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Jewish Journal

Survivor: Frida Berger

by Jane Ulman

June 4, 2014 | 11:32 am

Photo by David Miller

Photo by David Miller

“You have to go to the synagogue,” the mailman announced, banging a drum as he stood outside the house Frida Berger (née Isac) shared with two sisters and two brothers in Comlausa, Romania. It was 7 a.m. on the day after Passover in 1944. Two Hungarian soldiers accompanying the mailman marched the Isacs a half mile to the synagogue, which was quickly filling up. Soon the town’s entire Jewish population, about 120 people, was locked inside, with no food or water and a bucket for a toilet. “We couldn’t believe what happened to us,” Frida recalled. She was almost 19.

The next day, soldiers led Frida and her 13-year-old next-door neighbor, Chaim Ber, back to her house, proceeding to confiscate valuables from both their homes. Suddenly, a soldier began beating Chaim with a piece of wood, shouting, “You have money because your father is in America.” Chaim cried as blood spurted from his body. Frida watched and cried. The soldiers then took Frida and the boy to the local school, confining them in a large room with other Jews whose homes had been searched.

The following evening, a Hungarian tax collector — a tall, heavy-set man — took Frida to retrieve bedding from her home. But, instead, he led her to Chaim Ber’s house, which was dark inside. “I want to take you,” he told her. Frida raced around a large, round table, trying to protect herself. “Shoot me, but you can’t touch me,” she screamed. Finally she darted out the front door and returned to the school, to which all of Comlausa’s Jews had been transferred.

Frida was on born on April 24, 1925, to Lebe and Margaret Fuchs Isac in Comlausa, Romania, in the region of Northern Transylvania.

Lebe was 34 and a widower with four children when Margaret, then 17, married him in 1913. She bore him an additional nine children — three girls and six boys. Frida was the sixth.

Their family was both wealthy and very religious and lived in a large house on 4 acres, growing crops and raising sheep and other animals. Lebe also had a glass business, and Margaret ran a small grocery store. 

Frida rose at 5 a.m. to milk the cows. She also helped her mother with other chores, becoming adept at cooking and baking, as well as knitting, crocheting and embroidering. Margaret also taught her to share. “When a poor person comes to the house, don’t let them go without giving them money or food,” Margaret instructed.

Frida attended public school from age 7 to 15. At 14, she studied with a rabbi, who taught her to read and write Yiddish. 

In April 1935, Lebe died of pneumonia. 

In June 1940, Frida graduated from the gymnasium and worked as a caregiver. After her mother died of tuberculosis in September 1941, she continued caregiving and also bought and sold textiles.

Life continued relatively normally for Frida and her family after Hungary gained control of Northern Transylvania on Aug. 30, 1940, a result of the Second Vienna Award by the Nazis and fascist Italy. Then Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, and persecution of the Jews accelerated. 

Several days after being imprisoned in the school, the Comlausa Jews were loaded onto wagons and driven to the Sevlus ghetto.

Frida and her siblings Elka, Sara, Isidore and Sam lived in one room with 16 other people. Frida was in charge of procuring food, usually some bread and soup. “We were hungry plenty,” she recalled.

Toward the end of May, Frida and her siblings were loaded into boxcars — “like the cattle,” she said — and transported to Auschwitz. Frida and Elka were quickly dispatched to the right side, their brothers to the left, and Sara, 14, to the crematorium.

Frida and Elka were herded with the other women to a large room, where they were ordered to strip. Their heads were shaved, and they were given shoes and a striped uniform. 

They were first sent to Block 19, which held 1,000 women, and later to Blocks 28 and 16. There was no official work, but they were awakened at 3:30 every morning and forced to stand in appel (roll call) for hours. Food was meager.

One day, Frida saw a mother and daughter conversing through the electrified wire fence. Suddenly a shot was fired, killing the daughter. After that, Frida and a friend voluntarily policed the area, warning people away from the fence. 

In late September, Frida and Elka were enclosed in a large room with 3,000 young women and ordered to undress. “We were afraid they were going to turn on the gas,” Frida said. Instead the women were taken outside, where Dr. Josef Mengele selected about 2,000, including Frida and Elka, to be sent to Bergen-Belsen. 

The sisters remained at Bergen-Belsen for two weeks, sleeping outside on the ground, before being shipped, along with 500 other young women, to Salzwedel, a subcamp of Neuengamme, to work in a munitions factory. 

When they arrived, in October 1944, a German guard requested 10 strong girls. Frida immediately volunteered, assuming she would be assigned to the kitchen. But she was given “the hardest job,” shoveling heavy piles of bullet casings into a machine that cleaned them. She worked 12-hour shifts, rotating days or nights every two weeks. 

After two months, unable to keep up the grueling pace, Frida wrapped one foot in a rag and faked a limp. She was given a desk job. But three weeks later, forgetting to limp, she was sent back to her old job. 

Once, on a night shift, Frida spied extra soup in the pot after everyone had received their portion. “Can I have a little more, please?” she asked. The German guard promptly struck her twice across the face, sending her falling to the floor. “I saw stars,” Frida said.

In February, American planes began bombing Salzwedel. In March, the factory was bombed so badly the women couldn’t work. Instead, they cleared rubble at the train station, which had also been hit.

By April, work ceased, and the women were confined to their barracks. Soon the German personnel disappeared, except for the camp commander, who declared that he would hand over his 3,000 girls to the Americans rather than kill them. Then, on April 14, 1945, American troops liberated Salzwedel. “We couldn’t believe it,” Frida recalled.

Frida and Elka eventually made their way to the displaced person’s camp at Bergen-Belsen, arriving in June. In October, Frida left with a transport for Romania, taking three weeks to reach Comlausa. There she found her family home empty except for a notebook she and her sisters had filled with Hungarian and Yiddish songs, poems and horoscopes.

Frida learned that her brother Isidore was hospitalized in Bucharest, so she traveled there to care for him. He died on July 24, 1946. 

She returned again to Comlausa, where she met Herman Berger. They became engaged on Oct. 26, 1946, and then married at Bergen-Belsen on Oct. 21, 1947. 

Afterward, they traveled to Belgium, where Frida was reunited with her brothers Sam and Martin. She attended an ORT program, learning to design men’s shirts and pajamas, and Herman became a furrier. On Jan. 1, 1949, their son Leo was born. 

On April 20, 1950, Frida and Herman immigrated to Montreal. Their daughter Esther Malka was born on Nov. 25, 1954, and son Benny on July 29, 1964. 

On March 1, 1966, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Frida’s brothers were living. Here, the climate was better for Herman, who had been in poor health since contracting tuberculosis after the war.  

Frida and Herman bought Mehadrin Kosher Meat Market on Beverly Boulevard in 1969, which they ran until selling it in 1996. Herman died on Oct. 6, 2006. 

Frida, now 89, frequents her health club several times a week, likes to cook and bake for others, and visits the sick. She also stays in close touch with her family, which now includes 16 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

All her life, Frida has adhered to her mother’s advice to reach out to others in need — even in the camps.

“I helped, whatever I could do, and I believed in God,” she said. 

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