. "The question of whether I did the right thing follows me throughout my life."
She had Stolpersteine laid for them and herself in front of the house where they last lived: Skalitzer Straße 32 in Kreuzberg. And she has placed two small stones for her mother and brother on the grave of her grandmother Adele at the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee. Her own grave will one day lie next to this one, with a memorial stone for her husband, who is buried in New York. "I'm proud to be Jewish," she says without hesitation.
Our hour's visiting time has long been over. Margot brings me to the door. "Say hello to your daughter for me," she says, "she knows me." An Edeka brochure is sitting on her doorstep. "My neighbour brought it for me." She picks it up and now stands there, holding the colourful brochure in one hand, and waving goodbye with the other.
Suzanne Lenz's interview with Margot Friedländer was translated from the original German by Elizabeth Rushton.