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Arnold Frieman

By SHELLEY ROBERTSON (Copyright to The Jewish Post & News)
Winnipeg philanthropist and businessman Arnold Frieman is being honoured by the University of Manitoba with an honorary degree at a convocation ceremony on Friday, June 8.


The honorary doctor of laws degree recognizes Frieman as “an exceptional global citizen and builder of this community” who is known for his business success and generosity of heart. It pays tribute to his journey from his arrival in Canada at the age of 23 in 1951 – a Holocaust survivor, penniless and alone – to his becoming an esteemed benefactor of his adopted community.
The citation, to be read by former University of Manitoba president Emöke Szathmáry, describes Frieman’s story as one of resilience, resourcefulness and courage. There is no question about his achievements and generosity, it says, but his greatest gift is the lesson of his lived life – authentic to the core and imbued with his indomitable spirit.
Born in the town of Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary, in 1928, Frieman was one of six children in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish family. His early schooling took place in Jewish schools, but the town lacked a Jewish secondary school and he was sent to relatives in Budapest for further education. He was there when he heard that Jews outside Budapest were being rounded up and shipped out of the country. He headed home, hoping to saving his family, but they were gone by the time he arrived. Everyone – his mother, father, two brothers, three sisters and his maternal grandfather – had been deported to Auschwitz.

Israel Air Force Sargent Major Arnold Frieman with his sisters, Elizabeth (l.) and Edith (r.) in a 1949 photo

There followed years of flight, capture, forced labour, prisoner-of-war camp and miraculous escape. After the war, living in a displaced persons’ camp near Bergen-Belsen, he was selected by a Norwegian commission and taken to Oslo, where he received medical treatment and studied electronics.
In 1947, a Jewish emissary arrived from Palestine to recruit volunteers to fight in the Israeli War of Independence. Frieman volunteered and he and the other recruits – most of them Gentiles – were trained to fight, although Frieman never did. In the Israeli Air Force he put his electronics training to use and – another miracle – discovered that two of his sisters, Elizabeth and Edith, had survived Auschwitz and were living in the nascent Jewish state. Nevertheless, at the end of 1949 he returned to Norway.
In 1951, Frieman decided to start life anew in Canada. He worked his way across the Atlantic as a deckhand and landed in Montreal knowing four languages, but not English. He was on his way by train to a job arranged in Windsor, Ont., but on a whim headed for Winnipeg – where he hoped to find the Wild West he had fallen in love with as a child through books and by sometimes being able to sneak into movies.
The Winnipeg Jewish Agency arranged lodgings in a Jewish home and a job in a warehouse for him and he made new friends, the most important of whom was Minnie Heft. She made Frieman part of her family, brought him back to the Jewish fold – the Holocaust had broken his trust in the God of the Jews – and encouraged him to go to university. He feared that his poor English and a lack of money would stand in his way, but he passed the entrance exam. Bolstered by a $1,000 gift from Mrs. Heft, he devised a unique financing plan for his education: He drove to American wrecking yards to buy car radios, fixed them up and sold them across Western Canada out of the trunk of his car.
Frieman’s four years at the University of Manitoba were transformative. He had been a wild teenager and young adult, but the university experience stabilized him. He thought he would pursue graduate studies in political science or psychology but in 1960, the year he was to graduate, he met Myra Thompson at a debate at Hillel House on the future of the Middle East that he was moderating. They met in January on her 18th birthday, were married in August and Frieman settled down and took a job to support his family. Their daughter Nona was born the following year, their daughter Gina 17 months after that.
In 1962, with Frieman unhappy in his job and uncertain about their future, Myra persuaded him to go into business. At first he demurred – “I’m not a businessman. I’m an academic” – but she persisted. They bought a small television repair shop from which they also sold car radios and the new hot thing – television sets. Within 12 years, the shop had been transformed from a two-person operation into Advance Electronics, a multi-million dollar business with 170 employees. Frieman has retired from the company, which he sold to four employees. It remains the largest independently owned retail and professional electronics enterprise in Western Canada.
Frieman says that one of the great joys of his success is his ability to give back to the community. The many organizations he has supported range from iconic arts groups, such as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Manitoba Opera, to small, grassroots causes. He is especially proud of having supported the creation of “I Believe, a Holocaust Oratorio for Today”, which premiered in 2009. Composed by Winnipeg teacher and musician Zane Zalis as his master’s degree in education thesis, it helps people everywhere appreciate the importance of peace and justice.
Arnold and Myra Frieman are thoughtful philanthropists who support many civic, provincial, national and international organizations and institutions. Their inclusive style of philanthropy encourages creativity, kindness and many of the other qualities Frieman discovered in his adopted home. He is a devoted supporter of Israel and his many contributions to his alma mater include support for the University of Manitoba-University of Szeged Partnership, which funds exchanges between Hungarian and Manitoban scholars.
Over the years, his achievements have been recognized with numerous honours, notable among them his induction into the Order of Manitoba in 2006.
The Friemans are the proud parents of Nona Leibl and Gina Guertin, babba and zaida to five grandchildren and great-babba and great-zaida to three great-grandchildren.

Shelley Robertson, who returned to Winnipeg after a career in Toronto as a journalist and journalism teacher, was a bridesmaid in Myra and Arnold’s wedding party.

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#1 Mazel-tovRicki Segal 2018-06-11 03:54
Thank you for all that you have done for the Jewish Community and the other organizations that you support. You should have lots of good health and nachos from you children and grandchildren.
Ricki Segal
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