Profile: A Reluctant Hero Turns 90

An unassuming retiree who has lived in the same Kew Gardens house for almost half a century, Fred Friedman doesn’t cut the swashbuckling figure that he once did. But as he prepared to celebrate his 90th birthday yesterday, The Jewish Week reported, Friedman finally opened up about his daring adventures to save Jews during World War II by disguising himself as a non-Jew, and as a member of the Gestapo.

Friedman, a retired plastics manufacturer, spent the final years of World War II living in Budapest with false papers, in German, which identified him as Nagy Istvan, a non-Jew. And with other false papers that identified him as a member of the Gestapo.

During the war, he traveled by train around Hungary, which was an Axis supporter of Germany during most of World War II, to rescue endangered Jewish children and adults. To look the part of a member of the Nazi secret police, he wore a Gestapo-type leather jacket, the type of green Tyrolean hat with a small feather stuck in the band favored by Gestapo officers, and sometimes a Hungarian-style swastika. He carried a German pistol, but never had to use it.

Friedman started his missions in 1944, as the Nazi roundups of Jews in the rural parts of Hungary were escalating, and he met a young mother in Budapest who was recovering from surgery.

The mother, who lived in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-biggest city, 120 miles from the capital, told Friedman her two young daughters back in Debrecen faced imminent deportation, to their likely deaths.

He offered to help.

Friedman took the train to Debrecen and located the woman’s daughters. Traveling in the train’s third-class section, the least-conspicuous section, he delivered them — and a dozen other children and three mothers, who had begged him to help — to safe farms outside of Budapest.

“All survived” the war, Friedman says.

The article recounts several close calls during his ongoing missions to rescue his fellow Jews and bring them to safe houses.

Judith Lazar, who at age 3 was among the children he shepherded to safety from Debrecen in 1944, was too young to remember Friedman, but she grew up hearing about him from her mother and other Jews who knew him then. “[Her mother] was crazy about him, about how courageous he was.”

Lazar, a longtime Lubavitch emissary in Milan whose son is Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, says she’s heard a now-legendary story of how an innocent remark she made on the Hungarian train put the whole group under Friedman’s care in danger, and how his quick thinking saved the day.

She was a little girl and she blurted out, “I don’t have a Jewish star, but my mother does.”

The other passengers looked at the group with suspicion. Obviously, Jews. Was he? “If I were Jewish, I’d have to wear a star,” like the Jews, Friedman said to the children in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. Then, in the version of the story passed along to Lazar, putative Gestapo member Friedman added, “I’m taking these little [he used a crude Hungarian term for women, a word that normally would not pass his lips] to a place where they will kill these dirty Jews.”

Friedman regularly attends shabbat services at Adath Yeshurun in Kew Gardens, walking the several blocks to the shul on Saturday mornings. Until now, the Jewish Week reported, he has been reluctant to discuss his wartime heroics.

About to enter his 10th decade, he’s in good health, despite a glass eye, two replacement knees and two recent concussions.

Some of his old friends know what he did during after the war, but he is reluctant to discuss it; he has turned down frequent requests to be honored by Jewish organizations.

Why did he agree to speak to The Jewish Week?

“My wife forced me,” he says — as a legacy for his children.

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