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Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Real Assassin

I was very saddened this week to hear about the death of a professional assassin I knew very well. Novelists such as Vince Flynn, Stephen Hunter, David Baldacci, and others write about assassins who are supermen; who know everything there is to know about guns, have tremendous aim, and incredible reflexes. Flynn's Mitch Rapp and Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger are very much alike. Baldacci, who is, by far, the best writer of the three, has assassins who are a bit more nuanced. But even his characters, like the others, have a certain invincibility, along with extreme confidence, pride, and fake humility that doesn't quite ring true.

Abe Fridling, who died at the age of 95 last week, was the real assassin. I used to see him every Saturday in synagogue. When I was a young man I would sit next to my father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, on the left side of the synagogue's second row. Mr. Fridling, I always called him Mr. Fridling, sat on the right side of the same row.  I used to see him swinging his legs back and forth because they did not touch the floor. He was that short, barely over five feet tall. Sometimes during breaks from praying, he and my father-in-law would speak to each other in Yiddish, a language I do not understand. But when my father-in-law passed away, Mr. Fridling came and sat next to me, and he began to tell me stories of his life during World War II and the years following it.

During the war, Mr. Fridling, who was born in Poland, fled to the woods and joined with others to become a partisan guerrilla resistance fighter. The partisans defended Jewish towns and villages against Nazi soldiers, and conducted raids against German military forces. Some partisan groups even built communities in the woods made up of Jewish civilians who escaped the Germans. After fighting as a partisan for much of the war, Mr. Fridling eventually joined up with the Russian army. One of the biggest regrets of his life was that he was shot in the chest three weeks before the war ended so he could not march into Berlin with the Russians. 

It was in the years immediately after the war that Mr. Fridling became a paid assassin. It was his job to eliminate Nazi soldiers who had survived the war and had returned to normal lives after murdering hundreds of Jews. I asked him who paid him to do it, and he would not tell me, but he said that if he did, I would recognize the names.

Mr. Fridling told me of his getting into the back seat of an Cadillac in Germany shortly after the war. Inside was a doctor and Mr. Fridling pointed a gun at him. The doctor said, "You're not going to kill me. I'm too useful to the Jews now, treating the sick in displaced persons camps."

Mr Fridling replied, "That could never make up for all the women and children you murdered. Get out of the car."

The doctor left the car and started running. Mr. Fridling shot him in the back and killed him. That was just one of many assassinations. I once asked him how many people he killed, and he replied that he could not count that high.

During the war, Mr. Fridling heard that his brother and his family had been murdered by Polish Nazi sympathizers. He went to the home of the person he thought had killed his brother, and found only the suspect's mother. He put a gun to her mouth, got her to admit that it was her son, and she told him where to find him. Mr. Fridling said he shot her through the mouth and killed her. Then he found the man who killed his brother, put a gun into his mouth and got him to confess and say who his accomplices were. Then Mr. Fridling shot him, found the accomplices, and killed them as well. Covered with blood, Mr. Fridling came back to his partisans, went to where they stored the camp's food, and began making himself lunch. The commander of the partisans came in and expressed amazement that Mr. Fridling could do what he had done and still be interested in food, before even cleaning himself up. Mr. Fridling told that commander, "I was hungry." Those are the sort of stories Mr. Fridling told me about himself, all of them true, I have no doubt.

There is one Mr. Fridling story that I read about in the paper and I asked him to tell me what really happened. After the war, he came to America and started a chicken farm in New Jersey. Eventually he sold part of farm, keeping much of the land, and moved to Washington, DC, where he bought a liquor store. One day, in his store, two robbers came in with guns. One of them put a gun to Mr. Fridling's head and told him to open the cash register. Mr. Fridling said, "Hitler couldn't kill me and you're not going to kill me either." He proceeded to grab the gun out of the robber's hand and shot him. He then held the gun on the second robber and called the police. When the police came, they asked him where he got the gun and if he had a license for it. He said that it was the robber's gun. He'd had enough of guns in the war and did not believe in owning guns. But he did tell me that, years before, he had grabbed a gun out of the hand of a German general who had captured him, shot the general and other Nazis with him, and escaped, so grabbing a gun pointed at him was not a new experience.

How did Mr. Fridling's personality differ from those of the fictional assassins? Those all seem to be the strong and silent types, who never would talk about their killings. Mr. Fridling loved to talk about it. But Mr. Fridling left all that behind him and became a family man. He raised three sons and a daughter. One of his sons won a MacArthur Fellowship ("the genius award") as a brilliant physicist. But Mr. Fridling did have that pride. One day I told him that my father-in-law described World War II as "when I walked to Germany." (My father-in-law was marched there from Czechoslovakia at the point of a gun, digging trenches for Nazi soldiers.) Mr. Fridling's responded, in a gruff voice, "No one would ever make me walk to Germany." After hearing his stories and knowing him well, I can believe it.