Reny Friedman and her twin brother, Leo Salomon, were born in April 1937 in Heerlen, the Netherlands. When the Nazis started rounding up Jews, the Salomon family escaped to Belgium with the help of the underground.
The family hid in Brussels for a year and on a farm in Tremelo in the Ardennes Forest. Reny’s parents had heard that experiments were being performed on twins in the camps, and so they were especially afraid for their twin children. They arranged for Leo to be hidden in a monastery, while Reny was taken to hide in a convent. At the end of the war, Reny was reunited with her family, first with her father and brother, whom she didn’t recognize, and then with her mother, who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. Although her brother chose to remain in the Netherlands, Reny immigrated to Canada in 1955, where she lived with relatives and worked a variety of jobs. In 1959, she married Henry Friedman, a survivor from Hungary, and together they raised a family. Reny’s parents eventually joined her in Canada in 1972. Reny Friedman lives in Toronto.
The Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. At the end of 1941 or at the beginning of 1942, the Germans knocked on doors where Jews were living in Heerlen and gave people letters stating that on a certain date, a bus was coming to pick them up. The letters also said that each person was allowed a suitcase. I was almost five when I saw these buses. My mother told Leo and me that everyone on the buses was going on a trip and we waved to them as my mother pulled us along in our wagon. It was only after the war that my mother told us where the buses really went.
My mother saw her friends go on the buses, but my mother was from German stock and was a very powerful young woman. She did not want to go with the buses and so she made a plan. People who had a spouse in the hospital recuperating from an illness got an extension to delay deportation until their partner was well enough to travel. There was nothing wrong with my father, but my mother knew a family doctor, and so she asked him if he could take my father to the hospital and put him in as a patient under false pretenses. The false pretenses were that my father had a stomach ulcer. The doctor agreed but asked, “What am I going to do with him? I must do something. Do I operate?” My mother responded, “No, no, no. Do not operate on him. Just pretend that he is sick.” This plan worked for a little while. In the meantime, my mother ran around trying to find people to help us escape from the Netherlands to Brussels, Belgium. People were willing to help us if we paid them. My mother had to run around with the two of us in a wagon, because Jews were not permitted to use buses or taxis.
One day, the doctor who was helping my father came to my mother and said, “Mrs. Salomon, I have to do something with your husband or else I will have to let him go.” He said this because the Germans were coming to inspect the hospitals. My mother told the doctor to just let my father out around midnight. And so we met my father at midnight, not far from the border because that is where the hospital was. We crossed the border illegally with help from the people my mother had paid. We went down a hill, then across water on a little boat and then up a hill again. Then we were in Belgium. To carry our clothes with us, we were dressed in four times the amount of clothing we would usually wear.
Arrangements had been made for us to stay with a farmer who would keep us for the night, but before we got to his farm, we were stopped by a Belgian gendarme, a police officer, on his bike. My parents had just thrown away all their documents, which showed they were Jews, along with their stars. Everything had gone into a field. When we were stopped by the gendarme, we were close enough to the farm we were headed to that we could see it. The gendarme questioned my parents. My father figured that a Belgian was safer than a German, and so my father told him the truth. My father said, “If you want to, just take us, but let the kids go,” because there were rumours already then of the experiments being done on twins if they were captured. The Belgian was kind and told my father that we should go back and he would pretend that he had never seen us. He then got back on his bike and went back to wherever he had come from. We did not go back across the border, though. We went to the farm and stayed there overnight with the cows in the barn. From there, we could see the bridge in Maastricht being blown up. After the war, my parents searched for the gendarme but were unable to find him.
