The first thing Frieda Pertman did during an interview late last week was lovingly display delicate tendrils of crocheted lacework and embroidery on her lap. She had just received them in the mail from a newly discovered cousin. But the lace was more than a thoughtful gift. It helped weave together pieces of an extended family torn apart by two world wars.
Frieda Pertman is the only survivor of her parents, six siblings and many aunts, uncles and cousins. The family members were killed in Poland during the Holocaust. She and her late husband, Chaim Pertman, had fled to Russia in 1939 so they survived the war but not without living through horrendous, life-threatening conditions and years of arduous forced labor. They shared these horrors of war, but they also shared an impenetrably strong spirit.
The family left Europe for Israel in 1957. After living a year-and-a-half there, the Pertmans and their four children — 5-year-old twins and two teenagers — arrived in Baltimore in December 1958. A childhood friend of Chaim’s had sponsored the family and provided the needed paperwork. So with just a few clothes and personal items, and $140, the Pertmans began building their life in America.
“We came on a Saturday night, and on Monday my husband took a job,” Frieda said. “On Pratt Street was a factory that was making ladies’ coats, he was paid $5 an hour. He went to work there, and he was very good at it, he was very fast. He brought home the first week $90. … Well, it was enough to pay the landlady $40 for burning oil.”
It took some time for Baltimore to grow on Frieda. Even through all she had endured, she was still used to living in bigger cities and attending events such as opera, theater and movies. To her, Baltimore had a small village feel and sensibility. She had imagined a more sophisticated America.
“You would see in the car, a fancy car, a man in a T-shirt. I didn’t like that,” Frieda said. “I didn’t like windows with the curtains closed, I was used to windows open with the curtains moved aside.”
Another contrast was Frieda grew up in a very religious family, but when they came to Baltimore the days of attending shul and eating kosher were a distant memory. Years of fighting to maintain life one step ahead of hunger, disease and military evacuations took its toll. And as a new immigrant family, finances were tight, and paying for synagogue membership would have been too dear a luxury at the time. But she maintained her Jewish family life and spirit nonetheless. Her husband had acquired work and the children were in school, so she was dedicated to staying and raising the family in Baltimore.
Some years later, Frieda proudly became a U.S. citizen. She was hospitalized at the time but managed to talk a doctor into letting her out because she was determined to participate in the ceremony.
“I was in the hospital, and I wanted to go to the court to be sworn in, and the doctor gave me two hours,” Frieda said. “I still had the hospital bracelets on my wrists. … I remember the questions the judge was asking me.”
The judge asked her who was the first president of the United States; she answered Abraham Lincoln. The judge smiled.
“No, Mrs. Pertman, it was George Washington. But most of the people born in the United States would answer the same thing,” she recalled him saying.
Frieda playfully claims she still answers more trivia game questions correctly than many of her native-born neighbors at Springwell Senior Living.
But that’s no surprise to anyone who’s met Frieda. At 96 she’s thoughtful and talkative, small in physical stature, but big in spirit. When she was younger she taught herself Russian and Hebrew. She learned English alongside her twins as they studied in elementary school. She’s literally saved the lives of her children, survived and held her family together with scant resources and persevered under conditions that are inconceivable. And recently she’s recovered from a stroke and still walks and exercises each day.
When Frieda laughs, her entire face lights up. Considering all that she’s endured, seeing her laugh is like a receiving a precious gift.
“She has a very deep understanding of the issues of life. She’s instinctively smart, she reads more than anyone I know. She has insights deeper than anyone I know. She’s inspirational and she’s wise. … There’s something special about her that connects with virtually every life she touches,” said her son, Adam Pertman.
Frieda is the matriarch in an ext-ended family of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and in-laws across the eastern U.S. She told a story of her great-grandson, then 7 years old, making a point to invite her to his bar mitzvah. She asked him, “Do you know how old I am?”
“Yes, I know how to count,” he replied. “I know exactly how old you’re going to be and I don’t care, but I want you at my bar mitzvah.
“Now I’m 96, and if I live to be a hundred, I have only four years. … It runs fast,” Frieda said. “But sometimes you just get tired. You don’t get tired of living, you get tired of fighting to live. And it’s hard. At this stage of the game, if I give up, I won’t last very long, so I’m trying not to give up.”
Recently, thanks to an innocently uttered comment about two relatives and investigative work by her tenacious, impassioned granddaughter-in-law, Frieda discovered she has more relatives in the U.S. than she thought. At the age of 95, Frieda met for the first time (over the phone) three octogenarian first cousins. It turned out that two aunts, Bessie and Rachel, had left for the U.S. before World War I. Soon after, the family members had lost all contact. The newly found first cousins were the children of Bessie, who was Chaya Rojza’s (Frieda’s mother) older sister. Chaya Rojza planned to leave Poland as well, but the war broke out and that made it impossible. She perished in the Holocaust. It was Bessie’s daughter, Lillian, a newly discovered cousin living in Las Vegas that sent Frieda the crocheted lace gift. Frieda turned over a piece of the handwork that lay in her lap.
“This is the work of my mother’s sister (Bessie) … that’s her handwork, this is more than a hundred years old. … [Lillian] was keeping it all these years, she said, ‘Now it belongs to you.’ I got it last evening, they brought it to me from the mail, and I didn’t sleep. At first she wrote me some jokes, I had a good laugh, then I had a good cry. She said, ‘Now, now Bessie is home.’ She sent it to me to leave it to my children,” Frieda said.
Living and thriving through what she has endured, Frieda adopted a strong sense of, in her understated words, “do the best you can with what you have,” and also a deep gratitude for family. She pointed to a group photo taken at her 95th birthday, showing her at the center of more than 30 smiling faces surrounded by a frame decorated with handwritten birthday wishes.
“This bunch. This bunch keeps me alive,” she said.
Frieda had last seen her immediate family in Wohyn, Poland when she was 22 before she lost them forever in the Holocaust. But she has created a progeny here on the other side of the world in Baltimore. Now the worlds are connected once again, woven together like the delicate threads of lace in the heirloom she received from her newly found first cousin, to be handed down from generation to generation so that they may always remember.
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/111081762″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Jennifer Mendelsohn contributed to this article. You can read Jennifer’s account of Frieda Pertman’s discovery of her first cousins at tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/139943/an-unexpected-family-reunion.