Werner Friedlander was born in a small city near Breslau, Germany in 1923 and was only 9 years old when Hitler came to power.
But he survived, and Friedlander shared his story at the Rockwood Park Jewish Center in Howard Beach last week at its Holocaust Memorial Service.
The service was attended by dozens of people, including other Nazi genocide survivors, legislators, clergy, civic leaders, NYPD officials and area residents.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom Hashoah, commemorates the six million Jews who were murdered during the Nazi genocide.
Friedlander told the attendees at last Thursday’s event that most people believe the Holocaust started on Kristallnacht, also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass — a series of coordinated attacks that German stormtroopers and civilians carried out against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on Nov. 9 through Nov. 10, 1938. German authorities did nothing to stop the attacks that left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues.
However, Friedlander said that for his family, the Holocaust began five months earlier, in the summer of 1938, when two of his uncles were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Friedlander said his father was arrested in September 1938 and put into the local jail for being politically active with the Social Democratic Party — which was outlawed by the Nazis in 1933.
In 1939 three of his uncles were arrested and jailed.
The Germans said his family members would not be released until they could prove they would immediately flee Germany.
“In spite of tireless efforts to emigrate, my parents could not find a country that would accept us until the summer of 1940 when my parents, my brother and I were able to emigrate to Shanghai,” Friedlander said.
“On April 17, 1939, five of my uncles and two aunts together went on an Italian ship to Shanghai,” Friedlander told the audience.
At this time, his father was still in jail so Friedlander, his brother and mother could not join them.
“On Sept. 3, 1939 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and because of that there were no more ships sailing from Europe to Shanghai or anywhere else,” Friedlander said.
Several months later Friedlander and his family were able to get permits to leave Germany and emigrate to Shanghai.
Since they were not able to get there by boat, they traveled overland through Russia on the TransSiberian Express to Shanghai.
They arrived in Shanghai with no jobs and no place to stay, but were able to find rooms in a city shelter.
“We spent seven years in Shanghai, four of which were under Japanese occupation and during three of which we were confined by the Japanese in a “designated area.”
In order to provide food for his family, Friedlander, then 17 years old, worked as a tutor at a Jewish Elementary School and Catholic High School from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In 1942, the Germans pressured the Japanese to establish concentration camps for the 22,000 Jews living in the city, but the Japanese refused.
Friedlander felt that their refusal was due to the fact that the Jews were helpful to the Japanese in the 1904 War between the Russian and Japanese empires.
He said that after Germany surrendered in 1945, the Allies turned their full attention to Japan and bombed Japanese-occupied Shanghai almost every night, destroying many buildings.
In 1947, Friedlander emigrated to Peoria, Ill., where he stayed for seven years.
He went to New York in 1955 and met his wife, Natalie, who he married two years later.
The Friedlanders, who now reside in Lindenwood, have two sons, a married granddaughter, and a two-year old great grandson.
Religious leaders at the service stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust.
“It is important that we remember, that we never forget the depth of evil that we are capable of,” said Monsignor Al LoPinto, pastor of St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church in Howard Beach. “Because it is only by remembering it we continue to take the steps to assure that it never happens again.”
“So that is our fervent prayer, that it never happens again,” LoPinto continued.