A Holocaust survivor, an opera singer, and a rebbe’s brachah all come together on Tania Friedlander’s unique journey
Ten years ago, a 24-year-old girl entered Lehmann’s seforim store in Gateshead, England, and timidly said, “I want to learn the Torah.”
This would’ve been normal given the many seminary students and yeshivah bochurim who’ve desired the same thing. Except this student was wearing pants. And she wasn’t a student at one of the local seminaries. She was in law school at a university over the bridge in nearby Newcastle.
Armed with her newly purchased Chumash and Shaarei Halachah, Tania Friedlander (then Zolotar) closeted herself in her campus room. Ten years later, Tania is a frum wife, mother of three little girls, living in America, working as a life coach to help others fulfill their potential.
Tania’s father, Dr. Alexander Zolotar a”h, was a Holocaust survivor. After the war, he eventually moved to Israel, and married her mother, Ida, who was 21 years his junior. They had three children. Even though Tania, the youngest, was born when her father was older, she was still a second-generation Holocaust survivor. But being born some 40 years after the war, she didn’t grow up shrouded in the shadows of his past like many other second-generation survivors did.
She had a wonderful, comfortable life. Ensconced by those comforts, as a child, she’d sit on her father’s lap and hear him retell the stories of his youth. She’d listen wide-eyed with equal awe and horror at the experiences he endured, her love for this man who people passed off as her grandpa only deepening.
Her father talked about the Nazis being so close he could hear their hollow laughter, about how as a 16-year-old, he overheard two political figures discussing the fact that the Nazis were approaching their hometown, Lvov (Lemberg), Poland. Quick thinking, he bolted home, en route pleading with other townsfolk to flee, but they laughed him off, not sensing the imminent danger.
He grabbed his mother and younger brother, and with no time to locate his father, who was out, ran to the train station where, to their fortune, the very last train out from Poland to Russia was minutes from leaving. It was so crammed, he shoved his family through the window. With not an inch of space left for him, he hung onto the train’s exterior as it sped away.
Suddenly, they were under aerial attack. Bombs exploded around them. The trains were evacuated and the passengers fled. The trio ran through the woods until they reached the next town and its train station. There, they boarded a train that took them to Odessa, Russia, where their grandmother lived. Once in Odessa, they tried to persuade their relatives there that the Nazis were on their way, but they too didn’t believe them, despite their first-hand accounts, and refused to continue on with them. They later all perished.
The Zolotars caught a train to Georgia, deeper into Soviet Russia, which was out of reach of the tentacles of war. There they settled in Tbilisi, the capital, living a surprisingly calm life. Tania’s father went to music school and developed his passion for opera and classical music, even performing at the national opera. But as soon as he heard the war was over, he, his mother, and brother went back to Lvov to find any surviving family.
Flight to a Future
Lvov was a ghost town. All those whom Tania’s father had begged to leave were killed, including, he assumed, his father, whom he never heard from again. Seeing the desolation, all he wanted was to rebuild, to bring life into the world again. He studied medicine at the national university of Lvov and became a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology.
He longed to make aliyah to the newly formed State of Israel, but the local communist government wasn’t keen, as they needed his services on their turf. In Lvov, his practice was the go-to address.
One day, a Jewish government official dropped by with an interesting request. “Before the war,” he said, “we gave our daughter to a local Christian family. We think you could help us find her.” The man figured his daughter was bound to one day be in need of Dr. Zolotar’s services. The man described a unique scar his daughter had. “If you see something, call me,” he requested.
Dr. Zolotar forgot about the conversation, until one day he saw a scar that fit the exact description. His blood ran cold. “I have your daughter,” he told the father. “Come quick.” Father and daughter were tearfully reunited. And the man was so grateful, he arranged for the doctor’s emigration to Eretz Yisrael, bringing his dream to fruition.
