Obituary: Gerda Frieberg, 97, a Holocaust survivor who was a dynamo in education and community activism in Toronto

Gerda Frieberg. FSWC PHOTO
Gerda Frieberg (Credit: Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center)

Gerda Frieberg, an outspoken, energetic and pioneering advocate for Holocaust education and Jewish causes, died at her home in Toronto on Jan. 3. She was 97.

For years in local Jewish circles, the name “Gerda,” on its own, was often enough to conjure an image of a whirlwind in perpetual motion, whether it was raising funds or organizing meetings for a wide variety of Jewish and human rights causes.

Widely accomplished and known for her chutzpah and tenacity, she was perhaps most closely associated with memorializing the Holocaust, which she had survived, and educating young people about it. She began speaking about the Shoah as early as 1962, first in local schools, then across Canada.

She went on to chair the committee that created Toronto’s Holocaust Education and Memorial Centre (now the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre).

She called it the highlight of 43 years of volunteerism that included State of Israel Bonds, the campaign for Soviet Jewry, the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, B’nai Brith Women, and the Ontario Cabinet Roundtable on Anti-Racism.

Fellow Holocaust survivor and educator Nate Leipciger said he met Frieberg in 1980, when the two began plans for a Holocaust memorial centre in Toronto. He remembered her “dedication and ability to cut through bureaucratic obstacles, and get things done.”

Leipciger recalled “a fantastic orator (who) usually spoke without notes. Her message was always positive and inspiring. She challenged her audiences to action and never to abandon the memory of those we lost in the Shoah.”

The Holocaust Education and Memorial Centre opened in September 1985.

As chair of the Ontario region of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress in the early 1990s, Frieberg was the public face of and spokesperson for a variety of major events and Jewish news stories. Even before that, she was a go-to for reporters who needed to interview a Holocaust survivor.

Bernie Farber, the former CEO of the CJC, recalled that around 1992, Frieberg insisted on accompanying him to Toronto City Hall to lay a complaint against Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and Wolfgang Droege, leader of the far-right Heritage Front, who were both scheduled to speak there.

“As we approached Nathan Phillips Square, and with media in tow, she walked directly up to both Droege and Zundel,” Farber told The CJN. “She went eye to eye with them—I will never forget this—and uttered something in German. Then she turned to the press and said, ‘I told them there is no room for the three of us here and I have no intention of leaving!’” The two men turned and walked away.

Recalled Farber: “She would always say to me, ‘those bastards are not getting away with their mishigas on my watch.’” Frieberg seemed to delight in describing herself as “a troublemaker,” but she made education, philanthropy and human rights priorities.

For the Toronto Holocaust Centre, she led fundraising by holding private salons and securing support from the provincial and federal governments, said Dara Solomon, the centre’s executive director. Frieberg also procured loans of artifacts from international institutions, Solomon added.

“Gerda inspired thousands of students with her testimony and she also inspired many survivors to join the centre as Survivor Speakers,” Solomon said. “I was always so moved when she spoke, as she was both passionate and incredibly articulate.”

Frieberg’s work at the centre paved the way for the new state-of-the-art Toronto Holocaust Museum, scheduled to open this spring, Solomon said.

Hers was a rags to riches story, eulogized her son, Jack, at Frieberg’s funeral on Jan. 5. She was born Gerda Steinitz on Oct. 12, 1925 in the mostly German-speaking Polish village of Bielschowitz, in Upper Silesia. The village was once part of Germany and only one kilometer from the German border. They were the sole Jewish family in the village, and Gerda attended religious school on the German side of the frontier.

Gerda Frieberg, bottom left, with her family in Krakow in August, 1939.

Her father, Josef, ran a general store and freely extended credit to customers who toiled in the mines. She recalled a happy childhood.

“My earliest memory of tzedakah was when my mother would send us to deliver food to needy Jewish elderly in the neighbouring town,” Frieberg reminisced in an online archive of the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto.

The family witnessed the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. “They were left without food or shelter so my mother offered our kitchen to prepare meals and we helped to deliver them.”

On a trip to visit an aunt in Berlin during the 1936 summer Olympics, she caught a glimpse of the U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens. It was the first Black face she ever saw. From aboard a bus one day, she also witnessed a limousine carrying Adolf Hitler and his entourage on their way to a function. Traffic stopped. The arms of bystanders and the bus passengers all snapped into the Nazi salute, amid cries of “Heil Hitler!”

