A few decades after Max J. Friedman’s parents died, his grandson wanted to understand more about the family, including his grandparents, a pair of Holocaust survivors who met in a Swedish refugee camp.
Friedman realized he knew very little about who his parents really were, especially about their lives before they met one another. They never spoke of their lives before the Holocaust and very little even about the Holocaust years. He was determined to find out and ended up discovering, after a 5-year, multi-nation search, who they really were — and who he had become as a result. Join us as Gabe and Max discuss his writing journey and what lessons can be found from the Holocaust for society today.
Max Friedman has been telling the stories of others for his whole career — as a journalist, publicist, corporate editorial director, and book ghostwriter. He finally got to share his story by penning a stirring family memoir, Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir (Amsterdam Publishers).
Early in his career, he held a variety of positions in the communications field, ranging from newspaper and magazine journalism (with articles featured in the The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, TV Guide, and elsewhere) to serving as director of editorial services at Channel 13, New York’s public television station as well as the unit publicist for Bill Moyers Journal.
At Bristol-Myers Squibb for two decades as vice president of communications, he was primarily responsible for the company’s global internal communications efforts. He joined the company in 1983 and his work there included speechwriting, employee publications, development and oversight of the company’s internet site, brochures, multimedia presentations, corporate advertising, video production, the company’s intranet efforts — including a webzine — and its annual report to shareholders.
He also worked in publishing as an advertising copywriter with Macmillan, in the government (as a spokesman and editor at the Environmental Protection Agency), in education as a grant proposal writer for the City University of New York and in public relations, as an account executive with Ruder & Finn (now Ruder Finn).
He holds a BA in English and Asian Studies from Columbia College and a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Max and his wife, Jennifer, a reference librarian, live in Larchmont, New York. They raised twin boys and have two grandchildren, one of whom lives in China. For more information, please consult: www.maxfriedman.net.
Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the podcast, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling into the show today we have Max Friedman. Max has been telling the stories of others for his whole career as a journalist, publicist and ghostwriter. But Max finally got to share his own story and his family’s story by penning the stirring book, “Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir.” Max, welcome to the podcast.
Max J. Friedman: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
Gabe Howard: Thank you. Thank you so much for being here. Now, talking about the deaths of 6 million people in a government sponsored effort is not something that people should take lightly. And yet we see on the Internet that almost every political disagreement or societal issue, seemingly no matter how minor, is compared to the Holocaust. As someone with family history. What are your feelings on this?
Max J. Friedman: Well, I guess the simple answer is virtually nothing can be compared to the Holocaust because nothing I think can be compared to the kind of mechanical industrial complex version of killing that took place there, mostly for reasons that are still, I think, in large measure, unclear. And the ones that are clear, I think are reasons that are frightening and that still exist.
Gabe Howard: I want to address that many people argue that the Holocaust was long enough ago that we should just let it be overtaken by history and move on. And when I say many people, I don’t mean Internet trolls. I don’t mean people in discussion boards in the deep, dark corners of the Internet. There is this real push in the federal government, the United States government and even educational boards all over the country to stop teaching about these events altogether because they feel it divides the country and saddens children. Do you feel that forgetting the Holocaust ever happened is a smart path forward for our society?
Max J. Friedman: No, I don’t think so at all. And just the opposite. I think that if we start forgetting something as as horrendous, but also as historically challenging in so many different ways and challenging to humanity in so many different ways, then I think we lose part of ourselves and we lose the opportunity to at least at some level, make sure that this doesn’t happen again and at the same time show people what can happen, what hate can do. And and and I think the enormity of of the Holocaust is something that is is unimaginable. And frankly, as somebody who survived my mother, my mother’s and father’s survival of the Holocaust, I only came to understand some of that fairly late in my life.
Gabe Howard: Do you feel that your mother and father sharing those stories with you was ultimately beneficial to your life, that that firsthand account?
Max J. Friedman: Oh, ultimately beneficial is a tough way of thinking about it. I think what it it did was form me as a person in some ways not so wonderfully because it made me very fearful and in some ways paranoid. But but mostly it made me a better person because I came to become a much more empathetic person than I think I would have been otherwise. And a person who can persevere probably against virtually anything. So certainly not to compare myself to what my my parents had to persevere through.
