Obituary of Gertrud Friedman
Born August 21, 1926. Passed away on February 19, 2019, at home with her son and daughter by her side. Predeceased by her parents, Josef and Marie Schaffner, her husband, Alexander, and her sister Maria. Survived by her son Simon, daughter Susan, and son-in-law, Robert Paine, as well as her treasured grandchildren, Alex, Joshua and Zachary. She inspired many with her kindness, generosity, wisdom, and resilience.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in her name to WXXI Click HERE to donate or similar deserving destination consistent with Gertrud's love of life, learning and family.
Eulogy for Gertrud Friedman
Our mother, Gertrud Schaffner was born August 21, 1926, in Frankfurt, Germany. Her parents owned a craft shop, which was known during the 30s as “the” place to get special gifts in Frankfurt. Her father prior to owning the shop had been an engineer, and her mother was a master bookbinder, who bound the works of Paul Hindemidth and others. She often said that she had a wonderful childhood, with loving yet strict parents, and a much loved older sister, Maria.
Her father was Catholic and her mother was Jewish, and it was not a good time to have Jewish heritage in Germany. She sometimes recalled being witness to a book burning, and her mother saying “This is not who we are.”
So at age 12, in mid-1939, her parents, who were not themselves able to leave, put her on the Kindertransport – a Quaker-led program to gather Jewish children in Europe, and take them to safety in England. She described the night before she left, being held by her father who carried her in his arms around the house as she cried. She said: “I was not a small child either” She later said that she didn’t understand the sacrifice that this represented to her parents until her own daughter, Susan, herself turned 12, and she wondered if she would have had the strength to do what her parents had. An act both devastating and compassionate. Perhaps this shaped her own approach to life, as she showed again and again the strength to persist, to be practical and do what needed to be done, with love and compassion.
When she got to England she was placed in a foster home in London, hundreds of miles apart from her sister. The home was owned by the Barrets, and Mrs. Barret who had emotional problems had been told that having a young girl around the house would be good for her mental state. The next year was not an easy one. Mrs. Barret didn’t think that education was important for girls beyond grade school and threatened to remove her from school. Our mother saved her pocket money in the run up to the start of war, in the hope that she could buy a ticket for her parents, and they could get to London by years end. This hopeful perhaps naïve idea of course did not materialize. The war began, communication with her parents was lost and the saved money taken by Mrs. Barret. Years later in describing this episode, she said “Despite everything, I always have to remember, that without the Barrets I wouldn’t have survived and I have to be grateful.” This too perhaps helped shape who our mother became: someone who felt gratitude deeply, from even the flawed. It wasn’t that she was blind to people’s weaknesses. She just saw them, understood them, and was grateful for the good that was there none the less.
Our mother was rescued from the Barret’s house by her mother’s sister, Aunt Sophie who appeared at the house one day, had our mother pack her bag and took her away. Aunt Sophie was also a refugee, working as a maid in a house in Farnham, in Surrey. She had asked the owner, Major David Pole, if she could ‘keep’ her niece with them, and she could help in the house and be safely away from London, the blitz, and the sad home of her foster family. He agreed, and my mother spent the bulk of the war in the house, helping with the home and going to school at Farnham Girls Grammar school. She recounted that in the refugee community in Farnham, every so often they would organize a tea, and these refugees, who had spent the weeks working serving in the houses as maids and house staff, would be able to sit, and she would serve them tea and cake. This too was a theme of her life, to find the need around her, and address it.
She often recounted how the community in the school in Farnham supported her. Individual teachers helped her master her English, algebra and physics. Because of her journey, she was behind, then caught up, then topped the class. It feels like the help of these individual teachers, who she remembered and whose names she recounted frequently, cemented in her the understanding that life could be very hard, but it was not just hard. That there was good in life, and in people as well. So she was neither optimist, nor pessimist, but a steely-eyed realist. “Get through the hard times, and notice and really enjoy the good times when they are here.”
She excelled in everything at the school really: math, science, English. She had what felt like an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare and we used to joke that she had either a Bavarian folk saying or Shakespeare quote apropos for any situation. Some that come to mind are “Things past redress are now for me past care” (Richard II). and “You get to be as old as a cow, and you learn a thing or two” This, when said in Bavarian, is actually quite pithy and rhymes. A friend of ours once said that it was truly terrifying watching her solve the New York Times crossword puzzle. Even in her 90s she was accessing obscure answers. She would always downplay it, and then often use the Bavarian cow quote.
