Memoir recalls courtship in Dachau

by Glenda Winders | Sep 10, 2001
Memoir recalls courtship in Dachau Ask most married couples where they met, and they`ll probably answer at school, at work or at the home of friends. But ask Mirek and Blanka Friedman and they`ll answer, "Dachau."

The pair, who now live in Beverly Hills, Calif., met in 1944. Blanka, then 19, had been deported from her home in Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz and then transferred as part of a work crew to camp Muhldorf, also known as Dachau 3b. Mirek, 23, whose fake identification papers hid the fact that he was Jewish, had been imprisoned because of his political activities with the Czech underground.

"It was `Romeo and Juliet` behind barbed wire, and then some," said their son-in-law, Petru Popescu, in an interview.

He has re-created their experience in a memoir titled "The Oasis" (St. Martin`s Press).

"I had heard the story in bits and pieces, and I had a haunting desire to hear the rest," Popescu said. "It seemed like a good story that should not be lost in oblivion and never shared or told."

He says he had been "pestering" his in-laws for 15 years to tell him the details about their early relationship, but they had resisted going back over the painful memories. What changed their minds was returning to Seeshaupt, the German village where the train on which Blanka was being transported was liberated by the 99th division of the U.S. Army, for a memorial event.

Their daughter, Iris - Petru`s wife - advised them not to go.

"Why give these people the satisfaction?" she asked her parents.

But during their pilgrimage, they took part in the dedication of a sculpture made of scrap iron left over from the camp - steel girders, barbed-wire frames and shrapnel from artillery - and watched as a group of young Germans whose parents and grandparents had been responsible for their suffering planted a "Tree of Remembrance." When they got home, they said to Petru, "OK, let`s do it."

He spent some 70 hours taping interviews with the Friedmans; then he traveled to Prague, Munich, eastern Czechoslovakia and finally Dachau to visit their past. With the help of Holocaust historians, he researched the events they had related and studied the psychology of death-camp survivors.

In some ways, the story wrote itself; in others, Popescu found the task daunting.

"The characters needed no creation because they were themselves," he said. "The challenge was to get inside and reconstruct a voice they could recognize and to decide how to tell the story to an audience of today. I also thought it was incredibly valuable to capture in the book the fact that humanity will be there almost to the end. It`s not as if people did not lose their spirit - many did - but, almost to the end, some core of humanity persisted. Writing this book was such an apprenticeship about life`s true extremes."

The result of his efforts is a multilayered, richly textured page-turner that has earned advance praise from such writers as William Styron and Elie Wiesel. The story is told through first-person recollections in chapters that alternate Blanka`s point of view with Mirek`s. In many ways this is more Blanka`s story than her husband`s, because she was able to remember more details about their hidden encounters. Yet Mirek`s recollections are more packed with action.

The narrative juxtaposes pathos with humor, adventure with romance, brutality with kindness, Jewish history and tradition with the stark reality of 20th century Europe and World War II - all interlaced with Blanka`s determination never to give up hope. The events it records seem so fantastic that it`s hard to keep in mind that the book isn`t fiction. "It feels like a novel because their story is so incredibly unusual," Popescu said. "They fell in love with so much danger and jeopardy all around them and so little chance of survival."

But they did survive, largely through living by their wits. Mirek, who had run away from home at age 13 to escape his father`s ambition for him to be a tailor, had been trained as an electrician and was useful to the Nazis. One of his jobs was to defuse American bombs, and Blanka recalls that, because he knew he was not likely to be disposed of, he walked around with a confidence that other prisoners found "downright cocky."

She volunteered for extra work, against the advice of all the other inmates. Once she and Mirek grew close, he put himself at risk by helping her get the better assignments, such as working in the kitchen instead of cleaning toilets.

"It was great when I got the job in the kitchen, because I could steal food far more easily," she told Popescu during one of their conversations.

"I was baffled," he said. "You don`t expect a woman who is a totally civilized and respectable person to say the word `steal,` no matter what the context, with such ease. But then you look at the face of this person, and she`s not blushing and she doesn`t feel she needs to explain the circumstances. This is just what it was."

They lived in a surreal world. In separate scenes in the book, Mirek tries to protect Blanka from seeing a dead body swinging from a noose and workers being arbitrarily beaten senseless in the cement quarries where they worked. Power in these situations depended on one`s ability to secure commodities such as cigarette butts to be traded for shoes and food that could be exchanged for warmer clothing and information.

The love that grew between them was a major factor in their survival.

"I can`t say I realized it the very minute I saw her," Mirek recalls. "All the girls` heads were shaved. Their own mothers wouldn`t have recognized them."

But through her ingenuity, Blanka managed to get some fabric from the room where supplies were stored and make a bonnet to cover her head.

