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So hungry she licked paint off the walls!

So hungry she licked paint off the walls! Tola Grossman was just five when she was sent to Auschwitz – and escaped certain death by hiding under a corpse

  • Tola Grossman, aged 6, a Polish Jew, was in a Nazi extermination camp in 1945
  • Now 84-years-old and widowed she writes a memoir about the experience 
  • She describes how her malnourished mother helped her to survive death 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

The Daughter of Auschwitz 

by Tova Friedman and Malcolm Brabant (Quercus £20, 352pp)

On January 25, 1945, panicky shots rang out across the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Six-year-old Tola Grossman — a Polish Jew — could already identify types of gun by their sounds. 

She noted chaotic bursts of machine gun fire, pistol pops and rifle cracks as she cowered in her barracks with around 50 other children. 

Tola heard her German captors shouting and their dogs growling as — unbeknownst to the children — they prepared to flee the approaching Russian army. 

In a memoir that bears witness to the full horror of the Holocaust, the 84-year-old widow (now called Tova Friedman, who changed her first name to Tova when she moved to America and her surname when she married) recalls the moment the barracks door burst open. 

Tola Grossman, aged 6, a Polish Jew, was in a Nazi extermination camp in 1945. Survivors: Children, including Tola (far left), reveal the identification numbers tattooed on their arms

‘We all jumped,’ she says. ‘In walked a woman I didn’t recognise. She looked terrible. Her features were distorted by malnutrition. Her face was little more than a skull covered in parchment-thin skin. Her eyes had retreated into their sockets. But her body was puffy. Starvation did that to a person. It made their flesh swell. Tufts of dark brown hair sprouted from beneath a piece of cloth fashioned into a scarf in a futile attempt to seal in some warmth.’ 

‘Tola, it’s me. Mama,’ said the woman, crouching down to take her child’s face in her hands. ‘I was incredulous,’ remembers her daughter. ‘I hadn’t seen Mama’s face for so long that I had forgotten what she looked like.’ 

Tola felt a wave of relief sweep through her. But she was not safe yet. 

In a memoir that bears witness to the full horror of the Holocaust, the 84-year-old widow (pictured -now called Tova Friedman, who changed her first name to Tova when she moved to America and her surname when she married) recalls the moment the barracks door burst open

Her mother pulled her out of the barracks and told her the Nazis were rounding up their prisoners for a long march into Germany, hundreds of miles away. She pointed down at her red raw ankles and her feet, wrapped in sodden rags. 

‘I can’t walk,’ she explained. ‘I’m going to be shot. Maybe you will make it. You might survive the march. But this is not a world for children. I don’t want you to survive alone. So let’s try to hide. There’s a chance we can survive together. And if we die, we’ll die here together. Will you come with me?’ Tola’s mother led her to the camp infirmary, where scores of beds were occupied by the dead and dying. 

She went from bed to bed, until she found the warm corpse of a young woman who had just died. Then she told her daughter to climb into the bed and hide beneath the blanket. ‘I was­ ­extraordinarily calm,’ she says. She cleaved to the cadaver as the Germans searched the room, tipping patients to the floor. She didn’t move until the sound of their jackboots had faded and her mother — who had hidden somewhere else — came back for her. 

Survivor children in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau after the liberation. 1945. Poland

Two days later the Russian soldiers arrived and ‘hugged the frail stick people in rags’. They handed out rations from their own packs and filled the camp with laughter. One tall Russian lifted the emaciated Tola into the air with a huge grin on his face. Friedman says that from then on she would always regard January 27 as an alternative birthday, because this was the date on which she began to live freely for the first time. 

Born in September 1938, all of Tola’s early childhood was spent in the terrifying shadow of the Nazi regime. Her family were among 15,000 Jews cramped into six four-storey buildings in the ghetto of Tomaszow Mazowiecki. A psychopathic Austrian policeman prowled the streets at night, to hunt and ‘cull’ Jewish children. Friedman learned that after the war he was hanged as a war criminal: ‘What a pity he only died once,’ she says. ‘He deserved to be killed a thousand times over.’ 

Until Tola was four, she slept and ate under a kitchen table as the Nazis rapidly reduced the community’s access to food. She was so hungry she licked the paint from the walls. The electricity supply was cut along with the sewage system. Disease was rife. 

When she was three, her maternal grandmother was shot in the street. 

‘The Nazis had no use for old people,’ she reminds us, ‘I never saw a person with white hair until I came to America.’ 

In an attempt to protect his family, her father — a tailor — enlisted as a policeman carrying out Nazi orders which he attempted to mitigate. 

This role gave him access to the information that would help save her life. But he left records that remind Tova that ‘every day presented him with new insoluble dilemmas’. 

Born in September 1938, all of Tola’s early childhood was spent in the terrifying shadow of the Nazi regime. Her family were among 15,000 Jews cramped into six four-storey buildings in the ghetto of Tomaszow Mazowiecki

He was ordered to place his own parents on the truck that took them to the extermination camp at Treblinka. 

‘I saw the look in their eyes,’ he said. ‘They knew where they were going. There was nothing I could do.’ 

The Grossmans were kept alive to clean up after the Nazi killings and dig graves for his friends and neighbours. Regular Nazi ‘selektions’ saw the rest of the family (including Tola’s four and five-year-old cousins) loaded onto trucks also headed for Treblinka. 

Once the Tomaszow Mazowiecki community had been obliterated, the Grossmans were sent to Starachowice, where Tola’s parents worked at an ammunition factory while the children roamed the streets careful not to get shot by the armed soldiers in the towns surrounding the camp.

When she was fiveand-a-half, Tola — an only child — and her mother were packed off to Auschwitz and her father to Dachau. 

Friedman’s account of her time at Auschwitz makes almost unbearable reading. But she asks that we do read it, because people are forgetting the depths to which superficially ‘civilised’ humans sank. 

A 2020 survey revealed that twothirds of young Americans have no idea how many Jews died in the Holocaust and almost half couldn’t name a single concentration camp. 

Twenty-three per cent believed the holocaust to be a myth or exaggerated. A similar survey in Europe in 2018 suggested a third of Europeans knew just as little. 

Her father survived Dachau and the family moved to America in 1950. But her mother never recovered from her emotional and physical trauma and died — probably of a bleed on the brain as a result of being hit on the skull by a Nazi rifle — when Tola was 18; her father moved to Israel and remarried. 

Tola went on to earn a degree in psychology and worked as a therapist. She married Maier Friedman and they had four children; her husband died two years ago. 

While helping survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she began talking about her own history. During her first talk at a school near her home in New Jersey, Friedman described how her mother had protected her in Auschwitz. 

‘Suddenly I started crying. Me. The girl who couldn’t and wouldn’t cry in Auschwitz.’ 

Today she continues to speak across the U.S. She says audiences often come to her seeking answers to life’s fundamental questions. ‘They’ve asked if I believe in God, if I could trust people or whether I could forgive.’ She tries to answer as honestly as she can. 

‘I do believe in God but not necessarily the biblical one. Trust is essential and I never lost my faith in humanity, despite my experiences. As for forgiveness — in Judaism only the living can forgive. I have no authority to forgive on behalf of those who have been slaughtered.’ 

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