Tom Archdeacon: The unforgettable Renate Frydman and her message of hope

·11 min read

Jul. 10—She was going through the checkout line at a Meijer store a few years ago when she said the young woman bagging her groceries suddenly stopped her and asked:

"You look familiar. Did you come to my school?"

Renate Frydman, surprised by the unexpected recognition, said it was possible: "I've visited a lot of schools. Where did you go?"

"Trotwood," the woman said.

Frydman nodded: "Yes, I was at Trotwood one time."

That's when the young woman smiled: "Well, I don't remember a lot about high school, but I do remember you!"

"That really got me," Frydman said quietly.

Then again, she's had that effect on a lot of people, from other students across the Miami Valley to inmates at the West Central Juvenile Detention Center in Troy to people from around the world — including some of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize winners last year — who visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB and are moved by her presentation at "Prejudice and Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit."

People are drawn to the 5-foot-1 Jewish woman with lively brown eyes and oversized presence, not only for what she says, but for the way she says it — with charm and kindness and especially a compelling humanness.

Frydman is the Miami Valley's longtime champion of Holocaust remembrance and understanding, plus the application of its enduring tenets in today's world.

She can tell you her own story, about the targeting of Jews in pre-war Germany — a rock was hurled onto her baby carriage from an apartment complex above her — and how she narrowly escaped the country on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, a night of violence and destruction against the Jews by Nazi Party members.

Her paternal grandparents and great-grandmother remained behind and perished in the Holocaust.

She has stories of her late husband, Anschel "Charlie" Frydman, later a successful Dayton businessman who, as a courageous Jewish teen, eluded and escaped the Nazis time and again and eventually survived the genocidal purge by hiding in a Polish forest for three years.

The rest of his family — his father, mother, two younger sisters and many relatives — all perished in Nazi death camps.

Many of those stories she coaxed from her often-reticent husband and into a tape recorder which, many years later, she made into a book — "Anschel's Story: Determined to Survive" — that was published five years ago.

Over the next couple of months — thanks to a pair of Wright State theater majors — her work will be turned into an audio book.

Soon after, it may be made into a documentary by another Wright State grad.

The reason many schoolkids remember Frydman is because of her unique ability to take the lessons of those stories and tailor them to today's issues: prejudice, bullying and respect.

Over the years, she has won many of the area's most prestigious awards, and in 2009 Wright State awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

In March, she was named one of the eight YWCA Dayton's Women of Influence and was feted in a gala celebration of 900 at the Dayton Convention Center.

And this year — after many of her efforts were sidelined by 18 months of COVID-19 precautions- she has never had more influence.

Three days ago — soon after we sat and talked in her North Dayton home — she led her annual retreat for 21 educators, activists, a Holocaust survivor and others who are part of the Holocaust Education Committee she launched in Dayton 41 years ago.

She began speaking to area groups more than 50 years ago — her first presentation was at Wayne High School in the early 1970s, and she admitted she was "scared to death" — and likely this fall will return to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for another book signing. She's also the curator and often a twice-weekly docent at a compelling Air Force Museum exhibit on the Holocaust.

At present, she's conducting video interviews with four of the last Dayton-area survivors of the Holocaust. Those stories will become part of her project — Faces of the Holocaust — that she began with the help of Wright State University in the mid-1980s and already has collected 15 accounts of survivors, death camp liberators and others.

The interviews are part of the Charles and Renate Educational Resource Center, which is housed in the Dunbar Library at Wright State. The video interviews also can be found on YouTube.

Her work, especially when distilled to those themes of prejudice and respect, resonates in today's turbulent times of political divisiveness, hate crimes — the Anti-Defamation League reported anti-Semitic incidents in the United States hit an all-time high in 2021 — and the never-ending mass shootings.

Too often today, the Holocaust is minimalized and turned into a prop by both obtuse and calculating politicians who try to compare things like the push for COVID-19 vaccinations to Adolph Hitler and his Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews — 1.5 million of them children — and millions of other people, too.

Then there's the conservative radio host who sought to run for governor of Missouri and proclaimed, "Hitler was right."

And just recently, there was the administrator of a Texas school district near Fort Worth who advised teachers who had a book on the Holocaust in their classroom to also have one presenting "the opposing perspective."

The examples go on and on and spiral downward into incidents like the 2018 anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood that left 11 dead.

In answer to all of that, Frydman offers her message of "education, healing and remembrance."

"I think someone needs to speak out, and I try to do it, not politically, but in a humane way," she said. "Somebody needs to say these things so they don't happen again.

"Look, I'm not trying to be some kind of goody two-shoes. I'm just trying to make the world where I live a little better place."

Love at first sight?

Hitler — with his dark theatrics and racially-motivated spiel — drew fawning crowds to an ever-expanding base in Germany and was voted into power in 1933.

As his abuses targeting Jews became more and more deadly, much of the German populace remained silent and thus complicit.

For Max May, Frydman's paternal grandfather, that was especially appalling. He had been a soldier in World War I, fighting for Germany and earning the Iron Cross for bravery.