Return to Anti-Semitism
Years later, through their common love for music, he met and married his wife, a prominent opera singer in Tel Aviv. Like him, Ida wasn’t religious, but she was very connected to Hashem, so much so that she’d regularly travel from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak to get brachos from the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Yeshuos Moshe ztz”l. Whenever there was difficulty in her family or when she was expecting a baby, she travelled to the Rebbe.
Ida dreamed of pursuing her singing career in Vienna, the city of music, so the couple picked up their three little children and moved.
Tania remembers those years as very difficult. “I went to a non-Jewish school, and I was tormented for being Jewish. I was a brilliant student, but they consistently tried to fail me. For example, I had a photographic memory and once wrote the answer to a test question almost word for word as was written in the class textbook. They accused me of copying directly from the book, saying it made sense that I did that because I was Jewish.”
It was endemic of the environment; unlike most other countries, Austria has barely expressed remorse for their horrific role in the Holocaust. Her mother’s cultural contributions to the local opera didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she was Jewish.
“My father came to school to confront the staff over their anti-Semitism. I was outside the headmaster’s office, and I overheard him scream, from a place of deep anguish, ‘You Nazi, you anti-Semite.’ Then he came out, took my hand in his, and we walked out of that school for the last time.”
Looking in From Outside
Tania had a good life otherwise. Her childhood was filled with skiing holidays in the Alps and trips to Disneyland. She became Vienna’s champion in table tennis and won a gold medal in the European Maccabee Games in Scotland, a first for the country, which made her a national star.
Still, living in the midst of Vienna’s Jewish community, mostly as an outsider, she couldn’t help but admire the large chassidic families walking serenely together on Shabbos and marvel at how genuinely content they all looked. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a baal teshuvah,” she reflects. “I thought to myself that they were born that way, and I this way, and there was no way to change that.”
Her parents were traditionally religious. They’d go to a Modern Orthodox shul on the Yamim Tovim, they’d have a Pesach Seder, and even kept a semblance of kosher. Chabad tracked them down via the phonebook and asked Ida if she’d send her children to their new Sunday cheder. Being the spiritual person she was, she agreed, so positively in fact, the Chabad shluchah used to tell Tania, “Your mom was the first Ashkenzai women to send her children to us.” In general, the unaffiliated Ashkenazim in the community were cooler to their roots than their Sephardi counterparts. Tania enjoyed the Chabad experience and spent many a Shabbos meal there.
She went to law school in Newcastle, just across the bridge from the yeshivah world of Gateshead. When she’d go to the Metro Shopping Centre, and the Gateshead seminary students swept obliviously passed her on their shopping sprees, she longed to scream, “‘Hey, I’m one of you. Look, can’t you see?” But of course, she didn’t look the part, and as she remarks, she didn’t even know “bageling” was a thing!
But at the university, she was the Jew. In fact, she was the only Jew on campus — an identity she was very proud of. She found herself bombarded with curiosity and questions about her background. But she had no answers.
Even though she wasn’t religious, she knew that one day she would want to raise her own children with a strong Jewish identity, so she’d have to find answers. From her visits to Chabad in Vienna, she knew vaguely about the technical stuff, such as Shabbos and kashrus, but she didn’t know the reasoning. It was that realization that propelled her to find out more. And to Lehmann’s bookstore she went.
After her first visit, Tania learned from the Shaarei Halachah she bought and quietly stopped using the lights, watching TV, and using her computer on Shabbos. Her roommate found it weird that her nightlamp was on the entire Shabbos, and figured Tania had insomnia, but Tania was okay with that.
The hardest part was the deep loneliness she experienced, as she had no company or support; her friends were partying all weekend, while she was alone with the four walls and the night lamp’s shadow. It was also overwhelming. She understood the halachos and what was required of her, however, she was still plagued by “but whys.”
The Rebbe’s Brachah
When Tania graduated university, instead of pursuing her career and taking the subsequent courses to qualify for passing the bar, she decided to follow the yearnings of her neshamah.
