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Buildings commissioner shaped by parents’ experience in Holocaust

It helps to have compassion and a sense of purpose if you’re running a city department that touches the lives of everyday Chicagoans and enforces laws designed to keep their homes and businesses safe.

Newly appointed Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland, 53, has an abundance of both qualities.

It’s rooted in the fact that Frydland’s mother and father, Rachmiel and Estelle Frydland, both survived the Holocaust with stories so chilling they could fill a book — and did, in her father’s case.

Her father’s entire family was wiped out by the Holocaust. Her mother’s family just barely escaped being annihilated.

After meeting in Israel, marrying three months later and wasting no time having children, they instilled in their eldest daughter an abiding sense that they — and ultimately she — were put on this earth to be patient and fair with others and to do good.

Judy Frydland, commissioner of the Department of Buildings, shows a photograph of her parents’ wedding day. The picture was taken in Israel on July 16, 1961; both parents were survivors of the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media
Judy Frydland, commissioner of the Department of Buildings, shows a photograph of her parents’ wedding day. The picture was taken in Israel on July 16, 1961; both parents were survivors of the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

“You heard what [aldermen said about her] being fair. My father taught me all that. In spite of everything he went through, he was always very calm. He was very fair. He’d listen to people. The word he always taught me was ‘rachmonis’: To have compassion for people. It’s a Yiddish word that means compassion,” said Frydland, who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. when she was 2.

“People suffer in this life. You don’t know what people have been through — no matter what side they’re on. Are they a developer? Are they a tenant? Everybody has their story. You just want to try to be fair and do right by people,” she said.

After breezing through her City Council confirmation hearing last week, Frydland shared her personal story — one that Mayor Rahm Emanuel found so compelling, he developed an instant connection with Frydland.

Her father, who wrote a religious book about his harrowing experience, survived the Holocaust in Poland primarily because he was a strapping 19-year-old whom the Nazis could use and put to work.

“He escaped from a couple of work camps. He hid in the woods. . . . He also had a fake ID, a fake passport. So, he would go in and out of the Warsaw ghetto. Different churches helped him. He slept in coffins some nights. His story is unbelievable. It should really be a movie,” Frydland said.

“My dad survived in Poland, but his whole family was wiped out. His four sisters, his parents, his first wife and brother-in-law. I told the mayor about how his first wife and his sister were shot in the woods. They were caught by the Gestapo and they were just killed in the woods. So the mayor brought up a book he wanted me to read about a very similar story about people who were in the woods in Poland. We must have talked about that stuff for half an hour. About family histories. He told me about his.”

Frydland’s mother was a Sephardic Jew whose family went from Spain to Algeria to Paris, where they, too, survived the Holocaust by the grace of God.

“My mother was 12 when the war started. Her sister was a little older. They sent her to be a maid in somebody’s home. They kind of hid her that way. My mom was sent to different Christian camps in the summertime. Her father would sit at the window of their Paris apartment looking out to see if somebody [was] coming. That fear. That worry,” said Frydland, who grew up speaking French.

“Her uncle [subsequently] decided to leave Paris with his kids and wife. They were going to take a train to the south of France. They thought it was too dangerous to be in Paris. My grandfather, my grandmother and the kids — my mom and all — were supposed to go with them on the train. At the last minute, my grandfather said, ‘No. I’ve got a bad feeling. We’re not going.’ Well, the train was intercepted by the Gestapo and all the Jews aboard were killed. Because of that decision, I’m right here.”

Emanuel talks often and with great emotion about his immigrant grandfather’s frightening flight from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. He also talks about being driven to make his life count ever since the carving accident that severed his middle finger and nearly killed him when he was a teenager.

Judy Frydland shows a photograph of her father, Rachmiel Frydland, and some friends. “This picture makes me sad because he looks so thin and haunted,” she said. The photo was taken in Poland shortly after the end of World War II. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Ti
Judy Frydland shows a photograph of her father, Rachmiel Frydland, and some friends. “This picture makes me sad because he looks so thin and haunted,” she said. The photo was taken in Poland shortly after the end of World War II. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

Now he has placed the Department of Buildings in the capable hands of a woman two years his junior with a similar history and sensibility.

“When you grow up in a home like that where people have been through so much and you’re here, really by the grace of God — I don’t know why we’re here — you feel an obligation. And probably as the oldest child, you’re the closest to your parents because you’re the first one. You have that connection. So you really feel what they went through just for you to be here,” Frydland said.

“Some people come out of that experience very bitter. My dad wasn’t bitter at all. He was a very happy-to-be person. Very grateful for whatever we had. He died when I was 22, and that was really, really hard because I just adored my dad. So patient with me. When I was a teenager, I’d scream. I’d cry. I’d throw fits. And he was just so calm. To him, this was nothing. He would never get mad at me. If I needed to clean my room, there’d be a nice little note on my door: ‘Judith, please clean your room.’ ”

As head of the Law Department’s Building and License Enforcement Division, Frydland has spent the past 25 years prosecuting Chicago landlords for building, fire and lead paint violations.

She played a role in prosecuting negligent building owners in high-profile cases, including the E2 nightclub disaster and the Lincoln Park porch collapse.

Frydland inherits a department once mired in scandal that has turned the page. It is still struggling to rein in and publicly shame its list of “bad landlords” and file a flurry of lawsuits to force owners of 400 of Chicago’s pre-1975 residential high-rises to make fire safety improvements they have ignored for nearly a decade.

“These high-rise efficiencies they need to do are expensive. We understand that. Those that really need help, we’re gonna work with them to help them comply,” she said.

“I’m here to help people accomplish what they need to accomplish — whether it’s somebody who needs an inspection because we’ve got to get heat for them in the winter or whether it’s a developer who needs a permit because he’s got 50, 60 or 100 guys who need to work and their wives and their children are depending on that income.”

Frydland said shared family histories are not the only reason she clicked with Emanuel. The connection was also about their shared sense of the need to get building permits out the door to spur economic development.

“In this global economy, people can spend their money anywhere. They can go to L.A., Vegas, Dubai, London or anywhere in the world. Why Chicago? We want it to be a welcoming place. Come here. Do business here. We want to welcome you. How can we help you?” she said.

Judy Frydland, commissioner of the Department of Buildings, shows pictures of her family in her City Hall office. Her parents, Rachmiel and Estelle Frydland, both were survivors of the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media
Judy Frydland, commissioner of the Department of Buildings, shows pictures of her family in her City Hall office. Her parents, Rachmiel and Estelle Frydland, both were survivors of the Holocaust. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media