Neighborhood Holocaust survivor shares memories from the concentration camps
Photo by: Danny Fulgencio
Irma Freudenreich never believed she would die in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.
“I had guts,” she says. “I had more guts than anybody.”
At 100 years, Freudenreich is the oldest Holocaust survivor living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The Preston Hollow resident is proud that she has remained healthy since she contracted typhus in a concentration camp 72 years ago, although arthritis has limited her ability to walk.
Born in 1917, Freudenreich was raised in Lobsens, Germany, the youngest of six children. Her father didn’t take the threat of the rising Nazi regime seriously at first, even though his children were banned from school because of their faith.
“When Hitler came to power, my father was the first one to get to the concentration camp,” she says. “In the synagogue, he was the top man … They took off the cross from the Magen David, put his head through and marched him to the concentration camp.”
Freudenreich never saw her father walk through their hometown, humiliated. Her parents instructed her to run away with her siblings Ruth and Ernst, to hide somewhere they would be hard to track. They trekked to Lodz, where the Jewish ghetto was so large that they could slip in and out unnoticed.
They weren’t there long when Freudenreich received a letter from her mother asking for one sibling to return home with an empty suitcase. Her sister struggled with bronchitis and asthma, so Freudenreich took on the task herself as a young woman in her early 20s.
Before she left the ghetto, Freudenreich ripped off her Nazi-issued yellow armband that branded her with the word “Jude,” but she couldn’t pretend to be Aryan. Her features were too dark, she says, and her nose too big.
At the train station, she saw several Nazis boarding into first class. If she was caught riding the train, she’d likely be killed. She waited until the soldiers boarded before she snuck into the last cabin.
“We went about 30 or 40 miles away from home. I jumped out of the train to keep myself alive,” she says, explaining that she worried the Nazis would search the train. “I would like to know if anybody else would have done that.”
She hid in a barn before walking the long journey to her hometown. Her family had already vacated her childhood home. A neighbor told her to empty the silver and other family valuables into the suitcase, and she snuck onto another train back to Lodz.
The contents of that suitcase saved her brother’s life. She used the silver to bribe Russians officials and smuggle Ernst out of Germany.
It wouldn’t be the only time Freudenreich put her siblings’ safety before her own. She met a man named Izy in Lodz, who proposed marriage despite their dire situation in a war-torn land. He discovered a safe place where the Jewish couple could hide underground until the conflict ended.
She refused to leave the ghetto without Ruth.
“I said, ‘No. I’m not married. When the war’s over and you find me, we’ll get married.’ I stayed with my sister. It was the last words from my mother: ‘Girls, keep together.’ I never forgot it.”
The Nazis eventually set their sights on liquidating the ghetto, forcing its occupants into cattle cars headed to Auschwitz. With barely any room to stand and no water, Freudenreich didn’t have enough room to cough on the arduous journey.
When they arrived at the concentration camp, they were divided into groups based on gender and age. Their heads were shaved and clothes were stripped. Completely bald, they couldn’t recognize one another anymore.
But the two sisters found a way to survive their months in Auschwitz. The barracks were crowded and filthy, so they slept outside in the cold until people inside died, making room for the others. Starvation became a familiar feeling.
“We finally got some soup,” she says. “But what they put in the soup — something, I don’t know what it was — none of the women menstruated for four to five years.”
As the Russian military moved closer, the sisters were sent to Hambuhren to work in the salt mines for several weeks before being marched to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp. They were whipped when they didn’t walk fast enough.
Freudenreich only weighed 70 pounds by her late 20s, when the siblings contracted typhus. They laid on the floor of the barracks, surrounded by dead bodies.
“Then, thank God, April the 15th, two English women came in our barrack and said, ‘You are free now.’ We thought they were joking.”
Hoping someone they knew was alive and looking for them, they found an apartment at a displaced persons camp. There, they learned that Ernst was their only surviving family member.
After the U.S. Army liberated Kaufering VII, where Izy was taken, the prisoners were given 24 hours to raid the slave labor camp in Landsberg, Germany. He could’ve taken anything he wanted from the Nazis. All he grabbed was a bicycle, a pair of pants and one shirt.
The 25-year-old pedaled across the country to search for Freudenreich.
“Three months it took him on the bicycle, to come to our apartment in Bergen-Belsen,” Freudenreich says.
Relieved to find one another, the two married that July. Freudenreich owned few clothes, so two British women donated a skirt and blouse that served as her wedding dress.
“I never had a wedding — nothing,” she says. “I got a can of sausage for our wedding.”
The couple started a new life in Dallas in 1950 and had two children. They survived the Holocaust, but the consequences of the disease and malnutrition lingered. Their oldest, Tonika, was born with a developmental disability, and her youngest, Anita, is blind.
Izy died when he was only 53 years old, and Freudenreich became a single parent.
“She was always very positive, very upbeat,” Anita says. “I think the positivity is what helped her get through everything with us.”
Freudenreich immersed herself in volunteering for Congregation Shearith Israel, co-founded Meals on Wheels in Dallas and donated money to establish the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
Judy Tashbook Safern, director of communications at the synagogue, compares Freudenreich’s life to Anne Frank. Both followed the same journey from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen with their sisters, and both suffered from typhus. Anne Frank and her sister Margot never lived to see liberation.
In all of the history books about World War II that Freudenreich owns, the horror of the genocide aren’t detailed enough, she says. Sometimes she contemplates writing a book, and she repeats the details out loud to herself to make sure they’re still clear in her mind.
“I wish my mother could see me. … I wish she could see her youngest daughter is still alive and made it to 100 years.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.