Gabe Howard: Max, you mentioned that your mother did talk about her experiences, but that that I believe you used the word that she made things up that weren’t true. Can you share some of those stories and maybe share some insight into why you think your mother felt the need to, well, make things up?
Max J. Friedman: Sure. She had told us from the time we were, time I can remember, besides telling us about concentration camps and Amon Goeth and and Josef Mengele. She would tell us that she and her first husband ran a dance studio in Krakow in the Jewish quarter of Krakow. And it was a thriving business. And they made lots of money and they lived in a five room apartment and they had a cook and a maid and all this stuff. And knowing that story and believing her it came, came for us, a way of understanding why she fought with my father so much, because she basically would tell him that he wasn’t ambitious, that he should try to get a better job and make more money. We he made very little money. He worked in the same job his entire life in the United States as sort of a shipping clerk slash manager in a warehouse. And and we thought that she maybe had a point about him not being ambitious because she had come from such a wonderful life.
Max J. Friedman: Well, it turned out that that her her husband did not have a dance studio. In fact he worked in a luggage shop. He made luggage that the Jews who were being transported out of, out of Krakow, for example, would take with them. They would take one piece of luggage and they would take them to the the killing camps or the transit ghettos before the killing camps. So that was his job. And my mother took in wash because that was the only way that they could afford any food. And they lived in a little two room apartment next door to her parents, and that was her real life. And yet she she had this fantastical life because it’s the life she had wanted. My mother, when she was only about 4 or 5 years old, was already a refugee and was already had to be a survivor because World War I had come to their little shtetl and they they all went to Prague and they lived on the streets of Prague for five years during World War I. And she came back a changed person, but not in a good way, I don’t think. And she had missed her life, the life that she thought she should have. So she made up this story.
Gabe Howard: Wow. And what? What about your father? What did he tell you about his history?
Max J. Friedman: My father, actually, never spoke about the war or his past. I knew something about the fact that he had a family. That’s all I knew. And I was I had a a lottery number that was low and I was the senior year in college and it was possible that I could have been sent to Vietnam. It was during the Vietnam War. And so I told my father that I found out that I could get perhaps an emotional deferment if if I could prove that my parents were so emotionally attached to me that if I went away, it would devastate them to the point of perhaps even killing them. And so I said, You have to tell me something about your past. So for 20 minutes he told me about the last time he saw his first wife and his two little girls who were murdered at Auschwitz. And and that story was was touching. And it was sad. He said that they were told to come with a one piece of luggage. So instead, they ran and hid somewhere. He went out to look for food. When he came back, his wife and two daughters were gone.
Max J. Friedman: And and all that was left was a little sweater of his wife’s. And he carried that sweater with him through the concentration camps, through the death marches to Bergen-Belsen. And when someone told him that his wife and daughter, they saw them selected and taken to stand on the lines for the showers and therefore for the gas chambers in Auschwitz, he left the the sweater that he had carried for three years. And it was a sad story. But it couldn’t have happened because he was in a concentration camp 300 miles away in Germany when all that took place in in his little ghetto in Poland. And so he made that up and and I think and believed it. And I think he believed it because that’s the only way he could survive his guilt and the shame of surviving. And when I when I had those insights about both of them, I came to respect them more for finding yet another way to survive the unsurvivable and the unimaginable. And and when we write our own stories and sometimes we make up those stories because we have to, not because we want to.
Gabe Howard: That’s incredible. Max, that’s incredible. They just they just went through so much. And now you are telling their history. You’re here sharing your family’s history. And the title of the book is “Painful Joy.” Now, the painful part is obvious, but using joy to describe any part of the Holocaust is very curious to me. What is the connection there for you?
Max J. Friedman: Yeah, well, I mean, the the title of Painful Joy came from a poem that I came across. It was written by a Jewish poet in the Middle Ages. And and basically it’s a short poem, but it’s about what happens to love when it’s touched by death. And it came to me fairly late in the game in writing the book, because I came across a love letter that my father wrote. And it’s a love letter in the sense that he talks about falling in love with my mother after the war, after they were liberated and after they met in Sweden where they were recuperating from, from health and mental issues as a result of what happened. And they never really recuperated fully by any means. But in that poem I saw love and it was not something I saw when I was growing up at all. And and it just struck me so much that, that the fact that they found love after losing everyone that they ever loved had to be part of the story somewhere. And for those who read Painful Joy and they’ll see how it ties into how the story ends in a certain way. When when my father gets Alzheimer’s and my mother takes care of him. And the first time I saw a kind of caring and love that I hadn’t seen before.
