Maria Fridman was born in 1925 in Riga, the capital of Latvia, as Mirjam Fridmane. In the early 1930s her family moved to Ventspils, a port city in northwestern Latvia. Since a large proportion of the city's population was German, German became Mirjam's second spoken language. In 1932 she entered a German-language school, but after the nationalist coup d'état by Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934, she was transferred to a Jewish school. At this school, Mirjam became a member of the right wing Zionist youth organization Beitar, where she received an initial paramilitary education and became a good sportswoman. In June 1940, Latvia was occupied by the Soviets (and a month later it was annexed to the Soviet Union). Many of Mirjam's friends and their parents were deported by the Soviets to Siberia as members of the bourgeoisie or simply as unreliable elements of the population.
With the beginning of the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Mirjam succeeded in escaping from Ventspils to Riga. In the capital, she volunteered for the Red Army. The first reaction of the brigade commander was "Baby, when we will open a kindergarten at our brigade, we will call you." However, Mirjam insisted and she was drafted. While her brigade was retreated through Estonia, Mirjam took part in skirmishes with the advancing Germans. When she was wounded, in Tallinn she was released from the brigade and taken, with other wounded Soviet soldiers and civilians, to the transport ship "Sibir", which was bounded for Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). On the way, the transport was bombed in a German air raid and it sank in the Gulf of Finland. Mirjam was wounded and, unconsciousness, she was rescued by a Soviet submarine and brought to a hospital in Kronshtadt, near Leningrad. The military commandant of Kronshtadt tried to persuade her to remain in the rear, but Mirjam asked to be sent to the front. To facilitate this she changed her birth year from 1925 to 1924 and, thus, succeeded in being assigned to the 22nd NKVD Division.
Although Maria spoke German fluently, it soon became clear that she could not serve as a military translator due to the fact that her knowledge of Russian was inadequate. She could not serve as a nurse either since even the age of 16 (according to her new documents) was too young. Consequently, she served in reconnaissance, mainly monitoring German field radios, but also carrying out reconnaissance patrols on foot. At the end of 1941, when she was supposedly 17, she became a military nurse.
In July 1942, Fridman took part in the forcing of the Tosna River. The objective of the Soviet commandos was to create a bridgehead on the left side of the Neva River and, thus, prevent German forces from completing the blockade of Leningrad. The operation proved harder than the Red Army command had presumed. Neither the Germans nor the Soviet spared their soldiers, with the result that the battle for this narrow stretch of the Neva shore (the "Nevskii Piatachok") continued until May 1943. Nurse Fridman spent a year caring for wounded at this battle site.
For the rest of the war Fridman served in radio intelligence and as a translator in western Russia, the Baltics and Germany. She received her first and the only military order, that of the Red Star, in Berlin in May 1945.
After the war, Fridman and her husband continued their military service. In 1953, at the peak of the antisemitic "Doctors' Plot" affair, both of them were dismissed from the army. They settled in Riga.
In the 1960s, the principal of a school in Kirovsk (a town close to the former "Nevskii Piatachok") decided to name his school after "the famous reconnaissance woman Maria Fridman". Maria was invited to the school and spoke to the pupils, but the school was not named in her honor. The principal confidentially told Maria that the Party authorities had told him that the school could not bear the name "Fridman."
Maria Fridman became disillusioned. In 1975, after an antisemitic incident, she requested permission to emigrate. After being humiliated more than once, the war hero Maria Fridman left the Soviet Union. She and her daughters immigrated to Canada. In Toronto, she met her second husband, Iekhezkel Son, also a Latvian Jew. After their marriage she used the name Maria Son.
[According to Svirskii, Grigorii. Mat' I machekha: rasskazy veteranov. North York, Ontario: Erudite Books, 1990. Pp. 71-86]
How Maria Fridman failed to be awarded the title "Hero of the Soviet Union"
"In the fall of 1941 […] I was summoned to the political department of the 1st NKVD Division […]. Many officers were sitting around the table. It was probably some kind of official meeting. I had hardly entered, when they asked me the following 'They say that you are Latvian. Is that right? So then, it's alright if we write down [your nationality] as Latvian?'
–' No,' – I said quietly, – 'I am Jewish'.
