Frieda Pertman, Holocaust Survivor, Remembered for Quick Wit, Resilience

Frieda Pertman (Photo provided)

In her 80s, Frieda Pertman started telling her kids: “Well, at least I won’t die young.”

She died instead just six months shy of her 100th birthday Feb. 15 at Springwell Senior Living Community in Mount Washington.

Frieda, says her family, was the ultimate survivor — of the Holocaust, of post-World War II Poland, of starting a new life in a new country (multiple times), of the everyday trauma that comes with being Jewish and an immigrant and the last of her childhood family.

In reading past articles about her, talking to those who knew her, watching videos of previous interviews and eulogies — a few things are striking about Frieda Pertman for how often they come up: her fierce intelligence, her quick wit, her ability to adapt and her resilience.

“That’s the strength of her character that came through, not because she preached, but because she lived,” said her son, Adam Pertman, who now lives in Massachusetts.

Frieda was born in Wohyn, Poland, a small town a couple hours southeast of Warsaw, the eldest of seven children. Shortly after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, she married Chaim Pertman at 22 and, two days later, the newlyweds left their families and fled to Russia. Neither of them ever saw their families again.

For the next several years, the couple would live a harsh, hand-to-mouth existence, separated for part of it by Chaim’s drafting to the Russian Army, and have two children, Allan in 1941 and Rita in 1943. After the war, the family moved back to Poland, living as normal a life as possible in the devastated post-war country.

It was during that time, in 1953, that Adam and Henry, identical twins, were born. A few years later, the family uprooted to Israel and then, ultimately, to Baltimore in 1958.

The Pertman family was sponsored by old friends from Wohyn who had also settled in Baltimore, fellow survivors Chana and Moshe Greenblatt. They arrived with some clothes, a few personal items and just $140. From those meager beginnings, the family eventually owned several mom-and-pop grocery stores in downtown Baltimore before starting a new business in Chaim’s true passion, called Pertman’s Professional Tailoring and Cleaning on York Road in Towson. Chaim and Frieda ran Pertman’s for 10 years before retiring and buying a condo in Florida.

Rita Abel, Pertman’s only daughter and a current Owings Mills resident, said her mother’s parenting style for her and Allan, who are about a decade older than the twins, in Poland was much different than for the twins in the United States. It was less about love, she said, and more about Frieda ensuring her children would be able to survive what she had been forced to survive.

Frieda Pertman and her husband Chaim with their children Allan, Rita and twins Adam and Henry in 1957. (Provided)

“We came back to nothing,” Rita said. “There was no past. It is unfathomable unless you’ve been there to have no relatives whatsoever. After the experience of survival by sheer will and intellect and luck, that doesn’t just evaporate.”

Despite the hardship of her life, and perhaps in part because of it, Frieda built a life and a family in Baltimore, fulfilling fully her role as doting Jewish grandmother to 11 grandkids and great-grandmother to 12 great-grandchildren.

“When you’re a little kid you just know your grandmother’s as the place you go to have dinner, where you get hugs and cookies,” said Greg Abel, Frieda’s grandson who also resides in the Baltimore area. “She wanted to spoil the younger kids, and I think that came from not being able to feed, literally, her kids when they were infants. It’s also just a trait of a Jewish grandmother.”

After Chaim’s death in 2004, Frieda moved into Atrium Village and, at age 95, Springwell. And according to Phil Golden, executive director at Springwell, it was clear to anyone watching, that family was the most important thing in her life and that the Pertman family shared an incredible bond.

“Anybody that saw them together would recognize it,” he said, adding that Frieda had become a beloved figure at Springwell, with both the staff and other residents. “It was a privilege to have her and her family here.”

Frieda spoke five languages, read voraciously and was regarded by all as infinitely wise and insightful. She was also, as noted repeatedly by her family, the “queen of one-liners.”

When Adam called her with the good news of the birth of his son, her response was, “OK, now you can worry for the rest of your life.”

When Greg would call to schedule a time to visit, he’d say, “See you then!” And she’d quip, “I hope!”

Rita summed up the essence of her mother with something Frieda told her once, “I may not have done the right thing or said the right thing all the time, but I always meant to do the right thing.” Her mother didn’t always have a wonderful life, she added, and she was a complicated person. But her intentions were always good, and, after everything she had been through, that, to Rita, was remarkable.

“She was not your run-of-the-mill person,” Rita said. “She will be truly missed.”

Without their matriarch, the family will have to work harder to maintain that close-knit community, like she would want — the family she had created after she had lost her other.

“We have to make sure we remain a tight unit without her leadership now,” Greg said. “Just her being around was a reminder in the importance of family. And now that she’s gone, we have to remind one another of the importance of family.”

Frieda Pertman lived a long life — a modern immigrant success story overcoming hardship with grit, intelligence and, above all, a loving family.

And she didn’t die young.

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