Fryda Schweitzer was born in Sosnowiec, Poland in 1924. She had two older brothers, Aron and Max, and a little sister Malka (Milusza). Fryda’s father, Nechemia Zajac, was a tailor who made women’s clothes in a small workshop. Fryda’s mother, Ita, sold the clothes in a shop next door.
The family was religious and went to synagogue regularly.
At home, they had a phonograph and Fryda loved to dance to the music. She would invite all her friends, wind up the phonograph, play a record and teach the girls how to dance.
OUTBREAK OF WAR, 1939
Fryda was 15 when the war broke out but describes herself as “really more like a 12-year old”.
The Germans marched into Sosnowiec in early September 1939. The Germans came to Fryda’s house and marched all the men away.
Fryda recalls…“It was a terrible situation for us, because we did not know what they are doing with my father and my two brothers. Fortunately, they came back the next day. They told us that they had been taken to the outskirts of the city where they had to sweep the streets and the gutters, and beards of orthodox Jews were shaven.”
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST JEWS
Shortly afterwards, the Germans took the business away from Fryda’s father. All Jews had to wear an armband with a white and blue Star of David, and half a year later they had to wear a yellow star with “Jude” (Jew) written on it, on the front and the back of their clothes.
Fryda recollects: “Everybody had to wear it, so I did it. I was a frivolous young girl, immature, and was so protected by my parents.”
Soon, Fryda’s brother Max was separated from the family and taken to a labour camp in Germany.
TAKEN AWAY TO CAMP
Fryda’s father was repeatedly taken to labour camps but was always allowed to return home after several weeks. On 12 August 1942, while Fryda’s father was away at a camp, all the Jews were ordered to assemble at a football ground. It was raining and they had to wait there the whole day and all night. The next morning there was a selection. The SS divided the people into three groups: those who would be sent to a labour camp, those who would be sent to Auschwitz, and those whose fate had not been decided yet.
“I was separated from my family, I don’t think I really understood the impact. We waved at each other. I did not know then that this would be the last time I would see my mother, my brother and my little sister.”
Together with many other women Fryda was taken to Parschnitz labour camp in former Czechoslovakia. Fryda met a neighbour, Helen, who was ten years older than she was. They stuck together until the end of the war, and this friendship meant a lot to Fryda.
In the camp, they slept in lice-infested bunks, and worked in a spinning factory. “The day started with a roll call, everybody had to be counted, then we had to walk for an hour to get to the factory. After we came back in the evening, there was a roll call again. In the factory, flax was made into cotton, and for me it involved running up and down a big machine.”
But the worst for Fryda was the permanent hunger. Her stomach was grumbling endlessly. “I kept thinking how nice it would be to start eating a loaf of bread and only finishing when the grumbling would stop. They fed us just enough to keep us going.”
LETTERS FROM HOME
In the beginning, Fryda got parcels and letters from home. She especially remembers a card from her brother Aron, in which he wrote that he does not play the violin anymore because there wouldn’t be anybody who listens.
There was a strict camp order that all correspondence had to be destroyed. But, very secretly, Fryda kept the photographs sent by her mother – these are the only photographs of her family that survived the war.
The cards and parcels stopped coming. The prisoners were told that the ghetto in Sosnowiec was closed. Fryda did not think about it – her mind was occupied with work, hunger and survival.
“Once a girl ran away from the camp, she was caught immediately. We had to stand at roll call and watch her being hanged. The lagerführerin (camp commander), she made us all watch, and you could see there was no justice, no law, nothing.”
In 1944 a commission came to the camp for a selection. The women all had to strip naked and were inspected to see whether they were fit to work. Fryda remembers a girl who was sick and was sent to Auschwitz.
“After the selection we were given numbers that we had to wear around the neck. The number became our name. What kept me going was the friendship with Helen. We talked often about home. I also dreamed a lot about home, and decided to make my dreams the real world and the days unreal. That’s how I coped. I refused to lose optimism and hope in the camp.”
Once Fryda stole a bit of flax to use for knitting. She was caught and, as a penalty, the camp commander herself cut Fryda’s hair almost completely bald.
At the end of 1944 the factory closed down and the women were sent out to the fields to dig ditches. It was winter, it was cold, the hunger got worse, and the work did not serve any purpose. After they had dug the ditches, they were ordered to fill them up again. This went on for a few months.
Luckily, on 8 May 1945, the camp was liberated by the Russian army. “There was no guard left when the Russians opened the gates and marched in. It was a very momentous day, we could all just walk out, it was so exciting. But the second thought was: who survived from my family?”
The Russians put the women on a train and sent them back to Sosnowiec. After her arrival, Fryda learnt that her mother and sister had been sent to Auschwitz and were murdered. Her brother Aron had been sent to a labour camp in Germany and, whilst working in the fields, was killed during a bomb attack by the Allies three months before the end of the war.
AFTER THE WAR
At least Fryda got some good news: her father and her brother Max had survived in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Fryda smuggled herself into Germany and joined what was left of her family in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons (DP) Camp. “The joy when we met – oh, I cannot describe it.” In the camp, the survivors were looked after by the Allies. Fryda worked in the administration of the medical centre. Fryda met Nachum Schweitzer, a survivor of Auschwitz, in the DP camp. They fell in love and married in the camp in August 1946.
Fryda’s family befriended a girl whose father was living in Australia. She immigrated and arranged visas for Fryda and Nachum. Fryda and Nachum arrived in Melbourne in August 1949 and two months later their first son Isaac was born. At the end of the same year, Fryda’s father arrived in Melbourne.
Fryda worked as a dressmaker. The couple went on to have their second son, Ronald, just after moving into their own house.
Fryda began working as a volunteer guide at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (previously, Jewish Holocaust Centre) a few years after it opened in 1984. She strongly believes that it is important to talk about the Holocaust.
Her message is optimistic and positive: “there are more good people than bad people in the world, and each and every one of us can make a difference.”