NEW YORK — Before the horrors of the war, Frida Simon used to go dancing with her friends in their town in the mountains of Romania. She had a strong singing voice and performed at religious functions for women. Her mother would prepare challah and chocolate cakes in their brick house for the family’s Shabbat together, and her father ran a small business producing wood-burning stoves.
Frida met her girlfriend’s brother Zelig, who was also a singer, a few years before the town’s Jews were rounded up and deported. Zelig saw it coming. By that time, he and Frida were together, and he begged her to run away with him. Frida’s parents wouldn’t let her go because the young couple wasn’t married yet.
Their paths split, then wound through Auschwitz, labor camps, post-war chaos and later family life, before re-converging when they married in New York 50 years later.
Frida celebrated her 100th birthday with family last week. She is alert and curious, but is hard of hearing, and having respiratory problems after a bout with COVID. She prefers to speak Hungarian and Yiddish, and avoids talking about parts of her past. The Times of Israel spoke to her in Hungarian, with her daughter and caretaker translating, and reconstructed her backstory through an extensive 1997 interview she gave about her wartime experience, and information from her family.
She was born in 1922 in the city of Cluj, Romania. Her family moved to the Maramures region, on today’s Romania-Ukraine border, when she was a girl. In her interview with the Shoah Foundation, she described the area as quiet, in a lumber-producing region in the mountains. The family of six lived in a two-bedroom house with a dining room and a kitchen with a stove and a table. There was no running water indoors, but they had it in the backyard.
Her father, Yaakov, employed two people in his business making stoves out of metal, and people came from out of town to buy his wares. Frida’s mother, Sara, was a housewife who helped with the business and made home-baked spongecakes for the kids. They spoke Yiddish at home, and Romanian and Hungarian outside. Frida was the second-oldest child.
The family cherished Shabbat and Sara taught her children to pray and observe the holidays and they made their own matzah for Passover.
“Purim was nice. It was beautiful. My mother would start baking two weeks before because we had lots of friends and we used to bring [the food] to them,” she said. “I helped my mother. I helped bake. Everybody dressed up. When I was young I dressed up, sometimes like a boy, sometimes I was a mommy.”
She said she “dreamed of a nice home, nice husband, like all the young girls,” during the 1997 interview, with Zelig, who also went by Shimon, sitting off-camera beside her. “He was my boyfriend. He was good-looking, he was slim, [stood upright], young,” she said, gesturing to him. They visited each other at home every Shabbat.
Above: A segment of an interview Frida did in 1997 with the USC Shoah Foundation.
Her father read the newspaper every day and the family had a radio. The family started to sense the coming storm from news reports in 1943, then authorities started jailing people “and we knew it was antisemitic,” she said. Hungary had annexed their region in 1940 in an agreement arbitrated by the Nazis.
Then a boy who escaped Poland arrived in their town’s Jewish community and sheltered at their house.
“He ran away from the ghetto and he told me about it. He was never dreaming — he was crying in his sleep that they killed his parents and his sisters. We made him space because we had a lot of [non-Jewish] neighbors; they shouldn’t see him. We put him in the attic,” she said.
“We believed the stories but we couldn’t imagine that we were going to be killed.”
Zelig heard rumors of what was coming and implored Frida to run away with him to a more remote area.
“I went to [Frida], she was at home, and I said to her, ‘You know what, don’t go, come with me,'” he said in a 1997 interview with the Shoah Foundation. “Don’t go with your mother and father, come with me,” he said. He escaped; she stayed with her family.
The police rounded up the town’s Jews in 1943, put yellow stars on them, and confined them in their synagogue. She was allowed to bring two dresses, but no food, and her father begged for food on the way there. Some of the non-Jewish neighbors cried when they left, but ended up turning against them by the time they came back after the war.
There was no plumbing inside the synagogue and they were packed in “like herrings,” she said. Her father was sick, and Hungarian police beat him until he told them where the family had hidden its valuables.
After a few days, the police took them in horse-drawn carts to a small ghetto in Czech territory. A few hundred Jews were confined there in an area with a big yard and a few houses, with many people packed into each building. Hungarian troops patrolled the fence outside, and some local Jews gave them some peas through the fence from time to time.
They kept Shabbat but they were starving, and cried for happiness once when they got some bread. Frida’s mother worried about her because she was always so skinny.
After a few months, the soldiers started taking people away in cattle cars.
“They told us we were going to Auschwitz, to Poland. I figured maybe they’re taking us to work, then we’re going to come back home,” she said.
