She was an educated Jewish woman with a degree in physical therapy when she was interrogated by the Nazis on Nov. 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht — the beginning of the Holocaust.
For an entire day she stood while being questioned, speaking only when spoken to and not complaining about being tired, hungry or needing to use the bathroom. Finally, her inquisitors kicked her out on the street with other Jewish women, saying she was too brave. Together, the women were forced to scrub anti-Semitic graffiti off the streets with toothbrushes.
When they didn’t work quickly enough, they were beaten with whips and rifle butts.
By 1938, “Margit” as she pronounced her name, was married to Walter Freudenberg, had a young son named Henry and was living through Hitler’s reign of terror. She told a reporter in 1992 that if she closed her eyes she could still see truckloads of Jewish brothers and sisters being taken off to concentration camps. But it wasn’t her fate. Margot Strauss Freudenberg died Monday at 105, leaving a legacy of hope and love in place of the hatred that was thrown at her family.
It took time to get out of Germany with her small family and her parents — leaving behind a home where her family could trace their roots to the 1700s — to move to a foreign country where they didn’t know the language.
She said she remembered an idyllic childhood taking long walks in the woods with her physician father, going to the opera with him, and watching as he made house calls and never wrote bills to his patients.
And she also remembered the day that her father made her read “Mein Kampf” by Hitler to understand his hatred of Jews.
It wasn’t until 1939 that her family finally got out of Germany, staying with an uncle in England until they could immigrate to Charleston in 1940.
Her sister lived in Greenville and steered the family to the city. They arrived in 1940 with $2.50. Some members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim took the family in, although there were others who didn’t want refugees.
Freudenberg became the family breadwinner. In her heart she had always wanted to be a doctor, so she treated physical ailments instead. Without papers, she had to go on interviews where doctors quizzed her on her knowledge.
Her drive was to earn enough money to see her son graduate from The Citadel, which he did. She joined a cancer drive, and her tireless work for others began in earnest. She lost her husband in 1952, but even that didn’t stop her love of learning and working for others. She was often quoted as saying that she was repaying her debt to America for taking her family in.
“She was just beloved in our congregation,” said David Jaffee, president of the congregation of KKBE. “She was one of those people that everyone connected with. It didn’t matter what their age.”
He remembers fondly talking with Freudenberg because she remembered his mother so well. “Margot’s life was like the American Dream. She built a life across a broad spectrum.”
And he remembers the tiny woman had a twinkle about her and an acerbic sense of humor.
“She was always after her son, Henry, about what he was doing, but it was in a good way,” Jaffee said. It’s now her grandson who runs the family business, and there are five great-grandchildren.
In 1970, she opened the first Hope Lodge in the United States for those receiving cancer treatment away from home. It was her vision that the Hope Lodge be free of charge, and a place of peace.
Now there are 31 American Cancer Society Hope Lodges across the country, modeled on Charleston’s.
And Freudenberg didn’t just see that the Hope Lodge stayed open.
At her 99th birthday party, she told the board and volunteers that what she wanted for her 100th was to see hammers expanding the Hope Lodge from eight to 17 rooms, according to Sundi Herring, the current manager.
“It became a mission to raise the money, and she got her wish,” Herring said.
And Herring added that when she saw Freudenberg two weeks ago, at age 105, the questions came fast about how many patients were staying at the Lodge and what was needed.
“I think the one thing I will remember about her is that she lived her courage.”
Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557 or sharvin@post andcourier.com.
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