The colonel, who was sitting at the table, got up and said to me; 'Maria, isn't it all the same? Think about it, the Motherland needs for you to be Latvian ... '
There was something degrading, not in his words, but in his smile.
– ' It's too late' – I replied […]. –' My mother gave birth to a Jew and I will die a Jew ...'
They did not like my response. I was kicked out of the room to the accompaniment of coarse obscenities. The head of the political department, who followed after me, issued a brutal warning: "You Yid whelp! You might just find yourself the target of some "stray" bullets at the front... .'
In the evening, a clerk from the political department […] told me that I was wrong to be so stubborn. An order had come down from above, to nominated one Latvian and one Estonian for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. That was intended to show that not all the Latvians and Estonians were shooting at the Russians ... 'You are serving in intelligence' - he said. 'You have succeeded in capturing soldiers to provide information. You have shouted "Fritzes, surrender!" into a megaphone in German. Your were wounded twice. You are definitely a suitable nominee!'
– 'So why is there no such an order to nominate a Jew?' I asked in anger. 'When there is one, then let me know!'"
[Svirskii, Grigorii. Mat' I machekha: rasskazy veteranov. North York, Ontario: Erudite Books, 1990. P. 76]
Fridman's encounter with antisemitism after the war
In January 1943, during the fighting at the Nevskii Piatachok, Captain Arseniev was seriously wounded. Nurse Maria Fridman found him on the ice-covered Neva. Realizing that he would bleed to death there, she and another soldier dragged the captain across the Neva, under enemy fire, to the rear. Together, they succeeded in saving Arseniev life, and Maria was proud of this.
"In 1975, just before the 30thanniversary of our victory, I received a letter.The man whose life I had saved, Captain Arseniev, now a major-general, wrote that he had never forgotten how I had saved him. He dreamed of seeing me once more. […] On the days of the anniversary, I came to Leningrad […] and went to the address in Leningrad that he had indicated […]. He embraced me and burst into tears. He cried loudly, like a baby. Then, we sat down at the table […] and the general asked me:
'How are your fellow Latvians?'
I understood what he had in mind. "The Motherland needs you to be Latvian". […] I replied, smiling guilelessly, asking:
'Why do you think of me as Latvian?
He became serious and paled a bit, and then said:
'Why not, first you are Maria, second, you are Fridmans [sic!]. After all, you have pale blue eyes, you are fair, Nordic-looking…'
'Like hell!' – I responded. 'I am Mirjam. Maria and Man'ka – those are my names from the trenches, but Mirjam [Miriam] is a name from the Bible. Alright, Fridman is not from the Bible, but have no doubt about it… It was a pure blooded Jewess who dragged you to safety …'
The general turned – not pale [this time], but green. […] The glass of vodka began to tremble in his hand. He made an effort to control himself and said 'That doesn't mean anything. There are some good people even among the Jews.'
I have an explosive character […] [so I replied]
'You, General Generalovich [I said ironically], I dragged you [to safety] across the Neva, where death reigned. I risked my life for you. What for? So that today I can hear the wailing of a wounded antisemite?'"
It was on that day Maria Fridman Son recalled that she decided that she wanted to leave the Soviet Union.
[Svirskii, Grigorii. Mat' I machekha: rasskazy veteranov. North York, Ontario: Erudite Books, 1990. Pp. 71-86]
A recollection from Berlin in 1945
"When we captured Berlin, some German stopped me and asked: 'Fräulein, are you Jewish?' I snapped: "What business of yours is it who am I?' 'You misunderstood me', he exclaimed and continued 'I have a Jewish wife. I hid her in a bunker all these years. Her and our three children. Do you want proof?' I nodded affirmatively and said 'Yes, of course.' I followed him, trembling with fear that he would lure me to some place and hit me on the head with something heavy… Instead, he shouted from the street: 'Minne, look whom I have brought!" A young woman, very beautiful, but completely grey-haired, came out… They served a festive dinner for me and he called in some neighbors who had helped him. Then he showed me the bunker. Only a German could have constructed such a bunker! It had steam heating and a shower!
I remembered that German and said to myself: 'We are the victors but who is the fascist – a German like that or General Arseniev?'"
(Svirskii, Grigorii. Mat' I machekha: rasskazy veteranov. North York, Ontario: Erudite Books, 1990. Pp. 71-86.