"That bonnet allowed her face to be seen, without the reminder of what had happened to her, where she had been and where we were now," Mirek said. "I looked at her and saw her - without the war and the camp - just her. Human. That face impressed itself on me so deeply, I knew then that she would be very special to me."

"I think he saw a combination of innocence and ignorance about life in her," Popescu said. "She had a firmness of purpose, a clarity as to what she thought was important in life. She was a unique individual in that at 19, and previously without a boyfriend, she was enormously in touch with her womanhood and how tragic it would be if that womanhood was not played out, if she did not find a mate and have children, if she did not have a life."

Within the confines of their situation, the couple carried on a courtship of sorts, but instead of passionate embraces, they touched one another`s hands furtively; instead of flowers and candy, Mirek brought Blanka scraps of food and news reports he had heard on the radio.

"The fact that they fell in love helped them enormously," Popescu said. "She might have allowed herself not to eat, to get dysentery. Without him she could have been a casualty. He was less at risk because he had scams going and he was protected. He did not belong to the most damned of the damned, but she was headed for the pile."

Two months before Blanka and the other inmates were liberated, Mirek escaped from the camp along with two American pilots who had been shot down over Bavaria. The three were hidden by a German farmer, who was dead by the time Blanka and Mirek went back to Germany, but whose son they were able to locate. Once the war was over, Mirek worked with the American Army`s de-Nazification program in Frankfurt for six months and was then drafted into the Czech army. Eventually he and Blanka reunited in Prague and married.

"I was stunned that we were together again because I had thought he was dead," Blanka said. "I don`t know how to describe it. It was both extraordinary and utterly normal. After we were married, we were suddenly the masters of a little world of our own. No matter how small, it was ours."

They stayed in Prague until 1948, when it began to look as if Russia might turn Czechoslovakia into what Germany had been. With their infant son Yon, they relocated to Israel just after it was declared a state and left during the Suez Crisis in 1956 to settle in the United States, where Mirek became an electrical contractor.

While courtships in the camp were rare, several other couples who had been inmates met again and married after the war. Among married survivors, there are few divorces.

"Some of our marriages only Hitler could have put together," says Friedman friend Frances Simon, "but they did not divorce. You can`t lose that, too. Divorces and affairs are for people whose dignity is intact."

Popescu is not Jewish, a fact he says gave him the needed distance from his subject matter.

"As an outsider, I could write with sympathy and yet without falling into the trap of self-pity, doubts about how the book will be received or fear of misinterpretation," he said.

But this caused Mirek and Blanka some anxiety when he told them he wanted to marry their daughter.

"I married into a family that is Jewish in the strongest possible way," he said. "They were the ones who were supposed to be obliterated. There`s a real strength of identity when you`re under the onus of history to stop existing."

He said Iris` parents, like other camp survivors, "have a very visible tendency not to trust others. They trust other survivors first and then all other human categories. The distrust grows progressively the farther they go from people they know."

But Popescu is no stranger to danger, cruelty and discrimination. He grew up in communist Romania, where his twin brother died at age 13 because of poor sanitation in that country, and several members of his family were detained in Soviet prison camps. He was a successful novelist and screenplay writer, but when he defected during the Ceaucescu regime, he was blacklisted and tried and sentenced in absentia. It became a misdemeanor to own his books. When his father later died of a stroke, he was forbidden to go back for the funeral. A year after leaving Romania, he came to Los Angeles.

"I came with a sackful of painful stuff," he said. "I had a sense that I had a very heavy karma that might become literary material in the future. I wasn`t as much thinking as a writer as I was as a survivor. When I met my wife, I realized she came from a family with a karma even heavier than mine. We were ready for each other. We courted and married relatively quickly."

He said he felt like someone who had finally gotten off a raft that had been adrift at sea.

"My most important, immediate desire and obligation was to start to live my life in a more normal fashion," he said. "It`s the immigrant`s dream: `Hey, I`ll go to America where it`s so new and simple and I can leave everything behind.` But you don`t leave anything behind. You take it with you. At one time or another it reveals itself and reconnects with the new milieu."

Since he`s been in the United States, he has written two novels, "Amazon Beaming" and "Almost Adam," as well as an autobiography titled "The Return." He and Iris live with their two children, Adam and Chloe, in Beverly Hills, not far from the Friedmans, who have read "The Oasis" and given it their approval.

"At first I didn`t want to tape my memories," Blanka said. "But Petru made the process easier than I thought, and his interest in the subject made me dig deep inside and bring up so many things I thought I`d forgotten forever. Sometimes when I read the pages, I would nod and say, yes, this is what it was like. Other times I felt that no book, no matter how faithful, can ever portray what happened as it did. I never thought I`d be the hero of a book, especially a book written so caringly and patiently."

Adds Mirek, laughing, "I don`t read love stories. How could it be that one of the first I would ever read would be about my wife and me?"

(c)Copley News Service

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Author: Glenda Winders

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