Interview With The Author Of A Holocaust Memoir


An Extraordinary Holocaust Memoir By The Son Of Two Survivors & His Search To Understand Who His Parents Were


“A sweeping and nuanced story of living with the effects of trauma.”

– Kirkus Reviews


A few decades after Max J., Friedman’s parents died, his
grandson asked to know more about Friedman’s parents, a pair of Holocaust
survivors who met in a Swedish refugee camp and came to America to start over.
He realized he knew very little of who his parents really were, especially of
their lives before they met one another. They never spoke of their lives before
the Holocaust. He was determined to find out and ended up discovering, after a
five-year, multi-nation search, who they were – and who he really is.


“My parents had a marriage that existed out of death and
despair,” says Max Friedman, 72, a resident of Larchmont, New York, and the
author of Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir.


“They were each married when World War II broke out in
Poland. Their entire families were murdered, including my mom’s first husband
and my father’s first wife, and their two young daughters. My parents found
each other after they had lost everything – but all was not love and happiness
for them as they struggled to get beyond their victimized lives.”


World War II killed, injured, displaced, and destroyed well
over 100 million people. The holocaust took the lives of six million Jews as
well. But the suffering did not end with the war’s conclusion nor did it evade
the next generation. Friedman, too, is a survivor, and his book reveals a
powerful, poignant, and insightful story.


book is about two people who survive the unsurvivable and then, wounded in too
many ways, find love, but not redemption, discover hope, but not without
suffering greatly, and search for peace, but too often in all the wrong places,”
says Friedman. “It seeks to unravel their lives and answer questions: What were
their lives like before the Holocaust? Who and what could they have become? How
indeed did they survive when so few came out the other side? These universal
questions rarely have simple answers, if any at all. Painful Joy explores what was and what
might have been and in so doing, seeks to restore the humanity of those who
lost too much to bear.”


Painful Joy represents
five years of intensive research in the US, Poland, Sweden, Israel and Germany,
seeking to unearth the real-life stories of two people in order to discover
their roots, recreate their lives and times and uncover both their remarkable
journeys and painful secrets. Part memoir, part genealogical mystery and part
history, the book is an absorbing, heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking tale
as readers accompany the author on his extraordinary exploration of the
complicated relationship between two Holocaust survivors who meet in Sweden
after their liberation, relocated to America, and experience the “painful
joy” of a love too often touched by death, pain, and anguish.


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Here is an interview with the author: 

What finally prompted you, years after your parents
died, to find out who they were before they turned into World War II Holocaust

Frankly I was always a bit curious about my family history — and had actually
made a few attempts to find out more.  In
1998, shortly after my mother died, we traveled to Sweden to at least try to
discover where we lived and how and when my parents met there.  Still, I never undertook any serious research
after that, perhaps I was very busy with a full-time job and a very busy
consulting practice. But in 2014, I turned to ghost writing memoirs for a
former CEO and his wife, a philanthropist. 
At that point, I began to feel some old-fashioned Jewish guilt about
never having focused that much attention on my own family.    

Max, you penned a powerful book, Painful Joy: A
Holocaust Family Memoir. What inspired you to write it?
catalysts.  First in 2016, my sister was
contacted by a Jesuit teacher from a Mobile, Alabama, parochial high
school.  He and several of his colleagues
realized their students knew too little about the Holocaust and thought they
could inspire them to learn more by uncovering the stories of local residents
who had been touched by the Holocaust. My parents had moved to Mobile, where my
sister lived, in 1991 when my father was ill and they couldn’t live alone any
longer.  The second catalyst also
occurred in 2016, when our then 8-year-old grandson questioned me about
survival after I had told him a bit about my parents and their difficult
lives.  He wanted to know whether he
could have inherited the strength of my parents and could be a survivor one day
as well.  I didn’t know what to say and
decided to find out. 

You spent five years intensively researching their
lives through scraps of records in the United States, Sweden, Israel, Poland,
and Germany, needing to translate your findings from Swedish, Yiddish, Polish,
and German. Were there times when you just felt like giving up?
Actually, once I
started, I began to find so many small things out, details like where my
parents were actually born — and who their parents were — and what kinds of
places they had lived in, that I just became more and more curious.  The more I learned, the more I wanted to
know.  At the beginning, it was the
excitement of the hunt itself and actually learning bits and pieces.  Then it as about finding more and better
sources who could explain what I was discovering.  Sometimes I felt that I knew too much rather
than two little.  So, the short answer is
no — I actually was deluged with sources and pieces of information.  I needed guidance to discover which paths
were the most important to follow and what some of my discoveries meant. 

So, what did you find out? That’s a very big
question and we don’t have five years for me to answer it.  Basically, I discovered that they had complex
lives before the Holocaust — that they were poor, came from large families
where many children did not survive into adulthood, and faced challenges very
early in their lives.  My father’s father
died suddenly when my father was just 4, and he had to become the family
breadwinner when he was 12.  My mother
and her family, also poor, lived on the streets and refugee camps of Prague for
about five years during World War I when she was also about 4 or 5, an
experience that probably was instrumental in forming her world view, and that
probably gave her some early training in surviving.  And that was just about the first years of
their lives.

In the process of discovering who your parents really
were, did you revise in your mind, how they raised you?
did it provide
more context for understanding how they lived after the war?  I suppose the answer is that those early
years my parents experienced the challenges of survival at a very basic level.  They were the original helicopter parents,
worried beyond measure that harm would come to us — so they had to protect us
from the outside world.  What they didn’t
realize is that how they behaved with each other and reacted to the outside
world themselves were models that actually caused even greater fears in both my
sister and me.  They were protecting us
from the forces outside of our little apartment and world, but not from what
was going on inside that world — which was equally if not much more scary.


