Friday, April 14, 2023

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.


“This 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: 

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

2.      Max, you penned a powerful book, Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir. What inspired you to write it? Two 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.  

3.      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.  

4.      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. 

5.      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. 

6.      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. 

7.      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.  

8.      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 bedroom. 

9.      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. 

10.  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. 

11.  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. 

12.  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. 

13.  Is there a lesson to be learned from Sam and Freida’s story? 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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About Brian Feinblum

Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2023. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent.  This award-winning blog has generated over 3.3 million pageviews. With 4,400+ posts over the past dozen years, it was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby  and recognized by Feedspot in 2021 and 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by as a "best resource.” For the past three decades, including 21 years as the head of marketing for the nation’s largest book publicity firm, and two jobs at two independent presses, Brian has worked with many first-time, self-published, authors of all genres, right along with best-selling authors and celebrities such as: Dr. Ruth, Mark Victor Hansen, Joseph Finder, Katherine Spurway, Neil Rackham, Harvey Mackay, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Warren Adler, Cindy Adams, Todd Duncan, Susan RoAne, John C. Maxwell, Jeff Foxworthy, Seth Godin, and Henry Winkler. He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America, and has spoken at ASJA, Independent Book Publishers Association Sarah Lawrence College, Nonfiction Writers Association, Cape Cod Writers Association, Willamette (Portland) Writers Association, APEX, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. His letters-to-the-editor have been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Journal News (Westchester) and The Washington Post. He has been featured in The Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. For more information, please consult:  



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