Willem Friedman was the son of Joseph and Deborah (Safir) Friedman. He was born October 1, 1919 in The Hague, The Netherlands. Willem grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, where his father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, was a merchant on the diamond exchange. His mother was a native of Antwerp. Willem had two brothers: Sylvain (b. ca. 1916) and Marcel (b. 1924). The Friedmans were not religiously observant and sent Willem to a public school for boys in Antwerp. Shortly after his graduation from high school (ca. 1937), he joined the Belgian army. Willem was serving in the army at the time of the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940. He was taken prisoner by the Germans but was released in June, along with other Belgian POWs, after he signed a document swearing he would never again take up arms against Germany. Willem made his way back to Antwerp on foot. Upon his return he found a message left by his family notifying him that they had fled during he initial days of the invasion and had left him money to finance his escape. Willem's older brother Sylvain had immigrated to the U.S. in 1939, but his parents and younger brother, Marcel, had remained in Antwerp. On May 10, 1940 they fled to Cocyd on the Belgian coast. Joseph and Deborah then sent Marcel across to France in the company of a Christian friend named Claus van Neck, with instructions to meet them in Paris. When they failed to show up, Marcel continued south with van Neck to Biarritz (Pyrenees-Atlantiques) near Bayonne. After a final trip back to Antwerp to collect their valuables, Joseph and Deborah crossed into France themselves and met up with Marcel in Biarritz. Many of Joseph's Jewish colleagues from the Antwerp diamond exchange had congregated in the Bayonne area, where they used their caches of diamonds to buy visas and passage out of Europe. Joseph arranged for U.S. destination visas for Deborah and Marcel, who were accepted under the Belgian quota, but could only secure a Brazilian visa for himself, since the Americans counted him as a Pole, and that quota was filled. In June 1940 the Friedmans crossed into Spain at Hendaye and traveled by train, without stopping, to the Portuguese border. The family went to the seaport of Porto (Oporto), where they waited for news of Willem. After finding the message from his family in Antwerp, Willem fled to France. He had difficulty moving from the occupied to the unoccupied zone without valid papers, but eventually smuggled his way across in a funeral cortege that was crossing the border. Willem then made his way to Perpignan (Pyrenees-Orientales). Because he was of military age, he could not secure an exit visa from France. It took him several tries to cross illegally into Spain. In September 1940 Willem attempted to cross at the border town of Lajonquera. He was immediately arrested, but successfully bribed the border patrol and was released. He proceeded by train to Portugal and rejoined his family in Porta. In October 1940 the Freidmans left Lisbon on three ships: Deborah and Marcel sailed together to New York; Willem sailed separately to New York; and Willem sailed to Rio de Janeiro. Upon their arrival in New York, Deborah, Willem and Marcel were reunited with Sylvain who had established himself as a diamond merchant in the city. Joseph joined them in June 1941 after spending eight months in Brazil and Trinidad. The family moved into an apartment on Central Park West and reestablished themselves in the international diamond trade. In March 1942 Willem was married to Helene Ginsburg in New York. Soon after, he was drafted into the American army, where he served in the military police for three years. Because of his 1940 oath not to fight the Germans, Willem was kept stateside. His primary task was to transport German POWs who had been brought to the U.S., to various locations. In May 1945 Willem and Helene gave birth to their daughter Jane.