The Spirit Prevails
St. Catharines Standard, 2011
John Freund’s father thought the war would end in a few months.
“He was an optimist. He said, ‘maybe three or four months and it would all go back to normal,'” said Freund.
A time when they could freely go to the cinema and attend school.
Maybe then, Freund’s parents would get their car back and be permitted to return to the apartment his family shared.
It was 1938 when the Nazis entered Czechoslovakia. He was nine years old.
After that, Freund, his parents and older brother never saw normal again.
“We didn’t know it was going to last six years and the whole family would be murdered,” Freund, now 81, paused. “My whole family was murdered.”
Freund doesn’t like speaking about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
“I’d rather forget but it isn’t easy,” he said in a measured tone that doesn’t betray his discomfort.
He may not enjoy talking about his childhood, but he does it anyway when people ask him.
“When I’m speaking with children I try to impress on them they have to accept other people’s beliefs and become more tolerant,” he said in an accented voice.
Freund has also written a memoir, Spring’s End. It serves as inspiration for Chorus Niagara’s upcoming concert, Triumph of the Spirit! Freund will read passages from his book during the performance.
He decided to record his experiences 20 years ago when his 16-year-old daughter started asking about the past.
“At first I didn’t want to burden them with my childhood,” said the retired chartered accountant.
But they wanted to know.
At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, the Jewish community in Freund’s hometown tried to maintain some sense of normalcy.
They set up schools in people’s homes and organized youth groups. Freund played soccer and ping-pong (his favourite) and started a magazine with friends.
They’d hoped the ordeal would end soon.
But the nightmare only intensified when the family was sent to Terezin, a concentration camp northwest of Prague.
It was just a stop. Not long after, the family was sent to Auschwitz in Germany.
Freund walked toward a wall inside his modest downtown Toronto apartment. Black and white photos, a drawing of a boat and synagogue checkered the white space.
“These are my parents,” he said, pointing at one image.
His mother, Erna Freund, died in the gas chamber on July 10, 1944, along with 3,000 other women and children.
He turned to another wall and looked up at a blurry black and white picture. His whole family.
“My brother and father were sent to do some slave work,” he said. “While they were walking, they were no longer able to carry on. My brother fell and my father tried to pick him up but they were both shot. My father was 44 and my brother was 17.”
Freund wasn’t there but heard the story later from survivors who witnessed the murders.
His own survival was one of timing and endurance.
Freund was among thousands evacuated from Auschwitz and taken on a death march.
“In the death marches, they would march people day and night without food and water and shoot people when they fell,” he said, his hands clasped in front of him, a blue faded tattoo with a Nazi identification number on his left arm. “You’d be surrounded by SS and marched day and night until you dropped dead.”
The march lasted from January to April and then the American troops came.
After that, he was taken to Canada as an orphan, educated and lived in a boarding house.
“I’ve been married for 53 years,” he said, the corners of his eyes creased in a smile. He and his wife Nora have three daughters and 10 grandchildren — their photos are showcased on a larger wall near his office window.
Freund met Robert Cooper, artistic director for Chorus Niagara, more than a decade ago. Since then, Cooper has done a CBC documentary and presented another choral performance based on Freund’s experiences.
“Here is this man who came to Canada not speaking English,” said Cooper. “I found it so powerful.”
He’s wanted to bring Freund’s story to Niagara for many years but the content was difficult for some.
“The program committee had been worried about it being depressing but I think it’s uplifting because it reminds people of the ability of human nature to survive in the most horrific of circumstances,” he said. “At the end he does a reflection, Why did this happen to him? Where was God? Why did he survive?”
Freund still doesn’t have an answer.
He survived, has surrounded himself with loved ones, but, Freund admits, he’s skeptical about humanity.
“If you read the news today, there’s so much trouble in the world,” he said. “You could have a major war again, the same thing could happen again. I don’t think we’ve learned.”