They met Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele when they arrived at the camp; it was Frida’s first direct encounter with German Nazis.
When the cattle car doors opened, she saw only a field. “Mengele was there and he was showing, this goes to this side, this goes to that side,” she demonstrated.
She had been holding her mother, but two other women in the line shoved her backward, and they were separated.
“I started crying, ‘Mom, Mom,’ but it was too late,” she said. Her mother’s last words to her were, “Promise to remember Shabbos.”
She was with her sister, Clara, and some friends from home, when they had their heads shaved. She thought her parents had been sent to another barracks, but they went directly to the gas chamber.
“I was so naive that another day I went to the wire, the selection area,” she said, to ask the SS guards where her parents were. “I said, ‘I remember where my mother went. I want to look for my mother.’ They said ‘Go, your mother’s dead already. Go because you’re going to get killed.'”
The prisoners sang in the barracks to try to keep their spirits up and ate potato peels. After she got dysentery, a civilian engineer she worked with sneaked her some medication and extra food that she said kept her alive. Her sister stood next to her in line during roll call when she was weak from sickness and would help hold her up, and they rubbed red paper on their cheeks so some of the color would come off and make them look more healthy.
The guards took them in trucks to a work site an hour away.
“They teased us with the dogs, that they should bite us. We went with bloody feet to work, crying, and then when we arrived, my sister, everybody, had to carry heavy stones.”
At one point, she was kept opposite the camp’s crematoriums. She saw a line of girls in a yard outside and one of the girls asked the prisoners where they were being taken. Frida said she didn’t know. The girls saw the crematorium and began reciting the Shema prayer. Frida snuck out of the barracks that night to use the bathroom.
“God, what I saw, the smells from the bones, the sky was red like fire from the crematorium. They burned those nice young girls because they were skinny, put them to death.”
Zelig hid out in Budapest and Vienna. He was caught twice by Hungarian police and made to work in German-run mines and bomb factories, but escaped both times and remained on the lam until the war ended. Another of Frida’s sisters, Monci (Margaret), hid in Budapest.
In the fall of 1944, the Nazis took Frida to Ravensbrueck, where she worked in an ammunition factory, still with her sister Clara. As the allied forces closed in, the Germans took them on a death march in the cold and rain. A Czech girl in their group tried to escape and the guards chased her down with a dog, then made the other prisoners watch while they broke her bones, then shot her.
A big story
Russian troops liberated them, and broke into stores to get them clothes. One soldier caught a German woman who was trying to escape the area in a mink coat, took the coat, and gave it to Frida.
Clara and their sister Monci both lived. Frida glimpsed her brother after liberation, being driven away by a Russian military truck, apparently a prisoner, but was never able to find him again, despite years of searching. Their parents, grandfather, cousins, and aunts were killed.
She resumed keeping kosher and observing Shabbat right after the war.
“I had friends that said, ‘Are you crazy? You see what happened to your parents. They were so [religious], and look.’ I said, ‘It’s a miracle I got out alive. This is why I have to be [religious].’”
She had typhus at the end of the war and needed six months in a hospital to recuperate. She went home, but her non-Jewish neighbors had taken everything and the Jewish community was gone.
She and Zelig both thought the other was dead. One of Frida’s friends met Zelig, and mistakenly told him that she had died, and he got engaged to another woman. During the engagement, Zelig met Frida’s sister, who called Frida to tell her the news.
“She said, ‘Sit down, I got to tell you a big story,’” Frida said. “Sit down first.”
Zelig told Frida he would break the engagement to marry her, but she refused, saying, “You cannot break off an engagement,” and told him he should have waited longer to see if she survived.
She took a job with the Agudah Jewish organization cooking for orphaned children and met her first husband, Shia Basch, whose pregnant wife and four children had been murdered by the Nazis. They married under a huppah in Budapest, and had a cake and friends at the wedding, but no music.
She had her first child, Susan, a year later, and then had Hilda and Jack (Shmiel). The family moved to Montreal, where Shia’s sisters lived. Shia had to jump off a train on the way out of Hungary to dodge police, who wanted him for trading on the black market, then ran through the woods to Vienna.
In Montreal, the three children learned the religion and the family befriended Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. Frida told her kids the number tattooed on her arm was the rabbi’s phone number, and that she would call him if they misbehaved.