One day, my mother went to the market to shop for the woman she worked for, and when she returned the Gestapo were there. They had been searching the building. One of our own people, a Jewish person, was the snitch who gave up my mother. A Gestapo agent started to question my mother, asking, “Who are you?” and “What’s your name?” and “Are you married?” My mother told them that she was not married, but she was wearing her wedding band. There were old radiators in that house, and while they were questioning her, my mother backed against the wall near the radiator, pulled off her ring and dropped it behind the radiator. The Gestapo did not hear the wedding band drop because of their yelling. When my mother was asked where she lived, she gave them a fake address and said that she also sometimes lived with a friend. A Gestapo agent responded by saying, “Oh, you are one of those,” meaning that she was a prostitute. My mother did not agree or disagree. They kept yelling at her and said that if she did not tell the truth, they would search through the entire building. My mother did not want this to happen because her brother was downstairs and the Gestapo had obviously not found him in their initial search. She decided to admit that she was Jewish. The Gestapo were finally satisfied, and they took my mother to the camps.
The woman from the underground who owned the building watched this whole occurrence. She could not say anything and she did not do anything. She just watched. The woman, along with one of her daughters and my uncle, later told my father what had happened and gave him the wedding band. Leo and I were not home at the time. My father had black hair, but when he heard the news about my mother being taken away, his hair turned a salt-and-pepper colour from the shock. It was astonishing — people say this can happen and it does.
People from the underground explained to my dad that he could stay in the apartment where my family had been hiding, but they wanted to take Leo and me away to a safer location. So in the night that followed the day that my mother was taken away by the Gestapo, the underground took Leo and me to separate places for our safety.
Leo went with a group of boys to a monastery. He was taken there on bikes by young underground members, around eighteen or nineteen years old. The monastery was on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands and so it was not so far from the apartment in Brussels. As for me, an underground member took me by myself on a bike to a convent. I do not know exactly how I got to the convent or when I got there, but it was sometime around 1943. I do not remember this part of my life. My father was everything to me. After all these years, I still always get emotional when I talk about being taken away from him. It must have been so traumatizing for me. I guess that when something is so upsetting, you block it out. No memories of being taken to the convent have ever come back to me. Maybe, for my mental health, it would not be good to remember the event. It must have been so bad. Why would I want to stir that up now? So I let it rest there in the back of my mind, dormant.
During the time that I lived in the convent, I went by a false name. I was called Remy Salers. I loved living in the convent. I was dressed just like the other little girls there. As far as I know, nobody there knew that I was Jewish aside from the Mother Superior and the priest, because somebody had to know my identity. I did not even remember that I was Jewish, and I did not recall why I was there. The convent was a boarding school where kids went year after year. I presume that I went to school there. I do not remember going to school, but I must have. When it was Easter or Christmas, parents came to visit the kids who could not go home, but I never had a visit from my parents. The other kids would receive candies and toys, but I did not. Then the presents started to come; I got candies for Easter and toys for Christmas. It never came from anyone that I knew, though. It was sent by a person from the underground who worked as the maid in the same house that my mother had worked in.
I was happy in the convent. While I lived there, I went to church. Apparently, I was always the first one to arrive at church in the morning and the last one to leave at night. One day, I saw all the kids go to the front and open their mouths. They were getting the communion wafer, but I thought that they were getting candy. I was dressed in white just like them, and I went up to the front, too. I was almost there, with my mouth open already, when a hand pulled me back and said, “No, you cannot have that.” It was the Mother Superior. I didn’t know why she would not let me take the communion. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. She told me that I should never go to get the communion again, so I didn’t, but I wanted candy, too. The Mother Superior told me that I would get candy; she gave me a bag of candies afterwards and I was happy.
I lived in the convent for a year and a half or two years, until my father came to get me when we were liberated in December 1944. The first time my father came to pick me up, I had chicken pox and so he had to come back. When I had chicken pox, the priest lent me his German shepherd dog as a companion because nobody else could come near me.
When my father came to pick me up once I was better, at first I did not want to go with him; I did not know who this man was. I do not have any recollection of when and how I stopped remembering my father and brother. When my father came to get me, I could not speak to him. I spoke French fluently, but I could no longer speak my own language, Dutch. I don’t know when I began to be able to speak French. My father spoke Dutch, German, Yiddish and Polish, but not French. The Mother Superior was the interpreter for my dad and me. I spoke to her, and she told my father what I had said. I told the Mother Superior to make my father promise to bring me back to the convent. I only agreed to go with him for a little while as a visit. He promised, but he never brought me back.
