Infused by the light of Hédi Fried
Hédi left us as the first snow came. She knew exactly when to make her entrances and exits. She understood timing and, because of what she lived through, she also understood our time.
My first reaction to hearing of her passing was to buy candles, many of them, and light them inside and outside my house, joining her revelry of light. It was a continuation of what she had called upon us to do in her lifetime—called upon me to do. In our many correspondences she always asked me how I could manage all that I was doing, asked after my family and when I would find time to rest and enjoy life. I could have asked her precisely the same questions, but she took the initiative as a reminder that neither of us must let the stories of the dark that both of us worked with steal our light.
When I first met Hédi, she was in the front row, and I was on the stage. It was a wild and disorganized performance, reflecting the inner turbulence of someone who has just discovered mid-life that their near family were perpetrators of the Holocaust. At the end, she raised her hand and pointed out that the Swedish word I had used to describe a survivor, “överlevare,” was not a good term (though, to her dismay, it is all too often used by the press). Better would be “överlevande” which does not bear the implication, as the other term does, that some survived because they were stronger. In a state of emotional melt-down, I wondered who this crusty old dame was.
She never let me out of her sights, and later I was to learn just how strong she was, although not in an exclusive sort of way. She shared her strength so that all of us felt strong. This became clear to me on at least two other occasions. One was the first time I presented my story to a group at the British Embassy, which had generously agreed to let me do a test run and receive critique before a presentation at the London School Economics. My heart was in my throat, but Hédi was right there in the front row again. Throughout the talk, I hid behind my manuscript as if, somehow, I could manage it without anyone seeing me. When it was time for comments there was a silence, I imagined a feeling of pity among some, until Hédi shot out of her seat and declared that this was an extremely important story and that, with time, it would become easier for me to tell it. Time and timing—she was always so aware of them.
On another occasion, shortly after my book “The Pendulum” came out in Swedish with her ringing endorsement on the cover, I learned just how far, how deep and how much darkness her strength could penetrate. The town of Ludvika in Dalarna, Sweden was in trouble. The NMR, Sweden’s Neo-Nazis, threatened the very existence of the town by terrorizing its citizens, some of whom were contemplating moving out. Hédi summoned all the best forces she could find and brought them there. In the car on the way back from one of those visits to Ludvika as part of her “team,” I felt both exhausted and charged with new determination. Within a year, the problem in Ludvika had subsided. The approach that was taken to strengthening the community to stand up to extremism is now called “The Ludvika Model,” and although sometimes I think it should have been called “The Hédi Model,” she would never have allowed it.
There is an awkwardness that comes with being the granddaughter of perpetrators who chooses to step out and tell her story. Why would anyone do such a thing? That is a couple of generations ago, it has nothing to do with you, think of your poor family—such are the arguments. Very few people know what goes on in families like mine. For this reason, the decision to speak out awakens suspicions, and in the early days of trying to express the results of my years of research, I thought I could see these in the sharp flashes of light reflected off retinas at gatherings I was invited to. Whether this was just my imagination or not, Hédi knew how I felt--I didn't have to tell her. She must have experienced similar emotions only decades before, when many publishers rejected her account of surviving the Holocaust, and when people wondered why anyone who had endured such misery would want to talk about it publicly. Behind this was, no doubt, a distaste for being reminded that the world had generally stood by while her people were murdered. But she was patient. As a psychologist she knew that these stories didn't just go away—time, always time. At one of the gatherings she asked me to attend, when she had brought together many talented individuals to form a nation-wide democracy network, she cut across the crowded room, took my arm under hers, stroked my hand and led me confidently into the heart of her project.
I was not the first descendant of perpetrators whom she came to know and collaborated with. She knew that what motivated those of us who had chosen to spend time reflecting on our families’ troubled pasts was intense life-long suffering. I did not dare to mention my experiences to her as my sufferings could never compare to hers. Yet she chose to take it up with me to clear the air and to assure me that the sharing of my story was necessary. “You cannot compare suffering,” she said, adding, “my suffering is as real to me as yours is to you.”
I happen to live in an area where Hédi, her sister Livia and another dear friend who survived and has now passed, Adéle Schreiber, were sent to live in barracks not long after they were brought to Sweden, emaciated and sick, in 1945. My husband interviewed the three ladies, all in their nineties, for a book he wrote about distinctive personalities who had lived in our area, which includes Drottningholm Palace, the current home of the King and Queen of Sweden. We had lunch in our house, and what I remember most was Hédi, Livia and Adéle sitting in our couch laughing like the young girls/women they had once been in this place. There was no way to restore laughter to their youth and yet they infected my husband and me with their playful high spirits.
When we last met, she had moved out of her apartment and into an elderly home. I refused to accept this turn of events and wanted, somehow, to snap her out of it. We sat on an enclosed terrace near her room, which was flooded by the early autumn light. Desperate to keep away all thought that we might one day be without her, I tried to fill her ears with all the initiatives I was taking, all the good work that was being done and that she could rejoin when she was ready. She sat and listened quietly, and when eventually she spoke, she directed my attention to the geraniums, commenting on how pretty they were and what a wonder it was that they could bloom so late in the season. She had not lost her mind or her senses, she simply understood time and timing.
I drove home in tears but was infused with the grace and the light about her. Today I feel the same. I have often doubted myself and what I do, but Hédi reduced those doubts. When I think I cannot write or say another word, I see those mild yet resolute eyes and a delicate yet strong arm takes hold of me. Do not be afraid, she says.
Written in memory of Hédi Fried, friend and mentor.