Some time ago, a high school student asked Sam Fried a question.
“What would you tell your parents if you could write a letter to them?”
On Wednesday, a group of high school students learned the answer from the gray-haired man standing on the Southwest High School podium, six decades after he survived the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp when he was their age.
Dear mom and dad,
I lost you at a very young age. Mom, I will never forget the last time I saw you. With tears in your eyes, you told me to save myself. There was no time to say goodbye …
Fried would have told his parents — had they not stepped off a train and been directed toward the gas chambers by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele — how those words stayed with him. He would have told them how they drove him to survive, to live and make sure a new generation learns from his experience.
“I’m not here for myself,” he said to his audience. “I’m not here for the victims. It’s too late. I’m here for you because I care about you.”
Fried, who lives in Omaha and with his wife, Frances, is co-founder of the National Holocaust Endowment Fund, spoke to students from Southwest, Southeast, Lincoln High and Bryan Community Center.
His appearance was arranged by teachers of elective courses about the Holocaust.
The classes include a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and teachers wanted to supplement that visit with words from a survivor, said Southwest teacher Mark Gudgel.
From that day on, death stared at me constantly. I lived from second to second. I fought each and every day to stay alive. I refused to give up hope.
Fried told the high school students how he went from a content and happy childhood in Czechoslovakia to the unimaginable.
As the SS troops advanced on Fried’s town, he said, a non-Jewish friend gave Fried his ID papers and told him to run away.
He planned to do so, until he saw his family led into the town square by police, and townspeople ransacking their home.
“In despair, I threw out my papers and turned myself in to be with my family,” he said. “My choice to dispose of my papers forever changed my life.”
Fried and his parents spent several weeks in a brick factory among the rats, then were loaded on trains and taken to Auschwitz.
There, Fried said, he became a number.
A few weeks later, he went to a coalmine, a satellite camp of Auschwitz, and finally escaped on a death march to another concentration camp.
“Here I am, 62 years later,” Fried said. “I can still smell the burning of the human flesh.”
That smell, he said, is the one thing a museum cannot duplicate.
How, asked one student, do you get past something like that?
When he escaped, Fried said – stepping down from the podium and sitting on the edge of the stage – he came upon Russian soldiers who gave him a piece of bread and some vodka.
“At that point I was standing there, I can see myself there right now. I’m standing there saying, ‘Now what? I don’t have a family, I don’t have a name,’” he said. “I had two choices. Go on living or dig a hole in the snow and say, ‘That’s it. I give up.’ I made a conscious decision.”
A decision not to disappoint his mother.
“You can’t live in the past and look forward to the future,” he said. “I cautiously put the past in the back. The past lives in me. I do not live in the past.”
But the past is there, when the soft-spoken man with letters tattooed deep in his skin takes off his jacket and tells students to learn from his story.
Before the Holocaust, he said, no one could believe it could happen.
“So I’m here telling you. Yes, we are capable of doing it. Humanity is capable of destroying each other on a large, mass scale,” he said.
“And it’s up to us, to you, to see to it and speak up and understand about the inhumanity in some of us. You can’t just sit back and be quiet and do nothing.”
Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or email@example.com