She spent two years learning in Chabad seminaries in Eretz Yisrael and Brooklyn. “I chose Chabad because they were my first introduction to Yiddishkeit in Vienna. Being such a lonely soul in a city rife with anti-Semitism, I connected strongly to chassidus and its emphasis on ahavas Yisrael. I wouldn’t be where I am without Chabad.” The fact that her parents happened to name her Tania wasn’t lost on her.
Seminary was exactly what Tania had craved. She’d always had questions, but she never had whom to ask. Now, one of her classes was called “‘Ask the Rabbi.” Finally, she could ask away!
“People would ask me why I had to be so strict,” Tania says, “with things like chalav Yisrael.” One of the most enlightening things she’d learned was how to explain the rationale behind that, something she shared with her mother. “When you love someone, you go out of your way to make them happy, like preparing an extra delicious meal for one’s spouse instead of equally nourishing but standard fare. I feel that beautifying mitzvos is a way of expressing my love for Hashem, making Him happy, and strengthening our connection,” explains Tania.
Still, her mother was less than thrilled at her new lifestyle, if not horrified that one day upon marriage her daughter would have to cover her beautiful black locks! She was worried her daughter had been brainwashed, feared she was limiting her marriage prospects, hurt that she wouldn’t eat in her home.
Tania, good-naturedly, put the blame on her. “Mom, you chose to go to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. He blessed you that you should have children who grow in Torah and mitzvos!” Her mother could hardly deny that. Eventually she realized her daughter’s metamorphosis came from a place of love, not rebellion.
Indeed, Tania feels that her leanings toward chassidus stems from those early brachos she received while in her mother’s womb. As a new baalas teshuvah, she’d frequent the tishen of Karlin and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok in Meah Shearim and was enamored by the Friday night seudos she was invited to. “There was such harmony at the Shabbos table, it penetrated deeply.” And, what’s more, she was perfectly comfortable with the Yiddish chatter around her, given her native German.
Finding Her Potential
Within a few years, at 29, Tania found her bashert, Amit Friedlander, a fellow baal teshuvah. Undercover went her locks (“It wasn’t even a question!”) and she moved to America where her husband works as a corporate strategist.
“Living in America,” she reflects, “is living my dream. My children have the Yiddishkeit that I didn’t at their fingertips, they can openly be Jewish, and I never want them to take it for granted. When people grumble that there’s only one grocery in their neighborhood, or that there aren’t enough restaurants, I cringe. In many parts of the world, Jews are attacked, discriminated against, and there are even warnings against the dangers of wearing kippahs in public. Many people don’t realize how good we have it in America, where we don’t have to hide who we are. There’s a great overlap in my coaching approach and Yiddishkeit. Both are about personal growth and unlocking all the strengths Hashem gave us to fulfill our potential. In coaching, I look at the person and show them how they’re naturally created whole and resourceful and how they have everything they need to have the life they want. Then I help them access their strengths — even in clients who don’t that they are G-d-given — and get them where they want to be.
“In Yiddishkeit, too, we view every person as a nefesh elokis, a G-dly being, with infinite potential. The two come together to form my greatest passion, that of living my life according to Hashem’s ways and helping others thrive.”
Sadly, Tania’s father suffered from dementia for the last decade of his life and therefore never merited to grasp Tania’s tremendous spiritual growth. Nor did he merit to see her under the chuppah, having passed away two months before her wedding, at the age of 91.
“It was a very hard time for me, and I especially regretted not having asked him more about his past. I was so young when he told me his story, my brain didn’t have the capacity to absorb it. And then he suffered from dementia so it was too late.”
Nevertheless, her father is now basking in Yiddishe nachas from Above. Her entire family was so inspired by her beautiful lifestyle that they’ve emulated her path. After their father’s passing, her older sister and her husband decided to take on being shomer mitzvos in his memory and live a frum life in England. Her brother, who would visit his sisters for Shabbosim and Yamim Tovim, also recognized the light in their life and has recently started yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael.
And their mother, whose parents were religious, has also come closer to Yiddishkeit. From her home in the city of music, the former opera singer is observing the beautiful restoration of a symphony that is finally on tune.
(Originally featured into Family First, Issue 671)
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