"Try to make your life."
These were the last words Margot Friedlander ever heard from her mother.
They were relayed to her secondhand from a neighbor after Friedlander's mother was taken away to Auschwitz during WWII.
The phrase is also the title of her memoir that's just been published in a newly translated English version, Try To Make Your Life: A Jewish Girl Hiding In Nazi Berlin.
"You must be the Zeitzeugen (time witnesses)," Friedlander recently told an audience at the Goethe Institut Washington. "It is up to you that this should never, never, never happen again, and that’s why I’m here to tell you about it. I always know that I cannot reach all of you, but if I reach a few, I have done something good."
Friedlander’s mother and brother are among the many that she speaks for. The Gestapo police took Friedlander’s brother away in 1943, and her mother turned herself in soon thereafter, leaving Margot to fend for herself.
Ever since, Margot has lived by her mother’s last words.
Friedlander is a 92-years-old with a remarkable memory and an equally amazing amount of energy. She travels regularly to German schools and tours occasionally in the United States to tell her story of survival during the Holocaust: one of great hope and perseverance.
Friedlander did not begin writing until after her husband of over 50 years passed away. At the suggestion of a friend, she joined a "60 Plus Club" and tried her hand at writing, mostly at night before bedtime.
What began as two simple stories about her grandmothers unfolded into the remarkable journey of a 21-year-old girl navigating many life struggles, including the unraveling of her parents’ marriage, many failed attempts to emigrate abroad, and of many close calls with the Gestapo.
Friedlander shares how she dyed her black hair red and got a nose job to make herself look less Jewish. While in hiding, she slept in cars and chairs, shuffling to the addresses of strangers- sometimes on a daily basis. She endured bed bugs and donned a cross necklace to further disguise her identity.
Friedlander’s strong spirit is reflected throughout the book, especially during some of her most difficult moments; her mother was arrested while trying to arrange visas for the family’s passage to Shanghai. She was gone for months before her daughter received a letter.
Friedlander was also summoned to the Gestapo’s office where she was interrogated about the contents of some shipping crates that her mother was trying to send abroad. When asked about the contents, Friedlander spunkily replied, "Just open the crates and inspect them!" She was dismissed afterwards.
But Margot wasn't always successful in evading the Gestapo; she was eventually taken to Theresienstadt where she worked in a tailor shop making clothes for the wives of SS men to avoid being transported to other camps with a darker destiny. There, she also got to know the man she would marry after liberation.
Despite Friedlander’s passage through persecution, she harbors no hatred towards Germans today; in fact, she spoke of the word hate with great disdain.
Friedlander even moved back to Berlin permanently after spending many years in New York with her husband. She is now on a mission to reach out to the public and share her story so that it is not forgotten. She loves what she’s doing and hopes to keep her calendar full of speaking engagements, making time to meet with students one-on-one along the way.
"I want to tell you that these were people, human beings," Friedlander says. "I want to tell you that the blood in my veins is exactly the same as in yours. There is no Jewish blood, Christian blood, Arabic blood, or whatever. Just human blood."
Megan Pauly is NPR Berlin’s winter intern and a contributor to the NPR Berlin blog. She is from Wichita, Kansas where she worked at Wichita’s NPR member station, KMUW, in 2012. She recently graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism with a Master’s of Science in Journalism.