Miracles: The Extraordinary Life of Frieda Bassman, One Woman’s Inspiring Account of Courage, Faith, and Hope, by Michael Lesher and Malky Feig. Feldheim Publishers, 368 pp.
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
Just hearing the title of the book Miracles: The Extraordinary Life of Frieda Bassman inspires curiosity – what was so extraordinary about this woman’s life? I hadn’t heard of Frieda Knoll Bassman before reading Miracles, and perhaps you also have not. But, rest assured, her story is miraculous. Equally astounding, if not miraculous, is Mrs. Bassman’s perspective on her life, given the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor who not only witnessed losing almost her entire family, but experienced unspeakable sufferings at the hands of the Nazis, yemach shemam.
Mrs. Bassman was passionate about her life story being made public for only one reason: “[E]ven more than recalling the atrocities, remembering was about the tremendous chassodim of the Ribbono Shel Olam during those horrendously difficult times.” However, the Tosher Rebbe, whom she often sought for advice, did not want her memoir printed in her lifetime. Thus, after her passing, it became her children’s mission to bring her dream to fruition.
The book is written in first-person, which draws the reader close to the heroine. The writing itself is clear and precise, capturing the details of the story, but also Freida’s powerful emotions. It is expertly done by Michael Lesher and well-known author Malky Feig (Mountain Climbers, Mirrors and Windows).
In May 1944, the Knoll family was deported, along with the other Jews of Yasina (a tiny town on the Carpathian Mountains) to the Mateszalka ghetto in Eastern Europe. Thus begins the eventual destruction of Frieda’s family. With detail, the reader learns of the conditions in the ghetto, the cattle cars, the camps, and the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. One such passage is a prime example of the compelling writing and intensity of the story: “There is no experience in the world that can serve as a point of reference for the insufferable conditions that we endured in those cars. We lost all track of time in the darkness. It seemed as if we had passed over some unknown threshold into a timeless zone; a place where nothing else existed but the bumping and rattling of the cars that had swallowed us into their squelching confines.”
As the book progresses, one becomes increasingly amazed by Freida Knoll’s bravery (she barges into a prison to demand the release of her father), care for other Jews (saving more than one person in the camps from death, including her niece), and determination to see the loving Hand of Hashem in her trials. This perspective, however, does not preclude Bassman from feeling, and expressing, the pain she experienced.
There is often a risk when one writes of nissim, that one could repress the pain that she is experiencing. Not so here. The book is real, gut-wrenching, yet manages to be full of hope – not a small accomplishment.
Another wonderful feature of Miracles is, although the first half is hard to read and even harder to internalize, the entire second half takes place post-liberation. Those pages document Mrs. Bassman’s journey and immigration to America, including her marriage and relocation to Chicago, having children, and her devotion to nursing. We see her navigating this major transition as she remains steadfast to Torah, while being candid about her challenges in these areas. These pages, although not fraught with tragic details, are compelling in their own right.
Freida’s intense desire to help others, inherited from her beloved Mameh, inspired her to found a nursing home in Chicago. Elder care became her life’s calling. As her daughter writes, “Not all those who needed assistance actually fit into the nursing-home setting, for one reason or another, but this did not deter Mommy from adopting them…Everyone in Chicago knew that if someone needed a home, it could be found at 838 Junior Terrace: room, board, and medical care, gratis.”
Not only did Freida Bassman learn the nursing home business and work hard in it for almost fifty years, but she spent her inexhaustible amount of energy on other causes as well, like saving Jewish children from public schools, taking in families who couldn’t make it on their own, and bolstering the morale of Israeli soldiers. From her daughters’ writing in the epilogue, we learn a great deal more about Freida’s mindset; about her dynamism, simplicity, and drive to give to others and take nothing material for herself. This part of the book beautifully rounds out the first-person narrative, adding richness to her personality and story.
Something else I appreciated was the painstaking detail to record the fate of Freida’s relatives, including siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, most of whom did not survive the Churban. A nice perk of Miracles is the publisher’s decision to print pictures of Freida, her siblings and many family members. It is always a nice addition to have a face to attach to a story, especially such an evocative memoir, and it is easy to see Mrs. Bassman’s joy of life and determination on her face.
One may be surprised by the fact that Mrs. Bassman so openly shared her history, while many survivors did not. “Unlike other children of survivors, whose identities floated in a silent, sterile vacuum, we were tethered securely to our roots by the robust fibers of Mommy’s animated tales…” her daughter writes. “Her sharing didn’t end with nostalgic whimsy, however. Mommy wasn’t afraid to take us to Auschwitz, to let us into the naked brutality of the barracks, the inhuman cold of tzeil appel…Mommy’s was a sturdy belief in the resilience of humanity, a psychology cemented in the trust not only of survival, but the ability to extend beyond the parameters of self.”
It is this legacy that Freida Knoll Bassman passed on, and it is this fundamental of yiddishkeit that all who read the book will take with them.