Gerda Katz Frumkin
Dec. 4, 1925 – Sept. 22, 2017
We are mourning the loss of Gerda Katz Frumkin, my mother’s childhood friend. After becoming best friends on the ship from Nazi Germany to America, Edith (my mother) and Gerda lost touch with each other in 1938. In 2011, eighth graders reunited the two old friends, 73 years after they last saw each other. Like Finding My Twin tells the story of Gerda and Edith’s friendship and reunion. Here is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral in Seattle last Monday:
My name is Fern Schumer Chapman. I am a dear friend of Gerda’s daughter, Ann Sherman, and I am the daughter of Gerda’s close friend, Edith Schumer.
Gerda and Edith’s remarkable friendship spans two countries and eight decades. The two came to this country on a little-known American program that rescued children from Nazi-occupied countries. Terrified and alone, they traveled all by themselves when they were only 12 years old. The two girls met on the ship and forged a deep bond during the rough 10-day passage in March of 1938. Gerda was seasick and Edith took care of her, refusing to leave her side. But sadly, they lost touch with each other when they parted in New York City.
For decades, my mother yearned to see her old friend. I had tried to find her, but there were several women with that name and we weren’t convinced any were my mother’s friend. We thought Gerda might have gotten married, and we didn’t know her new name.
In an incredible turn of events, after reading about Gerda and Edith’s friendship in a book I wrote, compassionate 8th graders reunited the two women 73 years after their shared immigration journey. What those children did for Gerda and Edith — who were in their 80s at the time — was immeasurable.
The first time Gerda and Edith “talked” on the phone in 2011, just a few weeks before they would meet in person, they said hello and then, for twenty minutes, they sobbed together. No words were necessary. Each felt the other was the only person who understood their deep uprooting and unbearable losses.
The Nazis murdered my mother’s parents and many family members. Some of Gerda’s loved ones perished, too. Thankfully, most of her family survived, though she was separated from them for 30 years.
During their dramatic reunion in Seattle, my mother told Gerda, “I wish we could have been in touch. I think we could have helped each other.”
After the reunion, when my mother and I were flying home to Chicago, I asked her, “Why was it so important to see Gerda again?” She said, “I knew she had suffered as I have. Seeing her was like looking in the mirror. It was like finding my twin.”
Gerda and Edith were historical twins.
When the two resumed their friendship six years ago, they did “help” each other. They often talked on the phone — sometimes twice a week. They never seemed to run out of things to say, and they could feel each other’s moods simply by listening carefully.
Gerda had never spoken of her traumatic childhood and her history. My mother encouraged Gerda and gave her the confidence to tell her story to her friends, children, and grandchildren. Gerda gave Edith unconditional love and understanding. As my mother said many times, “seeing Gerda was like seeing my parents again.”
Finally, my mother found some peace.
Before they would end their phone conversations, the two old friends had a ritual.
Edith would tell Gerda, “You are my sister.”
And Gerda would whisper into the receiver, “And you are my sister.”
My mom wishes she could be with Gerda’s family today, but she said it would be too painful for her. Gerda was not coherent for the last days of her life, but when she had a moment of lucidity, she told Ann, “Tell Edie I love her.”
Gerda and Edith have modeled true friendship. They spoke in German and English. They giggled like schoolgirls. They shared the ups and downs of their lives. They fretted about politics and world affairs. They cried together about the weight of their shared history.
Most of all, they stepped into each other’s lives and filled in the holes.
Now… Ann and I will do the same for each other.