“Try to make your own life.” Auguste Bendheim left these words to her daughter, who later became Margot Friedländer, before she handed her over to the police in Berlin in January 1943. Before that, their son and brother Ralph had been arrested by the Gestapo. Auguste Bendheim wants to accompany the 17-year-old to the camp, both are murdered in Auschwitz because of their Jewish origins.
“When I got this sentence from the neighbors, I thought: How do I start that,” says Margot Friedländer on Wednesday evening in the Audimax of the Freie Universität Berlin, where the 100-year-old received an honorary doctorate for her life’s work.
As a young woman she went underground in Berlin, lived in hiding, was betrayed and deported to Theresienstadt. There she met Adolf Friedländer again, whom she knew from the Jewish Cultural Association, the two became a couple and emigrated to the USA in 1946. After Adolf’s death in 1997, Margot Friedländer began to write autobiographically, her main work bearing her mother’s message in the title.
Free University President Günter M. Ziegler describes the writing and work of Margot Friedländer as “a life’s work”. Childhood in Berlin-Mitte, the horrors of the Nazi era in Kreuzberg and Theresienstadt, exile in the USA – and finally the return to Berlin in 2010: how she reconnected with her city and, above all, with schoolchildren in countless eyewitness conversations to this day met, she calls her “fourth life”.
Margot Friedländer is also becoming a citizen scientist, as the Department of History and Cultural Studies at the Free University emphasizes. The honorary doctorate recognizes “the outstanding merits of Margot Friedländer as a contemporary witness to the persecution and survival in the Shoah, as a committed advocate of public history, as an ambassador of remembrance and humanity for younger generations,” the statement says.
The Konstanz literary scholar and cultural theorist Aleida Assmann then acknowledges Friedländer’s role as a teacher. “That you will be the contemporary witnesses that we will soon no longer be able to be” – Friedländer’s request to young people could make them “secondary witnesses”. But for that they would have to be “educated and empowered,” says the laudator. “Schools and universities have an important task here.”
In any case, the honoree fulfills this task in an exemplary and tireless manner: “In an outstanding way, Margot Friedländer embodies a form of democratic education that appeals to both the mind and the heart in equal measure,” says Assmann. Or, as the Berlin Science Senator Ulrike Gote (Greens) says in her greeting: “They teach us how to remember.”
Again and again, warm applause breaks out in the Auditorium Maximum – also when the renowned FU historian Paul Nolte addresses the honoree as “Frau Doctor Friedländer”. In a round of talks with history student Vincent Bruckmann, her return to Berlin, which took place in stages, was discussed again.
When she was on the plane back to the USA after one of the first readings of her autobiography in Berlin, she thought: “What do you actually want in New York?” Friedländer says. After all, Berlin is “her city” and the return has finally become unavoidable. “I didn’t regret for a minute that I did it.” She has been an honorary citizen of Berlin since 2018.
Nolte wants to know whether the constant conversations with eyewitnesses are sometimes a burden. “Not at all!” exclaims Friedländer. Her mission is: “It is for you that I am here. Because my brother didn’t have the chance you have.” The chance to live and learn for the future.
As Margot Friedländer, accompanied by President Ziegler and History Dean Eun-Jeung Lee, stands on the main stage of the Henry Ford Building, she hugs the doctoral certificate in its red velvet cover and thanks her “deeply moved” for the honor. “It was my beloved mother’s wish: ‘Try to make your life.'”