Suddenly he and his family were being targeted. Realizing things were going to get much worse, he finally managed to emigrate to America.

For a year and a half, he was unable to get enough funds to bring his family to safety. Desperate, he sought help from a stranger — Eugene Rich — who ran a shop on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Rich agreed to put up the money and sign an affidavit that he would take financial responsibility for the family for five years.

That's how Frydman, her parents and grandmother were finally able to flee.

"That taught me how one person can make a difference in your life," Frydman said. "And that's a lesson I try to pass on to students now. By doing small things, you can help another student who feels alienated or bullied or alone."

Frydman's family eventually relocated to Dayton, and at her school — E.J. Brown Elementary — she initially was bullied for being one of just five Jewish kids in school.

At the same time, Anschel was trying to stay alive in Jedlinsk, Poland. On the eve of the second World War, Poland had a Jewish population of 3.3 million. Fewer than 400,000 survived the Nazi genocide.

As the Nazis marched through Polish towns, some Jews were killed on the spot, and others were herded into fenced-in ghettos in the cities.

Early on, Anschel — because he was blond and blue-eyed and spoke perfect Polish — could pass as a non-Jew, and he made a daring journey into the Warsaw ghetto to deliver food to starving relatives.

His 31-year-old father was sent to the Treblinka extermination camp, and after that Anschel, his mother and little sisters were rounded up and marched to the train station.

That's when Anschel's mother had to make an excruciating decision: Which child had the best chance to survive?

At 13, Anschel was the oldest and strongest, so she sent him with a still-in-uniform Jewish police officer who got him onto a truck bound for a Nazi work detail. She and the two girls boarded the train to Treblinka and its gas chambers, and Anschel never saw them again.

Renate's book — taken from nine tapes she eventually made of Anschel's early life — tells of his escape from that work truck, being briefly hidden by a sympathetic Polish family and being captured and sent to work as slave labor at a munitions factory in Pionki.

On one escape attempt, he got separated from his six companions, who were caught and hung.

Soon after, he and an older man made another attempt and were caught by guards who had been drinking. A fight ensued, and Anschel escaped. The other man was killed.

For three years, Anschel then hid in the forest where he joined partisan fighters and lived through one harrowing incident after another.

After the war he lived in Germany for 4 1/2 years and then a friend of his family bought him to Dayton.

Renate's mother, Carmen Appel, went out of her way to help Holocaust survivors newly arrived in town. One couple she assisted was married here in 1950 and she made her 15-year-old daughter come to the celebration with her.

Anschel showed up, too, and spotted Renate, who was eight years younger. Instantly smitten, he asked her to dance.

"He was good-looking," she said with a laugh. "And he had a story."

That evening, she said her mother allowed him to accompany her home:

"When he said 'Goodnight,' he told me, 'I'm going to marry you!'

"I was flabbergasted and didn't say anything. And even though Anschel was very persistent in his pursuit, it took a year for me to fall in love with him."

They wed in 1953 and began a remarkable life together that lasted 51 1/2 years until Anschel died suddenly in September of 2004.

'You can't just focus on the worst of us'

Although she always called him Anschel in private, she said when her husband first got to the U.S., he adopted the name Charlie because "he thought it sounded more American."

And soon he was living his American Dream. He and Renate had four children, and he partnered with his father-in-law in a scrap metal business that became quite successful.

Renate worked 30 years as a respected Dayton Daily News freelance writer.

"Anschel could walk into a room and everybody loved him," Renate said. "He had a depth about him, but there also was a certain sadness inside. A lot of the survivors had those deep unknowns about their parents or families who hadn't made it. "

It was during a trip to Brazil to visit a cousin that Anschel got a bittersweet surprise. He had never been able to find a photo of his father, but after dinner a scrapbook was brought out.

That's when he found an old group photo taken in Poland in the early 1930 that pictured his dad and 13 other people, many of them relatives. Sadly, all but two people in it, including the two small children, were killed in the Holocaust.

When her husband died, she put the tapes she'd made with him away for seven years. She said it was too painful to hear his voice.

When she finally did listen, she realized what a gift he had given her, and she began the painstakingly transcribe them all long hand. Her daughter, Melinda, then typed the work out. From that came the fascinating book.

"I know there are some worse stories of people being treated horrifically, but his story is one of hope in the end," she said.

"It's the same when I do a talk now. You can't just focus on the worst of us. You always want to end it with some hope."

And it's the story of her family that has provided the most hopeful message.

"My husband and I were supposed to be part of the million and a half children who were killed," she said. "Instead, we found each other — I think it was meant to be — and we started a family. We have four children, 10 grandchildren and now 14 great-grandkids. And all our kids and grandkids have graduated from college.

"I don't say it's a victory, but it is a story of survival."

And it's much more than that.

It's a tale of remembrance and healing and especially love.

"I guess it is quite a story," she admitted.

And it's why the young woman from Meijer and so many other people don't forget Renate Frydman.