The young Frieberg realized something: “My grandfather was buried with military honours but I don’t belong here anymore,” she recounted in video testimony for Crestwood Preparatory College’s oral history project.

Two years later, in the German town of Hindenburg, just across the border, she witnessed synagogues and Jewish schools aflame, Torah scrolls and prayer books dumped onto the streets, and broken glass everywhere during the country-wide pogrom known as Kristallnacht.

It was “a very rude awakening for a 13-year-old,” remarked her son.

Indeed, the episode was seared into her memory. In a reminiscence for Postmedia in 2017, she recalled that horrible day in November, 1938:

“My father knocked on a door of a family friend, an elderly woman, but no one answered. So we went back to (his) motorcycle. And I can still see this, even after so many years. I can still see this…the curtain was slightly parted and the lady was looking out, and so we went back and knocked. The Nazis had come in the middle of the night looking for her husband. She told them he had never returned from the First World War and that he had fought for Germany. They called her a lying Jew and threw her down the stairs. She was blue with bruises. They trashed her apartment. We left.”

In October 1939, just one month after the Second World War began, Frieberg’s father was picked up but was able to return home for a time before being deported again. Meantime, Frieberg, her sister Hana, and their mother Elfrieda were shipped in 1940 to the Jaworzno Ghetto in southern Poland and, on the last day of Passover 1942, Frieberg was sent to the Ober Alstadt labour camp in Czechoslovakia, where she worked in the machine shop of a spinning mill. She later noted that she had spent precisely 1,123 days there.

The family received letters from Josef until early 1945. They learned after the war that he likely died of typhus at the Gross-Rosen death camp, which had been the parent camp of where his wife and two daughters had been.

After liberation in May, 1945, Freiberg, her sister and mother spent four years in a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, near Munich, where Frieberg became a proficient seamstress. It was also where she met her husband, Louis Frieberg, a fellow Polish survivor.

In all, Frieberg lost 172 members of her family. She, her sister and mother were the only survivors.

Having met David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, who had toured the DP camps to raise morale and enlist support for a Jewish state, Frieberg, her mother and husband-to-be made their way to fledgling Israel in 1949. She and Louis wed there that year, but the clan left three years later for Toronto, where he plied his craft as a carpenter and Gerda hers as a seamstress, earning 70 cents per dress in a sweatshop on Spadina Avenue. She spoke no English.

Within a few years, they’d founded their own construction company and, as a 2014 Maclean’s profile on Frieberg noted, “rode Ontario’s late-century development wave to prosperity.” Their son went on to own the building where his mother had sewed.

In a full life, she traveled extensively and her athleticism was renowned. She hiked, kayaked, sailed, canoed and cycled. She was fierce at tennis, and played often with the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut, disputing shots and keeping score in German. Her family noted that she skied for eight decades.

She became a licensed pilot in her mid-40s, flying Shabbat goodies to her son in university in London, Ont. She later obtained her demanding Instrument Rating. At an Acapulco resort, she boldly strode up to Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who were relaxing at the pool, to ask a question that had been bothering her: What direction would a compass point if you were at the North Pole?

Over the decades, said her son Jack, she spoke to tens of thousands of people at universities, churches, synagogues, schools, at Roy Thomson Hall, in front of Parliament in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park in Toronto, and at Holocaust survivors gatherings all over the continent.

“When she spoke, not only you could hear a pin drop, you also could hear tears drop, as she had an amazing way of reaching into the hearts of those that were fortunate to hear her,” Jack Frieberg eulogized.

“She always said she had no regrets, and she definitely did it her way, by hook or by crook, through the front door or the back,” he went on. “She accomplished what few could in a lifetime.”

Frieberg self-published two memoirs, 2013’s I Kept My Promise, in which she recalled her family’s story, followed up two years later with Never a Bystander, which began with her arrival in Canada in 1953.

She echoed the title of the second volume in 2016, when she joined other well-known Holocaust survivors at a press conference in Toronto to urge the world to intervene in atrocities being committed in Syria. “We must not become bystanders,” Frieberg said. “We can make a difference. Let our voices be heard.”

Her husband died in 2009. She is survived by her children, Josey Frieberg and Jack Frieberg, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

In one of several interviews with The CJN over the years, Frieberg reflected on her life and its meaning. “I considered my survival a gift to be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Shoah,” she said. “Amid the silence of the world, the plea of the victims, ‘Remember us,’ became a commandment.”