It’s almost impossible to believe that Hank Freedman is 97 years young when you have the honor of spending time with him and listening to all of the incredible things he has experienced and his philosophy on life. Once you meet him, you realize he is one of Suwanee’s “gems.” It was difficult not to share his whole story here, but we’ve captured some highlights. We hope that more people in Suwanee can meet Hank.
What inspired you or led you to your previous career?
I joined the Army in 1942 and trained as a combat machine gunner in Florida and then overseas in England, and then to France, fighting in the Ardennes forest over a 90-mile battlefront. My memory of this battlefield is very vivid, and I kept a diary of each day, which I still have. We were the 422nd regiment of the 106th Infantry Division and our job was intelligence and reconnaissance to report back to General Eisenhower. We saw that thousands of men and tanks were coming but our government did not expect an attack from the Germans in this forest. On December 16, we were bombarded with 1,600 guns and it was sheer chaos. The artillery shells burst in the trees and we were subject to not only the shrapnel, but also the splintering wood, and we were running for our lives. It was freezing outside with four feet of snow on the ground and we had no support due to the weather and the fact that no planes could land to bring us help or supplies. We fought hard but were captured on December 19. We were surrounded by 75-ton Tiger Tanks, and Captain Foster, our commander, surrendered to the Germans. We were ordered to destroy our weapons and be at the mercy of our enemy. Our group of about 25 men were marched to a field where we feared being machine-gunned down as others had faced. This was the horrendous Battle of the Bulge.
Here they removed our personal items and a lieutenant discovered my diary, asking me what it was. Lucky for me, I spoke some Yiddish and could get the gist of the conversation between the sergeant and lieutenant, who were deciding whether or not to shoot us. I told the sergeant that I would like to record daily activities in my journal for him at his Stalag (prison camp) if he would let me keep it. He handed it back to me and wished me luck. I have always wondered if that diary helped to save our lives that day. I will never know for certain.
When we were taken as prisoners, we were loaded onto boxcars, 60-80 men per car, for two and a half days with no food, water or toilet, and taken to a freight yard on December 25. We arrived Stalag 9B for a month, separated from the others because some of us were Jewish and this was the time of the Holocaust. Every day the guards would come by and beat us with the butts of their guns. At the second prison camp, we were given a can of soup and a piece of bread each day. In March 1945, we were liberated, flown to France, and had the choice of going to Camp Lucky Strike and be shipped back or go to the hospital. I weighed 110 pounds and went to the hospital in Paris, and then was flown to Long Island, N.Y., on May 9, 1945. I stayed a few months and was discharged in January 1946. I went back to Boston and decided to move to Atlanta.
I had met a man, who later became Clark Howard’s grandfather, and he suggested that I go into retail merchandising. He was a manufacturer of women’s intimate apparel with the Lovable company. Davison’s department store hired me in January 1946 where I sold major electronics. I met my wife at the store, we were both on the bowling team. I had a lot of ambition and was offered the assistant buyer position. A few years later, the general manager of Rich’s department store called, and in 1953, we both went to work for Rich’s, and I became the buyer of electronics and she was in women’s sportswear. I was promoted to merchandising manager for 33 years and retired in 1987. So, I worked in retail merchandising for a total of 41 years.
My wife had a stroke and I took care of her for three years and then she went to a nursing center for two more years. She died in 2003. Once she was gone, I drove from Roswell to Suwanee to attend church with my son and family. I realized the gap in my life with my faith and I was baptized. I volunteered at Gwinnett Medical Center, on-call to help nurses with patients, pick up prescriptions, help move patients and I drove a courtesy cart in the parking lot.
My kids wanted me to be around more people so I moved into a retirement home in Johns Creek; I now live in the new Heartis senior living facility in Suwanee. I had an engraved bench made in the park for my family and I feel a special attachment to Suwanee. I am very happy to be here and feel honored to be part of The Faces of Suwanee.
What is your favorite restaurant in Suwanee?
Ippolito’s. I also enjoy Cracker Barrel because it is clean, friendly, and has good food and great service.
How long have you worked or lived in Suwanee?
Twelve years. I moved from Roswell when my wife passed away, and then moved to the area about the time Town Center Park was being developed. She asked me to be there and love the girls, so moving to Suwanee to be closer to my family made sense.
What has kept you here?
There was a certain standard set here many years ago to make and keep Suwanee safe and clean, as well as provide excellent education and fun.
How big is your family?
I have two sons, four granddaughters, two great granddaughters, and a great grandson.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met in Suwanee?
I would have to say my daughter-in-law Holly. She is a great person, wife and mother. Holly helped me maintain my faith.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
I would like to go back to Japan someday because it is clean, safe and friendly. However, I do not wish to return to any of the battlegrounds in Europe.
What is the first movie you remember seeing in a theater?
Ben-Hur was one of the first.
What advice would you give a crowd of people?
Learn who you are, be honest and loving, don’t abuse yourself, and learn who God is.
What is something on your bucket list?
I would like to jump out of an airplane — with a parachute of course!
If you could take anyone to lunch (dead or alive) who would that be?
Jack Kennedy because of his ideas and courage. I would love to sit down and chat with him, I feel that we lost a great opportunity when we lost him so early on.
What is your favorite music? Name any band or performer you would like to see.
Classical music is my favorite. I loved the Big Band Era with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
What local business makes you the most nostalgic about Suwanee?
The old style of a drugstore would make me feel nostalgic and also a Macy’s store if there was one in Suwanee. Anytime I visit Macy’s at the Mall of Georgia, I want to go in and figure out a better way for them to set up the store!
What is your favorite thing about Suwanee?
The progressive growth and planning, and the way it is kept clean, safe and fun for its residents.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Well, I will be 107 in ten years, and what I would like most is to see my family all ten years older, from my sons and their families, my grandkids and great grandkids, all happy and healthy.
What is something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I think most people don’t realize the intensity of my outlook on life, the purpose God has given to me, and my seriousness about helping and loving people. I am finishing my memoirs.
I am a three-time cancer survivor, and I am now cancer free. God has blessed me in so many ways and whatever plan he has for me — he wants me to help others, show compassion, be happy. I still drive. It’s humbling to be recognized and asked to speak to groups or individuals about my life.
Read more interviews with members of our community online at TheFacesofSuwanee.com.