February 18, 2020

Helen Freeman, Holocaust survivor and educator, dies at 95

Helen Freeman, a Holocaust survivor who shared her story with thousands of students, died July 30 at 95.

Freeman (nee Chaja Borenkraut) was born in Radom, Poland, on Sept. 2, 1921, to Israel and Leja Borenkraut. Helen was the fifth of seven children and the only daughter. Her parents worked as merchants; the family was comfortable, tightknit and deeply observant.

On Sept. 8, 1939, Freeman’s young life took a dark turn as the Shoah engulfed her family.

Her journey in captivity carried her from the Radom Ghetto to Wolanow Labor Camp to Skolna Labor Camp to slave labor in the home of a Nazi squad leader, and then to Auschwitz, which she was able to leave after being selected for slave labor at the Siemens Motor Works aircraft assembly line.

Wandering the ruins of her hometown after the war in search of family, she encountered Joseph Freeman, a boyfriend from her youth. Not long afterward, they were married at Feldafing displaced persons camp. Freeman then dedicated herself to her family: two baby daughters born in Germany, Lillian and Rene, and her husband, who was just beginning to hit a professional stride after several postwar years in Germany.

Freeman waited for sponsorship to emigrate to “any place but here,” jumping at the chance to head to the United States, sponsored by the Pasadena Jewish Temple.

In a new country, and yet unable to speak English, Freeman set about creating a home and providing for her growing family that soon included son Louis and daughter Cecelia.

After years of hardship and hard work, Helen and Joe settled into the cozy Pasadena home where they would raise their family and live out their lives. On Shabbat, Joseph would drive his Cadillac to shul and Helen and the children would follow on foot.

The Freemans became known for their work in Holocaust remembrance. Joe was an advocate for critical conversations around Holocaust memory, documentation and archives. He also penned Helen’s memoir, “Kingdom of Night: The Saga of a Woman’s Struggle for Survival.”

Over the course of decades, Helen and Joe visited schools, churches, synagogues and civic groups across Los Angeles. In her Yiddish-accented English, Helen asked each student to “carry the torch “ of Holocaust memory, speak up in the face of cruelty and injustice, and stand conscious of the possibility that brutality lay nascent in society and could only be thwarted by the resistance and opposition of goodness. Helen and Joe were early supporters and docents at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust when it was part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and supported and attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

After Joe’s death in 2010, as she approached 90, Helen embarked on a six-year mission to share her story. With daughter Cece and granddaughter Jamie, she was a founding Advisory Board Survivor Elder of The Righteous Conversations Project, an endeavor that connected Freeman with thousands of students. Through the project, Freeman inspired students of all ages to exercise their conscience by speaking about important contemporary social justice issues through new media. She also was a participant in the UCLA Hillel Bearing Witness program.

In 2008, when Helen addressed an auditorium of students at Harvard Westlake School, the school’s paper The Chronicle quoted her as closing her talk with the plea to the young people: “Please be good to each other, help each other.” The message is deceptively simple but transformative when followed as a commandment for peace on earth.

Freeman’s legacy is deeply embedded in the hearts, minds and memories of all who heard her speak or were the lucky beneficiaries of her guidelines for healthy living (light soup for dinner and advice from Dr. Oz). and prescriptions for a rewarding life — education, hard work, family, friendship and faith as the four poles and canopy of a meaningful life.

Freeman is survived by daughters Lillian, Rene Grifka (Dan), Cece Feiler (Bill); son Louis (Peggy z”l); grandchildren Jackie, Jamie and Jake Feiler; Jen Sparks (Sam), Nikki Garber (Greg); Josh (Jenna) , Michelle and Adam Freeman; and great grandchild Riley Garber.

To make a donation in Helen’s honor, visit https://secure.jewishla.org/page/contribute/holocaust-survivors-fund.

To learn more about Freeman, read Jane Ulman’s “Survivor” portrait on the Journal website: http://jewishjournal.com/culture/lifestyle/127599/.

SAMARA HUTMAN is the co-founder and director of The Righteous Conversations Project, and executive director of Remember Us.