'I grew up with corpses everywhere': Holocaust survivor uses TikTok to tell her story

Correction & clarification: A prior cutline misspelled the name of Aron Goodman.

Tova Friedman was just 5 years old when she was taken with her family to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 6 when she was taken to Crematorium III.

More than 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives at Auschwitz. But Tova survived to tell the story. And, with the help of her grandson, she's using TikTok to teach young people about the horrors of the Holocaust, and why kindness is so important.

In her new book, Friedman writes that she was born Tola Grossman in Gdynia, Poland, in 1938. World War II would begin a year later. A year after that the family would be forced into the Nazi-created Tomaszow Mazowiecki ghetto in occupied Poland. Out of the 13,000 Jews in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, only 200 were alive at the end of the war and only five were children. 

Editorial Board member Carli Pierson spoke with Friedman about her book, "The Daughter Of Auschwitz: My Story Of Resilience, Survival And Hope," written with the help of veteran war correspondent Malcolm Brabant. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tova Friedman and her mother on the cover of her memoir, "The Daughter of Auschwitz."
Tova Friedman and her mother on the cover of her memoir, "The Daughter of Auschwitz."

You have almost 457,000 followers on TikTok. How did this initiative with your grandson start?

He was talking to his classmates. He is a senior in high school. And I don't know why he started talking about the Holocaust, (but) that they knew very little about it. And he was surprised because in our house, because of me, you know, the children, the grandchildren, we talk about it freely if the topic comes up.

So he thought to himself he's going to educate them. And he came over and he said to me, Grandma, can you do this for about two minutes? I said, "OK." All I can tell you is that, within a very short time, hundreds of people and then thousands of people. So he's been doing it now maybe six months. And he's got a lot of questions that he answers. Mostly (from) very young people, high school kids, from all over the world, which is interesting – calls from Australia, from Albania, from New Zealand. And it's very been very gratifying that he, at his age, could reach kids his age.

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What is your earliest memory of growing up under Nazi rule?

It's hard to tell because everything blends. At the age of 2 and 3, we lived in a ghetto with my family, mother, father and, at one time, my maternal grandmother, and I think her brother and other people. They put the Jews into a space where they can keep watch. You know? There were rules: You can't go out, can't come in. People who were free to move were people who had work permits.

Tova Friedman and her grandson, Aron Goodman, have created a massively successful TikTok account that Tova uses to educate young people around the world about the Holocaust. A prior cutline misspelled the name of Aron Goodman.
Tova Friedman and her grandson, Aron Goodman, have created a massively successful TikTok account that Tova uses to educate young people around the world about the Holocaust. A prior cutline misspelled the name of Aron Goodman.

Those who didn't work were at a disadvantage. And its purpose was to find us easily: To starve us because they control how much food we get, and then kill us. They could ship us here, ship us there.

I remember being under the table a lot because there was just no space, and it felt safe being there. But we lived as a family. You could move in inside the ghetto, but you couldn't get out of the ghetto.

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You're 6 the day your mom comes into your barrack at Auschwitz and had you do something horrific. Tell me about that.

I want to explain something to you. It wasn't horrific to me – I grew up with corpses everywhere. I grew up with people being shot right in front of me. I grew up with children being torn to pieces.

I always trusted her (my mom); I felt safe. And when we went to the hospital and she found a corpse – it wasn't scary to me. The corpse, it was a nice-looking corpse. Now I would say she was 18-20 (years old). She was warm still. And to hide with somebody who can't hurt you – she was my protector. You gotta look at a corpse different from the way you're looking now.

Tova Friedman
Tova Friedman

The smell of the burning of the bodies was everywhere. That's how I thought the air was supposed to smell. The first time I came in, I was surprised. "What is that smell?" I said to my mother. She said to me that's the burning of the bodies after they gas them. I was 5 1/2. But after that I didn't ask anymore – I knew it. Four or five months later, it was a normal smell.

With my bunk (mate), I don't even know her name, that's the terrible thing. She was about 12, though. She died of starvation. First, I could predict when she would die. We all could; all the kids knew. They would (point and) say two more weeks left, three, that much. Right? You could see the starvation of the body. You watched it. And when she died, I didn't worry about her death. Everybody died. Maybe next time it'll be me.

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What I worried (about) was that if they called her number and she doesn't say, "Here", they will call and call and we'd have to stand up. So I memorized her number. I knew the sound of it because I heard it so much. I was so proud, I remember. (I said) "See, here she is. She's right here" – where the other dead children of the night were lying. I pulled her out of the bunk bed. And I still remember how heavy it was for me to drag her by her feet to the front of the room so that she wasn't missing, that they know that she didn't run away and they don't have to look for her.

Tova and children during liberation by the allied forces. Tova is the child in color.
Tova and children during liberation by the allied forces. Tova is the child in color.

You were 5 and 6 when you were at Auschwitz. I have a daughter who is 6 now. What's your message to children learning about the Holocaust?

One of my big things is kindness. Use that kind side of you, rather than that mean side of you. We have both – that's how we were created. We have the good and the bad in us. And if you have a little girl, if you can teach her anything, is to use the kind side even when she doesn't feel kind. Even if she doesn't like the people. Choose kindness, if you can.

How have you sustained your faith after everything you've lived through?

I have a lot of trouble with God. You know, and maybe, if I have trouble with him, that means I believe in him. Because if I didn't have trouble with him, I would ignore him. But I have my good days and my bad days, I must tell you that.

Tova at 6 1/2 years old.
Tova at 6 1/2 years old.

How did you escape the gas chambers?

I've heard from other people. This person was a young man my age. He told me that he was supposed to go to the gas chamber with his father upon arrival to Auschwitz, which was very common. That's exactly how it was supposed to be done. Not me. They kept me longer, but as he was walking with his father, the commandant got a letter that he opened and he started yelling at somebody to get the group back, get them back to the barracks. Apparently, they ran out of gas that day.

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And I was so hard trying to find out what day was it. I spoke to this man. I said let's sit down and talk about it. Maybe we can find what day it was. Maybe that's what happened to me. Because we waited and waited and waited; we froze to death. We were naked. They gave us some kind of a rag. You know but it wasn't anything. Somebody thinks maybe it was near to a time when the Allies were coming. That's why they wanted to get rid of all of us very quickly. Maybe they were told from Berlin to stop gassing. I don't know what happened.

I remember they were walking with clipboards, they always had clipboards, checking off. That's what I thought: Oh, they got the wrong bunch of kids. They'll take us next time. They'll now get the right bunch of kids. You know, if you live in a nightmare, you don't know what is true. And especially if you're a little girl.

If you could tell that little girl who was hiding under the table in the ghetto, or who was watching kids dying in her barrack in Auschwitz, what would you tell her?

Interesting question. This too shall pass. Very simple.

Tova Friedman, 84, lives in New Jersey. She is one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz and uses her vivid memories to write and speak against antisemitism and prejudice. 

More from Carli Pierson: 

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Carli Pierson, a New York licensed attorney, is an opinion writer with USA TODAY and a member of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter: @CarliPiersonEsq

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Holocaust survivor tells story of Nazi gas chambers on TikTok