During her time in Farnham during the war she was in contact with her sister Maria, and recounted visits to Kew gardens in London with her, and the simple joy and beauty of it. How the vast garden felt like “theirs” in the middle of the war. She was fiercely devoted to her sister through life, as she recognized the tenuous and fragile nature of life. And this devotion was a reflection of her deeply felt ethos: Always, always people over things. Truly non-materialistic. And the things she did like were simple: a nice piece of lox, some flowers. Once when she visited Simon in Pasadena, he called her in a panic as she was heading to the plane and he said “I’m running out of time. Should I clean the bathtub or get flowers?” She didn’t hesitate: “Flowers!” of course.
As the war concluded, she had grown into a young woman. Graduated and employed as a works chemist in Dagenham, making sulfa drugs for the war effort. These were the first real antibiotics that saved many lives during the war, including Winston Churchill’s. But though she was valued there, and they offered her promotion, she needed to see if her parents had survived the war. She joined the Civilian Censorship Division, a civilian branch of the US Occupational Army in Germany that needed bilingual operatives to monitor tapped phone lines and track black marketers. The plan was to get to Germany, and once there on leave, try to track down her parents. During this time she was court marshaled twice, for buying food for civilians. During her tribunal, she implicated the General in charge of being guilty of far worse infractions “He was the biggest black marketer of the lot!” she ruefully said as she recounted this. The General’s response was “Its not what you do, its what you get caught doing”. Did we mention that our mother was a steely-eyed realist? By this age of 19 she had seen all sides of life, which made the deep kindness that she expressed throughout her life all the more remarkable.
It took about a year, but eventually in 1946 she found her parents in Frankfurt. They had survived, with her Jewish mother being hidden by Catholic relatives in small villages through Germany. It was an remarkable reunion. She had grown from a 12 year old girl to a 20 year old woman. Her mother asked her during all those years apart “How did you know what to do?” and our mother replied “I remembered what I had been taught as a child.” In recounting this, she would often say “I was very lucky to have a good start, my first 12 years, and this set me in the right direction.” This entire experience must be why in her life she often allied herself with the fragile, and the vulnerable. As an old woman, if there was ever a small child in the house, accompanying an adult who was talking to other adults, the child would gravitate to her, draw to her and our mother would read to them. We have seen this many times.
Being a dutiful daughter, in 1947 she then moved with her parents to New York City, as they didn’t want to stay in Germany. This too was a challenge: a roach infested shotgun apartment on the upper east side. She worked full time during the day and went to school at night, eventually earning her bachelors degree in chemistry. These jobs ranged from the menial (a shipping clerk at Macys) to a better use of her intellect, as a lab technician at the Rockefeller Institute. There she published papers with her mentor, DW Woolley a famous biochemist. Decades later, Woolley’s widow pointedly told us how our mother was a critical part of the research and not simply a “pair of hands”, which is why she was an author on these papers.
In this time she also began enjoying the outdoors, camping and bicycling with her expanding social circle, including the American Youth Hostels and friends at the Rockefeller Institute. One of these friends, Bruce Merrifield, later won the nobel prize in chemistry and inscribed a copy of the award volume to her later in life saying “Gertrud was really one of my favorite people.”
Eventually, she went to Chicago in the mid-1950s to go to graduate school at the University of Illinois in Pharmacology, which is where she met Alex Friedman who in 1961 was to become her beloved husband. While she didn’t finish graduate school, she did get a diploma in Education from Oxford University and continued to work in labs, and publishing. Perhaps the pinnacle of this was her paper with our father in Science magazine. They worked together as a team right until the day that Susi was born in 1963. In 1966, Simon came along and our mother became essentially a full time mother. As a mother, she was kind, compassionate and consistent. She would later say “I tried to rarely say ‘no’, but if I did say it I meant it.” With Alex, they were devoted parents. She was supportive without being directive “What should I be when I grow up?” The answer was always “What makes you happy.”
Creativity, ideas, observation: these were the ethos of the household.
