Soon after he witnessed the 11th Armored Division of the army liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria as the war came to an end, my dad, Fred Friendly, wrote a letter to his mom, Therese. It was near the end of his tour of duty in World War II. The date of the letter is May 10,1945.
Our family reads the letter at the Jewish Holidays every year. Over time some friends, relatives and others who have heard or read about it on the internet read it as well.
I’ve always been interested in how WWII changed my dad’s life and world view and how not going to war changed mine, and the comparisons between the two. While I feel blessed to have drawn a high draft number and gone to college instead of Vietnam, in many ways I envy my dad and his (greatest) generation and their service to their country.
As opposed to Vietnam, it was a "just" war that had to be fought and as with my dad it forged boys into men, those who survived.
In my dad’s case, after growing up an only child with severe dyslexia and ADD, losing his dad at 11, being considered “slow,” constantly getting into fights and generally considered a screw-up, the Army, in his own words, “made a man out of me.” He had just two years of junior college under his belt before his service and self-deprecatingly referred to the Army as “My Rhodes Scholarship.”
Here is his letter in full:
May 10, 1945
In just a few days I will be in an airplane on my way back to the APO [Army Post Office], to which you write me. Before I leave Europe, I must write this letter and attempt to convey to you that which I saw, felt and gasped at as I saw a war and a frightened peace stagger into a perilous existence. I have seen a dead Germany…If it is not dead it is certainly ruptured beyond repair. I have seen the beer hall where the era of the inferno and hate began, and as I stood there in the damp, moist hall were Nazidom was spawned, I heard only the dripping of a bullet-pierced beer barrel and the ticking of a clock which had already run out the time of the bastard who made the Munich Beer hall a landmark. I saw the retching and vomiting of the stone and mortar which had once been listed on maps as Nurnheim, Regensberg, Munich, Frankfurt, Augusburg, Linz and wondered how a civilization could ever again spring from cities so utterly removed from the face of the earth by weapons the enemy taught us to use at Coventry and Canterbury. I have met the Germans, have examined the Stormtrooper, his wife and his heritage of hate, and I have learned to hate—almost with as much fury as the G.I. who saw his buddy killed at the Bulge, almost as much as the Pole from Bridgeport who lost 100 pounds at Mauthausen, Austria. I have learned now and only now that this war had to be fought I wish I might have done more. I envy with a bottomless and endless spirit, the American soldier who may tell his grandchildren that with his hands he killed Germans.
That which is in my heart now I want you and those dear to us to know and yet I find myself completely incapable of putting it into letter form…I think if I could sit down in our living room or the den at 11 President, I might be able to convey a portion of the dismal, horrible and yet titanic mural which is Europe today. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to do that for months or maybe a year, and by then the passing of time may dim the memory. Some of the scenes will live just so long as I do—some of the sounds, like the dripping beer, like the firing of a Russian Tommy gun, will always bring back the thought of something I may try to forget, but never will be able to do.
For example, when I go to the Boston Symphony, when I hear waves of applause, no matter what the music is, I shall be traveling back to a town near Linz where I heard applause unequaled in history, and where I was allowed to see the ordeal which our fellow brothers and sisters of the human race have endured. To me, Poland is no longer the is the place from which the prisoners of Mauthausen came. When I think of the Czechs, I will think of those who were butchered here, and that goes for the Jews, the Russians, the Austrians, the people of 15 different lands—yes, even the Germans who passed through this Willow Run of death. This was Mauthausen. I want you to remember the word…I want you to know, I want you to never forget or let our disbelieving friends forget, that your flesh and blood saw this. This was no movie, no printed page. Your son saw this with his own eyes and in doing this aged 10 years.
Mauthausen was built with a half-million rocks, which 150,000 prisoners (18,000 was the capacity) carried up on their backs from a quarry 800 feet below. They carried it up steps so steep that a captain and I walked it once and were winded, without a load. They carried granite and made 8 trips a day...and if they stumbled, the S.S. men pushed them into the quarry. There are 285 steps, covered with blood.