Gabe Howard: On one hand, that’s so beautiful to see that caring and love that you’ve never seen before. And I can even hear in your voice the way that you describe it. It seems like you really see that as such a beautiful thing. But I’m sitting here thinking, but is the cost worth it? I mean, obviously it’s not worth it. That’s a that’s a very poorly worded question. But you do seem to have some, for lack of a better word, you really do seem to see the silver lining in the cloud in a way that I think that stereotypically people do not feel about the Holocaust. Is that a protective factor for you? How did you get to that point to find any lessons or even positivity in such a horrific event?
Max J. Friedman: You know, the event itself has has no good sides to it. The the the loss of of everyone that my my parents loved and and a life that they had, difficult as it was, could never be undone by by finding something positive that came out of it. The fact that well they they passed on their perseverance or their resilience to their children, as well as passing on their fears and their traumas. But I mean, my hope with the book, my hope actually, as I wrote the book, was to move beyond the terrible part. I wanted to describe it. I wanted to chronicle it. I wanted to show what it meant. So for them, for their second family, my sister and myself. But I also wanted to bring out something else, which is empathy. And I think there’s a certain love that has to come with empathy. And empathy is what I think one gets when one follows their story.
Max J. Friedman: Because I think when we talk about the Holocaust, we’re always talking about these large numbers of people who are murdered and these terrible things that happen in the camps. And that’s all true. And but what do we get out of that? We get some people who still survive and then to give them names and faces and a story about themselves that takes that that takes away the the sort of numerical horror and brings it down to the individual level where things happen to people. And over time you get to understand them. You get to understand the same way I got to understand them better over time. In writing a book and a story that I avoided for most of my life.
Gabe Howard: You’ve said that before, that you’ve avoided this story for most of your life. What do you mean when you say that? How or why did you avoid the story and what made you decide to share it now?
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with author Max Friedman discussing his book, “Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir.”
Max J. Friedman: I avoided the story in the sense that I had. As I said earlier, I had survived their survival. I’m called a second generation Holocaust survivor. And the children of Holocaust survivors are called that. And I think it’s partly because they’re tasked with a mission at some level of telling the story. Now that the the survivors are mostly gone, who is going to tell their story? And it’s up to us to do that, I think. But but second, when you go when you’re a child of survivors and I’ve spoken to some others, not many, but some, and and it was a matter of taking care of your parents because we became sort of child parents because we took care of them probably more than they took care of us, and and trying to distance yourself from their sadness. We didn’t ask them about their past because we knew it was upsetting. I mean, we knew it from a very young age. We knew it from the fact that my mother and father would have nightmares all the time and we were there to wake them up, basically wake up them from screaming.
Max J. Friedman: And we were little kids. And they were supposed to do that for us, and because I think some of our nightmares came from them. But. Uh, to survive, we became survivors, too. And I think my way of surviving was basically avoiding knowing too much or even trying to know too much. I knew enough. I knew that our lives weren’t normal. I knew that my parents were a mess. I knew that we were poor and they fought constantly and they were sad a lot. I knew that. I said, But do I? Do I want to live like that? And as I got older, I said, No, I want to be sort of normal. I want to just sort of get on with life. And they had a very hard time getting on with life. And so this was not a conscious decision in a certain way. It was conscious in the fact that I didn’t learn more because the people I would learn from, that learning would be so upsetting to them. I thought that I couldn’t. And so I avoided it.
Gabe Howard: What changed? What made you stop avoiding the story?
