Survivor STORY

Cantor Isaac Goodfriend was born into a Chassidic family in Poland. At the age of 16, he was interned in a Nazi labor camp in Piotrokow, Poland. Escaping in 1944, he was hidden by a Polish farmer and was the only member of his family to survive the war.

After the war, he attended the Berlin Conservatory of Music, McGill Conservatory of Music, Conservatoire Provincial de Quebec, the Music School Settlement, and Baldwin Wallace College.

In 1952 he served as cantor at the Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal and later at Cleveland's Community Temple. He then moved to Atlanta to serve as cantor for Ahavath Achim Synagogue, where he served for thirty years. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Goodfriend to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. He was a charter member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1985, the governor of Georgia appointed Cantor Goodfriend to serve on the statewide Holocaust Memorial Commission, and in 1986 he was invited to participate in the centennial celebration for the Statue of Liberty. He appeared in one Hollywood-made motion picture, "Summer of My German Soldier".

Cantor Goodfriend earned many honors during his illustrious career, including the Kavod Award (Cantors Assembly for America ) in 1995 and an honorary Doctor of Music Degree (Jewish Theological Seminary) in 1998. His memoir, "By Fate or Faith" was published in 2002. Throughout his life, Cantor Goodfriend was active in numerous organizations, including the Hebrew Order of David, Jewish National Fund, ORT, Zionist Organization of America, and Workman’s Circle.

Importance of Family and Friends

We had 300 people at the wedding. I didn't know more than maybe 10 survivors. I invited everyone who wanted to come. Every Jew who wanted to come to my wedding, I invited. We didn’t send out invitations. I told the American chaplain, the American Army chaplain, Rabbi Schubel, Joe Schubel, who was from Boston. I said, “You invite all the GIs,” the Jewish GIs, of course. And the French, whoever, get together the French, the Russians. They all came, and the British, and the Brigade, soldiers from the Jewish Brigade in Palestine, they all came. I look now at the pictures of my wedding, I think, "My God." I didn’t know who they were. Oh yes, there was delegation from Sweden. That day they came in, they brought packages for all the refugees. There was a DP camp in Berlin. "Invite them," I said, "Let them come." So they all came. I remember singing "HaTikvah," a great thing, at my wedding. Well, the only thing that was missing was my family.

Judaism and Jewishness

Well, faith never left me. I was born into it, I was, I grew up in it. And it was, as I said a few many times when I’ve made a presentation, it was shattered. It was shaken, shattered, actually shattered to pieces. But, uh, if you go through what I went through, it’s, sometimes you reason. You don’t find, you try to reason, but you don’t find a reason. The old question “why?” Why didn’t God do this? Why didn’t He do that? I did mine, why didn’t He do His? I prayed, He didn’t answer. I prayed harder, nothing happened. I know He can do it, it didn’t happen. So should I lose…He still did the same thing. The last Rosh Hashanah under the Nazis was in 1944…yeah. 1944, in September, yeah, September 1944. I was hiding with the non-Jewish farmer. There were four men there, four men and five women with a baby; she was a little girl. So we said to each other, “You know, it’s Rosh Hashanah today. I think today is Rosh Hashanah.” We didn’t have a calendar, but we figured out that today must be Rosh Hashanah. “So let’s pray.” Isn’t it crazy? So we started to talk – the men – we started to talk among ourselves: “We don’t have a prayer book. We don’t have a prayer book. So the only way to pray is we’ll pray aloud, out loud. If one forgets the text, the other one can remember it, so this way we…” And a crucifix was standing at one side of the other side of the room, the little room, maybe…from the window, this was the room, this is, from the end of this window up to here. I would say four by eight: Nine people slept there, eight there, in hiding there. Don’t ask me how. The floor, the bed – there were two beds, the baby slept in one bed with her mother and father, and then the rest of us on the floor. Why pray? Nobody said. We decided, “Whatever happens, what if the Germans discover this hiding place, at least, whenever they come, we’ll be ready. We have prayed”. In Yiddish it was [Yiddish phrase]: “Whatever happens…”[Yiddish phrase] “Yes, we prayed. We did our prayers”. So it was…was it crazy? No, it was not crazy. Realizing? No, it wasn’t crazy, because at the last minute, because we were expected: “They will discover it, they…sooner or later. They have dogs, they discovered the hiding place in the ghetto. They, they have dogs, they can sniff it out. So at least, we will be OK with Him”. OK? We did our thing. Later on, these, all these episodes come back to you. After you are liberated, after you live as a free man, a free women. And you realize that, what made it happen? Was it faith? Was it fate? Was it destiny, destined to live? Both. It was both.

Life Lessons and Perspectives

So, so then you sought reasoning in the reasoning, in the questions. It was the only thing we had. If not, I wouldn’t be here. I would commit suicide or I would go off my rocker. I would go crazy, and that’s it. But if you want to live in rationalizing…and [Yiddish phrase], as we would say, “Go further. Pick yourself up.” There’s a beautiful song in the, that came out of the war. It’s called, “Ewig,” “Eternity.” I love this song because, in my opinion, it depicts more meaning than it departs on them. Never say this is the final road for you. [Yiddish phrase]. Never say this is the final road. Even though leaden skies color sky, cover cloud, leaden, skies, yeah, color the sky blue. So, we’re still here, yeah, still here. But “Ewig,” there’s more meaning. “Ewig” is “Eternity,” and it was written by Lewig. And he says there, “The world takes me around with thorny hands and carries me to the Auto da Fey. The pyre, the pyre is burning, and throws me into the pyre. I should be consumed. But I pick myself up again, as a Jew, and walk again.”

Could you give us the flavor of that song?

[Sings, Yiddish] He says: “I ‘m put under the turbines, and a bit crushed. So I put myself as a new foundation underneath! And I pick myself up again, and I start walking.” This is the strength of the eternity of the Jewish people. To me, this song has the epitome of…the eternity. I mean, you cannot…you can crush us. You can burn us. You can do anything you want. But somehow, we try to get up again.

Isaac Goodfriend