They called it the steps of death. I saw the shower room (twice or three times the size of our bathroom) a chamber lined with tile and topped with sprinklers where 150 prisoners at a time were disrobed and ordered in for a shower which never gushed forth from the sprinklers because the chemical was gas. When they ran out of gas, they merely mucked all the air out of the room. I talked to the Jews who worked in the crematory, one room adjacent, where six and seven bodies at a time were burned. They gave these jobs to the Jews because they all died anyhow, and they didn’t want the rest of the prisoners to know their own fate.
The Jews knew theirs, you see I saw their emaciated bodies in piles like cords of wood…the stench of death, of decomposition of human flesh, of uncontrolled body fluids, of burned, charred bones. I saw the living skeletons, some of whom, regardless of our medical corps work, will die and be in piles like that in the next few days. Malnutrition doesn’t stop the day that food is administered. Don’t get the idea that these people were all derelicts, all just masses of people…some of them were doctors, authors, some of the American citizens, and a scattered few were GIs. A Navy lieutenant still lives to tell the story. I saw where they lived, I saw where the sick died, three and four in a bed, no toilets, no nothing. I saw the look in their eyes. I shall never stop seeing the expression in the eyes of the anti-Franco former prisoners who have been given the job of guarding the S.S. men who were captured.
And how does the applause fit in? Mother, I walked thru countless cell blocks filled with sick dying people—300 in a room twice the size of our living room and as we walked in—there was a ripple of applause and then an inspiring burst of applause and cheers, and men who could not stand up sat up and whispered though they tried to shout it—“Vive L’Americansky…Vive LAmericansky...”—the applause, the cheers, those faces of men with legs the size and shape of rope, with ulcerated bodies, weeping with a kind of joy you and I will never, I hope, know. “Vive L’Amermicansky…I got a cousin in Milwaukee...we thought you guys would come...” Applause—gaunt, hopeless faces at last filled with hope. One younger man asked me something in Polish which I could not understand but I did detect the word “yit”...I asked an interpreter what he said—the interpreter blushed and finally said…“he wants to know if you are a Jew.” When I smiled and stuck out my mitt and said “yes”...he was unable to speak or show the feeling that was in his heart.
As I walked away, I suddenly realized that this had been the first time I had shaken hands with my right hand. That, my dear, was Mauthausen. There but for the Grace of God—
I will write more letters in days to come. I want to write one on the Russians…I want to write and tell you how I sat next to Patton and Tolbukhin at a banquet at the Castle of Franz Joseph. I want to write and tell you how the Germans look in defeat, how Munich looked in death, but those things sparkle with excitement and make good reading. This is my Mauthausen letter. I hope you will see fit to let Bill Braude and the folks read it. I would like to think that all the Washenheimers and all the Friendlys and all our good Providence friends would read it. Then I want you to put it away and every Yom Kipper I want you to take it out and make your grandchildren read it.
For, if there had been no America, we, all of us, might well have carried granite at Mauthausen.
All my love,
Written in Paris, France, May 10, 1945
Quite a letter. At 29, his ability to paint word pictures that would be the hallmark of his future work was clear. The letter will be passed from generation to generation who will never forget the horror of the Nazis and the bravery of the “greatest generation” who stopped them.
After the Germans surrendered, Dad returned to New Delhi where as a reporter for the Army newspaper, The China-Burma-India Roundup, he reported the stories he had witnessed in Europe along with stories of the continuing war in Asia.
Top generals brought their officers together to hear Dad lecture on his experiences. By then he had become a Master Sergeant and had developed quite a reputation as a dynamic, larger-than-life speaker and reporter.
After one presentation, surrounded by soldiers, the brass commander invited Dad to join him and other top brass in the officers’ mess. Dad replied he thought it more appropriate that he eat with his fellow enlisted men. One of my favorite Fred stories.
It is one of the greatest honors and challenges of my life that I have just joined, with my friend David Zaslav, The Shoah Foundation Board at USC dedicated to preserving the video remembrances of more than 53,000 of victims of the holocaust and genocides all over the world throughout history.
I intend to make it a big part of my life’s work from here on, inspired in great part by my Dad’s letter, written more than 70 years ago.
Andy Friendly, the son of CBS television pioneer and B&C Hall of Famer Fred Friendly, is a producer and former executive. He headed production at King World and primetime programming at CNBC and produced shows such as Entertainment Tonight. This piece is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Willing to Be Lucky: A Life in TV.