The image of Frieda Kliger appeared on the screen, holding an album of black and white photographs. On her forearm, five tattooed numbers were still visible nearly 80 years later.
Sitting in her living room in Holon, Israel, Kliger looked into the camera, steadied herself and spoke with confidence.
“I am Frieda Kliger. I was born March 14, 1921, in Warsaw, Poland,” she said.
From there, she proceeded to share her harrowing story. It started with her childhood when she lost her mother.
“That was the first tragedy of my life,” she said of her mother’s death when she was 5.
But sadly, it wouldn’t be the last — far from it, in fact. Before long, World War II was on the family’s doorstep. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kliger and 380,000 other Jews were forced into a cramped space that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Eighty thousand Jews died from the deplorable conditions there.
But even in these desperate times, Kliger found a bright spot. She was in love with a boy named Heniek. Both in their early 20s, the couple wanted to be married. They even started looking for a rabbi to perform the ceremony. Just two days later, however, the Warsaw uprising began and the Nazis attacked the camp.
After resisting for 27 days, the Nazis overpowered the Jewish fighters. Kliger, Heniek and their families were sent to the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp in Eastern Poland.
Her sister and young nephew were murdered. Kliger and her other sister were even put into the gas chamber, only to be removed because the Nazis needed more workers. They just happened to be closest to the door.
The two were sent to multiple concentration camps, in a pattern similar to Anne Frank’s, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Bergen-Belsen.
Kliger survived the war but discovered later that her beloved Heniek did not. He was killed at Majdanek. She was heartbroken — but determined to go on.
After liberation, she and some friends set up a post office at Bergen-Belsen, which became a point of contact for those searching for family members displaced during the Holocaust. There, she met and married a man named Romek in 1945.
“He had very sad eyes. I thought to myself, ‘I’d like to bring life to those eyes. And I did,’” she said in the video with a smile.
The couple relocated to Israel where they had two children, Chana and Ezra.
Today, Kliger still lives in Israel, in Holan, but her son, Ezra Kliger, is a member of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. The world renowned violinist settled on the coast a few years back with the goal of bringing a little more culture to the area.
His children and grandchildren are located on the west coast and many other family members are scattered across the globe. They had all shared the hope of gathering in Israel to celebrate Kliger’s momentous 100th birthday, which is Sunday.
Unfortunately, travel restrictions due to the pandemic wouldn’t allow that. Instead, they are going to meet up on Zoom in their respective time zones for a virtual party. In Israel, however, flowers will be delivered and a city delegation, including the mayor, will pay a socially distanced visit.
Even so, the family is saddened that they won’t be together for the big day.
“It’s a big disappointment. It is,” Ezra said. “But we’ve designed a program for her. All throughout the pandemic we’ve had a rotation where a different family member calls to talk with her everyday, and it’s worked out.”
It was a heart-wrenching development for the entire Kliger family. Ezra shared that with a fellow temple congregant, Molly Knowlton. She had heard about Frieda Kliger many times before and even watched the YouTube video of her story created by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel.
“Ezra started telling me about his mother and then I watched her survivor’s testimony (‘If We Survive This War’) she gave for Yad Vashem. And as you watch it, you think about how her story is totally unique ... but it is also so universal,” Knowlton said.
“There was just something about her spirit that was amazing. She never dwelt on ‘why the Jews?’ ‘Why did this happen to us?’ She had this vision to get to Palestine, even though she lost everyone but one sister ... it just touched me personally.”
But Knowlton’s connection goes deeper than just being moved by the powerful YouTube video. Her father joined the American Field Services as an ambulance driver and was stationed in Europe during World War II.
“My dad was 18 in 1943, and he went to sign up. But he had asthma so they wouldn’t take him ... he signed up with the field services instead. He was a driver assigned to a unit of British forces,” she said.
Knowlton’s father was with those British soldiers on April 15, 1945, when they liberated Bergen-Belsen — where Kliger was being held.
“That changed him forever. He never talked about it and all we know about his time in the war is from a couple of letters that we found after he died. So all of a sudden, I imagined seeing him and her in that same camp. I was just blown away,” she said.
After making that connection, Knowlton was determined to help make Frieda’s 100th birthday special. She got on the horn, asking for as many homemade cards as she could get.
“I called Ezra and said ... ‘we have to send her 100 birthday cards.’ So that started it. I reached out to my family and friends. We put the call out on Facebook,” she said with a laugh.
Knowlton also connected with local teachers who asked their students to start making cards.
“Jen Waters, Katy Ginn, the principal at St. Simons Elementary, and Catherine Squire at Frederica Academy were all very important. People stepped up from all over and sent cards. I scanned some for Ezra to keep too,” she said.
All total, Knowlton shipped more than the planned 100 to Kliger in Israel. She hopes that they arrive in time for the big day as a celebration for the life of a woman who has survived so much.
“The other day, Ezra sent me a picture of his mother getting her COVID vaccine. So you see her getting the shot and you also see her tattoo from the concentration camp,” she said.
The juxtaposition was powerful, and Knowlton feels it serves as a reminder of perseverance and strength.
“You have the life-threatening tattoo and the life- saving shot,” she said, and paused. “I really hope she’ll get the cards in time for her birthday.”
For Ezra, his mother’s resilience has been a defining characteristic of her story.
“She’s a religious person. She’s a giving person. She’s a unique person. And despite everything she’s been through, she’s still an optimistic person,” he said. “She never saw herself as ‘the victim.”
As proof, he gave her a ring at her home in Holan. After an exchange in Hebrew, Frieda, never one to seek the spotlight, summed up her century on earth in her characteristically simple and humble way.
“Sometimes I don’t want to think about the past but, I still share my story. I’ve got 100 years. Not too many people reach this age,” she said in English, one of her five languages. “But I’m doing good. My heart is strong ... and it is open to everyone.”