Did you, in effect, discover who you are as well? I wouldn’t go
that far.  I would say that I have
continued to consider how their lives and psyches affected me and my sister and
continue to gain some possible insights. 
For example, and most especially, my persistent need to persevere no
matter what — to rarely give up — is something I attribute to them — and
frankly, as I get older, it seems to be even more evident.  Also my relatively short fuse when it comes
to getting stressed out and not being able to come back quickly – essentially
my fight and flight response — seems to be inefficient.  It takes too long to regain my composure and
too little time to lose it again.

Each of your parents were married to other people.
Your father had two young girls at the start of World War II. Both of your
parents would lose their spouses, and nearly all of their family members,
including your dad’s daughters. Is it a miracle that they found each other in a
Swedish refugee camp after the war, falling in love, and raising a new family?
Yes it had to be
a miracle, because given how different they were from each other and how
mismatched they were — it was not something that I think would have happened
in the natural course of a normal life. 
I think they would have been repelled by their respective personalities
if those were regular times and if they were not desperate to start again, to
find love again.  Of course, my mother
had her own story for how they met — which turned out not to be true, as so
many of her stories were.  She said they
were in a hospital and she had seen that there was a Friedman in the hospital
and she went to see if that was her first husband, who was also named
Friedman.  It wasn’t so instead they
decided perhaps, that fate brought them together. 

They got married and had two children, you and your
sister. All of you relocated to the United States in the early 1950s. What was
it like to start over as immigrants in the America?
I was only two at
the time, so I’m not sure I can answer that with any insight.  I can tell you that we were desperately poor
— so much so that I remember vividly how we had to hide in a closet when the
landlord came for the rent, because we didn’t have the money to pay.  There were the normal things — my parents
leaving us alone to go to night school to learn what they needed to become
citizens.  And my father worked six days
a week as a warehouse clerk so we would have enough food to eat.  We lived in a tiny apartment in a crappy area
of Coney Island.  I shared the living
room with my parents on two separate sofa beds and my sister, the girl, got the

You said you discovered that a lot of what your
parents told you about their pasts were inaccurate, re-imagined fragments of
their realities. Why did they lie or not recollect correctly?
Who knows for
certain.  As for my father, I think he
felt great shame and guilt about surviving when his wife and two children were
murdered, so he made up a story that at least had him hiding out with them for
a time.  The fact is, he was already in a
concentration camp when they were taken to Auschwitz.  My mother always lived a fantasy life — and
her aim was to in a sense look back and say that everything was better then,
that it was now, with our own family. 
That was not true — nothing was better then — except for her reimagining
of the past.  She never grew up and never
accepted what was, but instead imagined what she wanted her life to be.  That was one way they each survived.


Your dad almost never talked about the Holocaust while
your mom told stories often. What impact did it have on you, to know you are
the son of two survivors of something so unimaginable, and atrocious?
Did you feel
other kids your age understood the environment you were being raised under? The
only people who could begin to understand our lives were people and kids who
were living with people who had these unique, in terms of being able to
survive, while everyone around them were killed, experiences.  I knew many kids that had crappy lives — but
it was usually based on a father who drank too much, or just being poor, or the
like.  But they were not as afraid of the
world as I think we were — and our parents were. Honestly, they seemed to be
just the opposite.  We did know one
family where the mother and father were survivors, and who had a daughter.  I actually found her recently and discovered
that her life was even worse than ours was. 
I never imagined that was even possible.

Tell us more about your parents and what your
childhood was like as a second -generation survivor?
  What made our lives different?  First, their nightmares were our constant
companions, and we had to wake our parents up from their terrors fairly
regularly.  We had become child
parents.  Second, we came to realize that
we couldn’t really count on them to give us a normal life, not only the Father
Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet kind of normal we saw on television — but
really normal like we saw in other kids. 
We early on knew that they had been in concentration camps and were told
by our mother what that was like.  So, we
realized that they had suffered and so we had to keep them away from anything
to do with the camps or with wars that would be portrayed on television.  Our job was to protect them from the world —
and they thought that was their job.

You said you and your sister spent your youth trying
to make sure your parents never watched any documentaries, films, or TV shows
depicting the holocaust. Why?
Then you all went to see Schindler’s List
in 1994. What was that moment like?  As I
explained, our parents lived on the edge of being stressed out about the
tiniest thing.  Anything could set them
off and result in a fight or screaming and yelling.  Or in fact, crying.  So we had to protect them from the world and
themselves.  Or try to.  As for Schindler’s List, we didn’t go with
them, of course.  They spent their last
years in Mobile, Alabama, near my sister — so only I saw Schindler’s List with
my wife and boys.  I had stayed away from
all that — and reluctantly agreed to go to the movies.  It opened my eyes, because there on the big
screen were the people my mother had talked about so much — Mengele, Goeth and
the places she had been imprisoned in, the Krakow Ghetto, Plaszow and
Auschwitz.  Suddenly her story was real
and not imagined — at least at that level.

Is there a lesson to be learned from Sam and Freida’s

There are so many lessons I’m not sure I could begin to enumerate them
all.  Their story demonstrates what hate
can do when we dehumanize individuals or an entire people.  Their story tells us that to survive, we
sometimes have to reimagine our lives, forget things that are most painful and
sometimes create new and even happier or at least not so devastating
memories.  It tells us that to have a
chance to survive the unimaginable, one must live only one moment at a time,
that there is no past, or future. It tells us that each moment is more precious
than we can ever believe and despite the worst of times, there is hope.  It tells us that we need to be more
empathetic for people like my parents, into whose shoes we can never imagine
walking, while realizing that they did. 
They need to be admired.

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