Marion Friedeberg in her sports car (left) and a 1947 article in the Examiner about her (right).
Marion Friedeberg in her sports car (left) and a 1947 article in the Examiner about her (right).

This 90-year-old Holocaust survivor still zips around S.F. in her sports car

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In 1947, the San Francisco Examiner interviewed new Americans to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

One of them was 14-year-old Marion Friedeberg, who had arrived in the city a year earlier from Germany via New York. She reflected on her two-year imprisonment at Ravensbrück, the second largest Nazi concentration camp for women, and on her new life in the U.S.

The essay that Marion Friedeberg wrote in 1947 for The San Francisco Examiner. Click to enlarge.
The essay that Marion Friedeberg wrote in 1947 for The San Francisco Examiner. Click to enlarge.

“There was never enough food” in the camp, Friedeberg told the Examiner reporter. “We lived in a crowded room with others. There was no playing then.” In San Francisco, she continued, “It is the Constitution that makes it possible for me to pick the friends I want, to learn to do the things I want to do, and to move about as freely as I care to. I am living a good life now.”

Today, Marion Friedeberg is 90 and still living a good life. She lives independently in her Glen Park home, zips around the city in a two-seater sports car she bought five years ago, and radiates joie de vivre.

“She really loves San Francisco, she’s all over the place, in every corner of the city,” her daughter, Debra Hoiem, said. “We’re very close, very good friends.”

“I’m a positive person,” Friedeberg said. “I really am.”

Not everyone who grew up in Nazi Germany, spent two years in a concentration camp and steadfastly supported an emotionally scarred mother could say that.

Ask Friedeberg today about Ravensbrück and she still vividly recalls details. The potato-peel soup and the dirty, chipped bowl one had to carry with them, “otherwise people would steal it.” How the guards beat her mother and “knocked out all her teeth” after she dropped her bowl. And how her mother was used as forced labor at the nearby Siemens factory while young Marion stayed in the barracks, where “there was no activity, no nothing.”

She remembers the guards’ snarling German shepherds, the sickness and disease, the infected sores that covered her legs and torso.

I’m a very strong person because of what I went through. I will never forget it, never. But I don’t dwell on it.

Friedeberg was just 10 when the Nazis took her father away from the family’s tiny Berlin apartment and ordered her and her mother to the camp. Her brother, Hugo, escaped harm; he wasn’t home when the Nazis arrived. “He lived underground [hidden by an aunt and her non-Jewish husband] for all the years while I was gone,” Friedeberg said.

After Ravensbruk was liberated in 1945, Friedeberg and her mother spent days walking to freedom, taking shelter where they could and depending on the kindness of strangers until reaching Berlin.

They stayed with Friedeberg’s aunt and reunited with her brother before boarding a ship for America. Their sponsors were Koret Sportswear, an Oakland-based company founded by Stephanie and Joseph Koret in 1938.

“We went to New York and stayed there for six weeks or so before Jewish Family Services decided that they wanted us to relocate,”  Friedeberg said. “They gave us an apartment in San Francisco. We lived there for quite some time.”

The agency also provided clothing. Once she discovered Goodwill, Friedeberg did her shopping there. “I didn’t have to worry. Whatever I got, it’s mine. No one is taking it away from me,” she said.

Her mother was “devastated” by her wartime experience. She had flashbacks and could handle only menial tasks, making work difficult. Her father rejoined the family in 1949, after a Jewish agency located him in St. Louis, where he’d been living with relatives.

A shoemaker by trade, he’d spent most of the war years in Siberia and was unaware of his family’s whereabouts. When he returned to the family, Friedeberg said, “to me he was like a stranger. I couldn’t connect to my dad. I think he didn’t know how to take care of us anymore. I left 11th grade to take care of my family and get a job.”

She addressed envelopes in a print shop, then became a filing clerk. “It was so difficult for me when I came here,” she said. “I was so concerned about my mother, and my brother married young. It was like the daughter was in charge.”

Her life took a positive turn when she was 17 and met Werner “Bill” Friedeberg at a dance at the Jewish Community Center. He’d fled Germany for Shanghai during the war.

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The couple married a year later. Bill Friedeberg worked as head clerk at the QFI supermarket in Stonestown and freelanced as a cantor in San Francisco and Oakland. Marion stayed home until their three children grew up and then went into retail.

For much of her life, Friedeberg did not discuss the Holocaust with her children.

“She opened up about it around 20 years ago, when we went to visit Berlin,” said Hoiem, her daughter. “We were looking at trains, and it was like she was in a trance.”

A few years later, Friedeberg visited Berlin with her granddaughter, Rachel Hoiem, on a trip for survivors that was paid for by the German government. “There were a lot of people in my age group,” Friedeberg said. “It was interesting because everyone had been in a different camp.”

Basically, though, she had moved on. “I’m a very strong person because of what I went through,” she said. “I will never forget it, never. But I don’t dwell on it. If people ask me about it, I will tell them and give them information. But I just went on with my life.”

She talks to her brother, Hugo Beckerman, 97, daily and visits him every other day at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living.

“If somebody needs me and I am able to help them, I’ll be there for them,” she said.

She’s also kind to strangers. “She buys sandwiches for people on the street,” her daughter said. “She’ll buy someone a coffee or pastry.”

As for her children, Debra of San Francisco, Mark Friedeberg of San Anselmo and Michael Friedeberg of Bakersfield, “they’re my life,” Friedeberg said. “I don’t know what I would do without them. I am blessed that I’m alive.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.