When I was in the convent, I no longer knew that I had a brother because we were not in the same place. I was now able to get to know my brother once again. It was strange, but we got reacquainted. When we got back home to Maastricht, my father still did not know what had happened to my mother. It took four to six months after we were liberated for us to hear that my mother had survived. By the time we found this out, my father had already given up hope that his wife was alive. He thought that she had perished in the war. My father was both a mother and a father to us.
One night, a man we knew who lived not far from us knocked on our door at midnight. When I think about this, I can still hear the sound. My father looked out the window and asked who was at the door. The man said his name and my father asked him what he wanted. The man then told my father that he had seen my mother. My father did not believe the news and said to the man, “You’re drunk. Go home.” The man insisted that he had seen my mother at Louie Sheer’s place in Brussels. My father asked the man, “If you saw her, why did you not bring her with you?” At this point, there was no problem bringing someone across the border. The man explained to my father that my mother would not come because she did not want to cross the border illegally. That was the German mentality in her; you must do everything properly. She wanted to wait for her papers to come across the border legally. The man told my father that he would pick up my mother on a certain date at the border and that she would be there. They arranged everything for my mother to come back.
In July 1945, we all went to the border to meet my mother. We hugged her, but she did not respond. She did not kiss her kids or hug her husband. She was as cold as ice. She was no longer warm. She was no longer like a human being. Many of the people who came back from the camps had a very difficult time expressing their feelings. They had been tortured. I don’t think she had any feelings at that point anymore. It took a long time before she became my mother again. Her hair had been shaved and so it was very short. She was wearing a little dress that was as thin as paper. She had always been a tiny woman, but now she was like a stick. My father did not know what to do and what not to do for her.
A while after my mother had returned home, life started again, and I went to school. Leo and I went to Jewish lessons at a cheder, a Jewish elementary school, after going to the regular school. There were lots of Roma and Sinti in the school that I went to. There were kids in the school who would threaten me every day because I was Jewish. They told me that I had to give them the money that my mother had given me. They also took away my candy. They told me that if I did not give them my money and candy, they would beat me up. I never told my mother about this. I did not like my first teacher at all. One day, I was punished by my teacher, but I do not remember why. I ended up in the corner at the front of the class. I had to hold a bucket of water above my head. It was not a full bucket but enough that it was heavy. I told my mom about this. She went to the school and said, “The Hitler days are over. You do not do that to a child.” I think my mother got the teacher fired. Leo and I then went to a different school that was closer to downtown. One day, while Leo was playing soccer, someone said to him, “Jew, go and get that ball!” Leo put his hands around the guy’s throat and almost killed him.
No memories of being taken to the convent have ever come back to me. Maybe, for my mental health, it would not be good to remember the event. It must have been so bad. Why would I want to stir that up now? So I let it rest there in the back of my mind, dormant.
I survived the war because of the nuns. I was grateful to the nuns and I am still grateful to the nuns. If I see nuns who are asking for donations, I give them some money. I will give them whatever I can afford because without them, who knows what would have happened. I never thought about whether I survived for a purpose, but I have three beautiful children and I give what I can to the grandchildren.
The most important thing the Holocaust took from me is my friends and family members whom I never got to know, but mostly my grandparents and uncles. The Holocaust has definitely affected my values. I can live with little.
I am most afraid of a lack of security, of not knowing what tomorrow might bring. That is really my biggest fear. The message or lesson I would give over to my grandchildren or future generations, in general, is what I have always said and what I said to the kids from the March of the Living: If you hear any comments against Jews, such as “Jews have money,” speak up. Do not be afraid to speak your mind because if you swallow everything, people will continue to do things against you. I also would say to live life to the fullest, because you do not know what tomorrow will bring. That is all I can wish for them. Those are my wishes for every child, big or small.