Ilona Friedman was born Ilona Gottfried in Budapest, Hungary, in 1935. During World War II, her family disguised themselves as Catholics and went into hiding close to where they lived. After the war, they moved to Philadelphia to be with her mother’s family, arriving in August of 1949. Ilona worked as a secretary and eventually majored in accounting at college. In 1957, she met her husband, Dr. Herman Friedman; they married in December 1958. The couple lived in Philadelphia until 1979, when they moved to Tampa, Florida. Herman was a professor of microbiology, and Ilona worked as his Administrative Assistant, typing up his research papers and filling out his grant applications. She also worked as a researcher in the Surgery Department of the Hahnemann Medical School before starting a family. Ilona later worked part-time for the journal Cancer Research. She and Herman have four children, Frank, Michelle, Suzy, and Andie. She currently lives in Tampa.
Ilona speaks about her childhood in Budapest, Hungary, where she attended a Jewish school. She describes her extended family, including how many of her uncles and aunts were killed or taken during the early stages of World War II. She recounts the start of the war, the disappearance of her grandmother, and the family's attempts to hide in a Swedish safe house that the Nazis invaded. The family ultimately went into hiding, disguising themselves as Catholics and changing their names. She describes her father being killed by the Nazis and her mother's family in the United States offering to take them in. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1949, and Ilona began attending high school. She won a scholarship to Temple University, where she attended for two years and studied accounting. Ilona discusses her relationship to Judaism, including her experiences at a Jewish school in Hungary, her semi-observant practice upon coming to America, and the role that Judaism played in her identity in adult life. She also explains the role of music in her life and her passion for playing the piano and singing in the synagogue choir and a college acapella group. Ilona describes her work in the medical field as an assistant to her husband and the challenges she faced as a Jewish woman in that field. She and her husband were both Jewish but faced some cultural differences as his family was Russian and spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Ilona describes becoming assimilated into American culture and her awareness of Zionism right after the establishment of Israel. She talks about a recent trip that she took to Israel after the death of her husband and other travel experiences, such as a 1966 trip to Russia with her husband. Finally, she offers some advice for her grandchildren’s generation: to keep the faith and not forget the importance of family. The interview concludes with Ilona describing her life in recent years, including volunteering with kindergarteners until the pandemic, learning to play mahjong, being part of the Council of Jewish Books, and spending time with her children and grandchildren.