Max J. Friedman: Yeah, and basically, once we have grandchildren and my grandson was eight years old at the time and and so I started to tell him a little bit about my mother and a little bit about my father and basically mostly just saying that they had survived. I use the word survive because that’s how I saw them. And he saw us surviving as strength. And he asked me will he be strong the way a survivor can be one day? And I said, I really don’t know. And it was really that what that sparked me in 2016 to start this journey of discovering who these people were, because I wanted to see them as no longer just as survivors. Actually, I wanted to create a portrait of them as people,
Gabe Howard: As we touched on earlier in the show, many people don’t want to teach children about the Holocaust at all. But you are very comfortable discussing a subject of this magnitude with an eight year old. And those conversations are obviously still ongoing.
Max J. Friedman: Yeah. I never really. I didn’t hide from the Holocaust. I didn’t hide my past from my friends. In fact, in some ways, I was proud of my parents. I was proud that they had they had survived. My father was a very sweet man. And I you know, we loved our parents. My mother was a very tough lady. Very, very tough to live with for my father and for us. But still, we we cared about them and we were very sorry for what they had gone through. We didn’t really know what they had gone through, but it came naturally to talk about them as survivors and and to talk about the Holocaust. And in fact, I didn’t really understand my mother’s story, at least. And when we went back to when we went to Poland to see and visit as much as we could about our my parents lives, we being my my wife, Jennifer and I, we. It all became clear. And I started to understand better with that. And I didn’t I didn’t sort of run away from it. I just didn’t run toward it either. It still was a painful thing. And and I was ashamed at some level, I think that that I didn’t know more. But then my grandson’s questions really just sort of told me, it’s time. It’s time. I’m almost I was almost 70 and it was time to to go back and to restore their humanity and and restore my sense of who they were and then to see much more clearly the effects that they had on my sister and on me then in ways that I had, I think intentionally and unintentionally avoided.
Gabe Howard: Max, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your family’s story. And society is having a really hard time understanding these lessons right now. So I want to give you the opportunity to share. What do you feel is the most important lesson that society should remember from the Holocaust?
Max J. Friedman: I think. Until someone and I’m not saying this flippantly at all, but but until someone actually for me goes and visits Auschwitz, I think that that becomes the turning point in your life. You you it palpably demonstrates the horror that people can do to other people if you no longer see them as people. And and that’s what that was what genocide does. That’s what people who practice genocide want to do. That’s what people who practice racist or anti-Semitic hate want to do. They want to dehumanize, dehumanize a person to the point that you can kill them with abandon because they’re no longer people. You don’t see them at your level. And I think if the Holocaust taught us anything. And if my journey with “Painful Joy” taught me anything, it’s that we can’t get to the level of hating someone else for believing something else, whether it’s a religion or a way of life. To to do that and to do that to a people as opposed to an individual even is even more more devastating. And when you go to to to Auschwitz and and you wonder how could this have happened? How could they have done this? I mean, most of my family is underground. In Auschwitz, the ashes of the crematoria at Auschwitz were were so numerous, so, so overwhelming for the Germans that they put they just put all the ashes in the ground. And so when you walk in in Auschwitz, you for for me, I walked on my father’s first wife and children. I walked on all these people who were lost for no reason. And and this is what could happen. You know, it’s a stretch, but it’s not a stretch because it happened and it happened to a civilized society, the German society, the Austrians, it happened. And so if it happened once, why can’t it happen again? And when you see authoritarianism and all this other stuff going on and the divisiveness in this country and elsewhere. It’s around the corner. And that’s that’s the lesson. It’s around the corner. And you just open up the door and suddenly it rushes in.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Max. Max Friedman’s book, “Painful Joy: A Holocaust Family Memoir,” is available now. Max, if folks want to find you online, do you have a website?
Max J. Friedman: Yes, I do. I actually built it myself. So it has few bells and whistles, but it’s MaxFriedman.net. Max Friedman. One word. Max Friedman dot net. And what you’ll see is images that are not in the book. You’ll see excerpts from the book from Painful Joy. But mostly, I think you’ll get a sense of why this journey took place and and how it developed as as a story that we can all learn from. If not identify with. You know, I always say I could never have been in my parents shoes. I don’t think I would have been able to survive what they survived. I don’t think I’m that strong. But but but that doesn’t mean that you can’t care about those people and you care about the issues that those people represent for our society.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Max. And thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to my website gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to the people that you know, share it on social media, share it on email, hell, send somebody a text message because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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