In the middle of the night of 17 May 1944, 19-year-old Hédi Fried arrived at Auschwitz. For three days, she had been in a packed wagon on a train that carried 3007 Hungarian Jews, including her mother, father and little sister Livi. The men were separated and the women queued in front of Dr Mengele who, with a flick of his whip, sent Hédi and Livi to the left, their mother to the right.
That was the last time Hédi saw her parents. She and her sister were forced into hard labour but survived the war and later moved to Sweden. Now 94, Fried has for several decades visited Swedish schools to talk about her experiences to make sure the Holocaust is not forgotten.
A new book collects some of the frank, honest, human responses to some of the questions she is often asked, and in the current edition of The Big Issue out now, you can read some of these. But ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Fried also answered some of our questions – and told us the questions she would like to ask.
The Big Issue: What is the most common question you are asked?
Hédi Fried: About my family. What happened to your parents.
Do you ever consider what your life would have been like had the Second World War not happened?
It would have been different. I also developed since not only the Holocaust changed me, the child also became an adult.
Why do you think fear, discrimination and a thirst for power still drive so much in the world today?
The change from an industrial era to a computerised one is scary. Old prejudices lead to discrimination. Egotism makes you feel strong, the more power you have the more you crave.
Is hate a stronger force than love?
No, just easier to manifest and people are more fascinated by evil than love.
Why are people reluctant to take responsibility and stand up to injustices?
A fear of punishment and a wish to adapt to peers’ views.
You write that the political changes that led to the Holocaust happened so imperceptibly slowly that people simply adapted – then it became too late to do anything about it. What warning signs were there?
Dissatisfaction. The political and economical crisis called for a change. A scapegoat has been pointed out, the Jews were pointed out. Language was one instrument to make the people accept it; denigration, calling them a boil on the clean body of the Arian state, rats and vermin.
Do you see similar signs in the world today? What should we look out for?
Yes. Similar dissatisfaction with political and economical issues. The language that changes, what was not ‘comme il faut’ to say yesterday goes perfectly well today. Truth becomes lies and vice versa.
In the United Kingdom, as elsewhere in the world, there is still anti-Semitism. Why do these prejudices remain?
Difficulties in realising that one has them.
We probably all have prejudices – should we confront them? How do we do so?
Important to confront. If confronted you don’t act them out, you realise that not all are alike.
Do you feel a responsibility as one of the few survivors of the Holocaust left?
Yes, but also as a human being.
What will happen when there are no longer survivors to tell the story, will the Holocaust feel more like a distant part of history?
In a way, but like the story of the Roman Empire it will live on. The following generations should carry on telling the story, memorial days will keep it alive.
What is your life like today?
I have a good life.
You speak to your sister Livi most days on the phone. What to you talk about?
About what is happening around us, our families, nothing different from what other sisters chat about.
Your book answers questions you are frequently asked – but what question would you like to ask political leaders?
Why not exchange your will for power for will for democracy?
What questions would you ask people who are prejudiced against certain races, genders or people of different sexualities?
How do you know that what you think about those people is true – do you have facts?
What questions would you ask us – the people reading this?
Why aren’t you thinking more with your heart?
Questions I Am Asked About The Holocaust by Hédi Fried (Scribe UK, £12.99), published on 27 January, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day