Though she embraced all of the domestic duties in the service of Family, our mother had a stealthy formidable intelligence that blindsided people who first saw this perpetually modest woman with a plate of Holiday cookies for the neighbors and didn’t grasp what they were dealing with. There was a constant focus on meaning and truth in words and conversation with both parents. At one public talk at the Museum of Science and Industry the speaker made the comment “…and people used to think that popcorn would pop because there was a little devil inside the kernel that would leap out when heated…” and our mother raised her hand and said “Well, how do you know that there isn’t a devil in there?” Of course we kids shrunk into our seats, but the lesson was there plain to see: what is the evidence? What are you assuming in your analysis? What are the alternative explanations? Years later, we realized that this heightened sense of analysis and critical thinking laid the groundwork for our lives.
Her modesty always fooled people, who easily mis-interpreted who they were dealing with. Once, later in life when the Salvation Army was removing a large lounger chair that was being donated, they couldn’t figure out how to get it through the door. After many minutes of struggle our mother said “Lift it to there, rotate it, then tilt it and then slide it around the corner.” The men followed the instructions and the chair was successfully extracted. The men put the chair down and exclaimed with surprise “Hey! You’re pretty smart for an old lady!” She found this delightfully amusing, and relished our referencing the story. We would say “Buddy, you don’t know the half of it!”
When our father got cancer in 1980, she proved to be a strong anchor for our family and again demonstrated to us how to persist in the face of the hardships of life. Again the ethos: deal as best you can with the challenges, and when you have a chance, enjoy all the good that is still there. She always found ways of doing this. Shortly after a bout of radiation therapy our father and she entered a drawing for a Cunard cruise to England. They lost, but our mother asked the question “If we had won, would you have been able and willing to go?” The answer was “yes” and so she set about to find a way for them to take the trip. We often commented that these last years of our fathers life were the happiest.
When our father passed in 1991, our mother was devastated, but we pushed forward, dealing as we could with the circumstance. She had a few very close friends that she could count on, like Anna Braucher, and Shelly and Robert Kaplan. She was also very close to our fathers brother Alby and Albys wife, Roz. She was also a devoted aunt in particular to Maria’s son Thomas and to Alby’s son Steve. In addition she had this way of finding new interesting people, whether in a bookstore or on a plane. She often said that she didn’t like big groups, and parties. Her focus was on individuals and people were drawn to her empathy and presence. During this time she remained devoted to her older sister, who had been her connection to her disrupted family during the war, and remained true to her as her sister declined and eventually passed. Truly, family was the most important part of her life.
This was clearly expressed in the final chapter of her life, the 17 years that she was a grandmother to Susi and Bob’s boys. It feels like this time was the purest distillation of her dedication to family and to love, as she expressed her devotion to her grandchildren Alex, Joshua and Zachary. First staying with Susi and Bob, then fully packing up her life in Chicago and moving to Rochester, she became a fulltime grandmother. Free of distraction, she read to them, cooked treats for them, hugged them as they got off the school bus. In watching this, it really felt like this was what she was born to do. All of the challenges of her life had brought her to this state of heightened wisdom, an ability to see people as they were, encourage their strengths, forgive their weaknesses and support them as much as possible.
Her life was also enriched by her relationship with her son-in-law, Bob. They felt a true kinship, based in part on belief in family and in a mutual desire to solve the New York Times Sunday puzzle. At the end of her life, our mother faced new challenges, that of a failing body. Even then she persisted, and retained her sense of humor. She was constantly throwing us off guard. For example in 2015 after her major stroke, she was hallucinating and really in poor mental shape. It was unclear if she would recover any of her mental abilities. Two vignettes from that time: Lying in her bed in the hospital, she was hallucinating, and she imagined seeing a small child peering around the door of the hospital room. She called out sweetly: “Its ok love, you can come in!” while we looked in worry at the empty doorway. Susi commented later “She was kind and gentle, even with her hallucinations!” Then the next day we met with a surgeon who would clear the blockage from her carotid artery. It was not risk free operation, but the danger from not doing anything was greater. It was late, perhaps 10pm and the surgeon and we talked about the surgery in our mother’s hospital room. Our mother was not that responsive until the surgeon continued “…there is of course a level of risk. And no one likes surgery…” and before he could finish our mother interjected: “…except surgeons!” And we all were bemused and frankly stunned. Her intellect, formidable and playful was intact, and with some more tough times, was again able to be expressed. In the final 4 years of life, she got to participate in all of her grandsons barmitzvahs and continue to bless our lives with her presence. Her humor, her compassion, her intellect and her grace remain in our hearts and minds and will do so for the rest of our lives.