Shia was a cake baker and the couple made kosher wafers for sale, and he later became a kosher inspector. He struggled with his wartime trauma, spent much of his free time studying the Talmud and reading, and was honest to a fault, their children said. He became sickly with asthma and bronchitis, likely due to his Holocaust experience, and later had two strokes, the second of which partially paralyzed him. Frida, by then in her 50s, didn’t want to put him in a care facility and took on his care herself, picking him up for baths.
Zelig and his wife had moved to Romania, but the marriage didn’t work out, and in 1966, he moved to the US with the help of the Jewish aid group HIAS. He found out through the Romanian Jewish community that Clara, Frida’s sister, was in New York. He went to visit her on a Saturday night, and asked, “Where is Frida?”
“Frida is here. Frida is in Canada. She is married in Canada,” she said.
Above: Zelig talks about reconnecting with Frida after the war in a 1997 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
Frida and Zelig arranged a meeting, but her husband, Shia, was uncomfortable about it because he knew about their feelings for each other. The kids also felt protective of their father. Frida took her sister along with her to the meeting to make her husband more comfortable. The two old flames became friends. Around the same time, Zelig got married to a woman in New York.
Shia died in 1982. During his last six months, he was in a hospital on oxygen, with Frida by his side each day. In the late 1980s, Frida moved to New York to be closer to her son, Jack, and remained friends with Zelig.
Then, in 1992, his wife died of an illness. He mourned her for a year, then came back to Frida. They both felt that they were going to be together, and he proposed.
“It’s not good to be alone. We should be together,” he told her.
“Of course,” she said.
“It felt great because I knew him, and he was familiar to me. I was really hoping he would propose to me,” she said.
A rabbi married the couple in their Brooklyn synagogue with around 20 congregants in attendance. They settled in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, near Clara.
When they married, “Frida felt like she was coming home,” said her daughter, Susan. “She could get in touch with memories before the war that were joyful. He brought out a lighter side of my mother.”
“Their relationship was a joy to watch. They laughed and joked together like two teenagers,” she said.
He was a kind and gentle soul, keenly aware of her past suffering, Susan said. Zelig had been on the run during the war and was spared the worst of its atrocities. He was funny and upbeat, always cracking jokes. The couple took long walks together daily and planted tomatoes in their lawn. Frida loved to hear Zelig sing at their synagogue.
“If I’m healthy, my wife is healthy, everything is good,” Zelig said. “She’s everything.”
The war stayed with them — in her 1997 interview, Frida said, “Yesterday at night I couldn’t fall asleep. I was in pain, and he also couldn’t [fall asleep]. You can’t forget those things, when they kill your parents, and kill an innocent beautiful brother, a big family, aunts and everything.
“It’s always in your mind, constantly.”
She said she often dreamed about her mother, and remembered how she told her to always buy candles for Shabbat. “Everybody should be good to each other and everybody should believe in God,” she said.
In 2006, after 12 years of marriage, Zelig passed away of intestinal cancer after a short illness. He had some symptoms of dementia at the end, maybe related to his cancer. Even when he was sick, he would walk from their apartment on 9th avenue to the grocery stores on 13th avenue and carry the heavy food back home for Frida to cook, since the couple didn’t drive.
Frida was devastated when Zelig died. She had a hard time coping and ended up in a hospital, with no clear diagnosis, at the same time Zelig was hospitalized. She had already lost Shia, and now Zelig, and she mourned them, and couldn’t face the fact that she would be a widow for the rest of her days.
She grieved and had dreams about Zelig, and started to recover after about a year. She spent Shabbats and holidays with family and focused on what she still had, saying that “life is for living.”
Frida today is cheerful but has trouble talking about some parts of her past. Asked about her husbands, she says, “I loved them both. I had love and loyalty in both men.”
She shows the faded ink on her arm and says, “It’s very important that people know what happened and I want people to remember. I want to be remembered. I’m never going to forget people going to the crematorium.”
Frida celebrated her 100th birthday over the past week with some of her children, her eight grandchildren and her 13 great-grandchildren, who brought her balloons. She said she was excited and felt honored by all the attention, and received a bouquet of 100 red roses. She has passed down her mother’s songs, recipes and sayings to these progeny.
Today, she said she loves her meals and looks forward to her physical therapy sessions.
Her favorite thing to do is sing old songs and hymns, her old passion, as well as Zelig’s. She sings in Hungarian with her caretaker, Erzi, and in Yiddish on the phone with her children.
One of her favorites is a Yiddish song about mothers.
“How light it is in the house when your mother is still here, how dark it is when she is no longer here,” she sings.
Above: Frida and Zelig at home in New York in 1997 in an interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
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