Monthly Archives: January 2022

My New Quest: Writing about Jews who lived through–and died in–World War II

“You really need to talk to Harry.”

My friend Marilyn Glaser gave me this advice before one of our Friday night Shabbat services in our Florida synagogue. I was aware that Harry Lowenstein was a Holocaust survivor. But Marilyn, the shul president, knew I was a writer, and she knew his story needed to be preserved.

By this time, I had been writing for the (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World for over four years. The majority of my stories had been about my family: growing up in a small North Country town in New York; from meeting my husband in 1973 to learning to live with him after our retirement in 2010; raising two children; and moving to “The Sunshine State” in 2015. Up until that point, I had not tackled biographies. Fortunately, Harry was a willing story teller.

 As I sat at his kitchen table, I was riveted by his description of four years of hell, first in a ghetto and then in Nazi concentration camps. After liberation, Harry returned home to find that every one of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. He eventually made it to the United States, married Carol Sainker, raised three children, and owned and operated a clothing store in Kissimmee. Meanwhile, he was determined to carry on his family’s legacy. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” With the contributions from friends and fellow Holocaust survivors, the Lowensteins raised enough money to build our synagogue.

After Harry’s story was published, my writing became more diversified. I was still writing my sometimes funny, sometimes poignant family stories, but I also took pleasure from interviewing what I referred to as “ordinary people with extraordinary lives.” A woman who has raised over $150,000 for cancer research after losing her 32 year old daughter to leukemia. A man whose introduction to a doomed ship as a boy resulted in his becoming a “Titanic fanatic;” a group of former Catskill workers celebrating a reunion.

But the stories that moved me the most were about who lived through—or died in—World War II. Jewish soldiers. Concentration survivors who were haunted with their memories until their passing. Righteous gentiles who had rescued others from the horrors. 

I have never been shy about my retirement avocation and never fail to tell friends and strangers I am a writer. This summer, I shared this information with Eva Nozik, who was visiting Summit County, Colorado. 

“My aunt, Golda Goldin Gelfer, who recently passed away, was a Holocaust survivor,”Eva said.”You need to talk to her children.” 

She set up a Zoom call with Anna Livits and Sofia Zukerman, Golda’s two daughters, and other members of the Goldin family. The Nazis, they told me, invaded Glusk, Bellarus, on June 22, 1942, Golda’s 14th birthday. Six months later, Germans and local supporters rounded up and murdered over 1000 Jews, including Golda’s mother Elke and her two sisters, Chaisoshe (19) and Malka (8). Golda and her father Meir escaped certain death by hiding in an attic and eventually finding their way into the forest. The two soon joined Soviet partisans in their efforts to sabotage the Nazi offensive until Belarussian liberation on July 4, 1944. Several revisions (and many nightmares about the Holocaust) later, I sent the completed storyThe Jewish World for its December 15, 2021, issue. 

Even before it was published, Anna expressed her gratitude. “I don’t have enough words to thank you for the work you have done,”she wrote me in a December 13 email. “I had a dream today that my mom was smiling. It’s like  she was in peace that we remember her family, Elke, Chaisoshe, and Malka.”

The descendants of Meir and Elke Goldin have more stories to tell. They are eager to recount Golda’s time in the woods, her life in the Soviet Union after the war, her move with her children to the United States. They also want me to connect with the son of a cousin who survived “murder by bullets” by falling into the pit the Nazis had dug for their victims before he had actually been hit struck and a friend. And, by the way, they have a friend whose parents survived the Warsaw ghetto. 

Meanwhile, I have other stories  on my “To Be Written” file. My cousin Eric (Z’L) came over on a stolen visa just before the war.  Trudi Wolfe-Larkin’s parents, both concentration camp survivors, recently passed away, but their oral history is preserved on video as part of  Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project, and she and her sister will fill in any gaps. Ruth Gruber, a brilliant Jewish woman who was appointed by the FDR administration to oversee the Oswego Project, a refuge for Jews that is the subject of a NYS Museum exhibit.  And I made a promise to a friend that I would write an article about his father, who came to  the United States in the early 1900s via, of all places, China.

After hearing Golda’s story at the most recent meeting of SOL Writers, my group of fellow writers said that I am “a woman on a mission.” “You make the unbearable bearable,” one said. “Keep writing.”

Despite my passion, I initially questioned about pursuing more stories about this terrible time in humankind’s history.The Holocaust has already been the subject of innumerable novels, memoirs, plays, movies, and, and even children’s books.

I found the answer in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinic Jewish tradition. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work,” wrote Rabbi Tarfon (46 CE-117 CE), “but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) When the Anti-Defamation League reports that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms have “cracks in enforcement” that allow Holocaust deniers to disseminate hate speech; when a school administrator in Texas can tell a group of educators during a training session to “have an opposing view” when teaching the Holocaust; when 77 years after Soviets liberated Auschwitz, anti-semitism is on the rise; I must continue to tell the stories. My writing will certainly not “complete” the work of masters such as Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankel, and Steven Spielberg. But I cannot use that as an excuse.Whether my articles and, in the future, my book is widely read or languishes in an Amazon warehouse, at least I did not “desist.”

But I need help. If any of you have a Holocaust story you would like to be preserved in writing, please contact me via email at shapcomp18@gmail. com. Those who were lost as well as those who survive deserve to have their lives remembered and honored.  Never again.

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

“You make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have a book that has an opposing view,” a Carroll County,Texas, administrator recently told a group of educators during a training session on what books were allowed in their library. Fierce backlash resulted in an apology and an investigation, but to many it hammered home the fear, denial, and outright ignorance that surrounds the teaching as well as recognition of the reality of the systematic murder of six million Jews. For that reason, there will never be “too many stories” about the Holocaust, including that of Galina “Golda” Goldin Gelfer (Z’L).

On June 22, 1941, Golda woke up on her 14th birthday to a beautiful sunny day in Glusk [now known as Hlusk], Belarus. Despite her family’s status as Jews in a highly anti-Semitic country, she and her family—her father Meir, her mother Elke, her eight year old sister Malke, and a large extended family— were happy in their small shtetl. Then, their world changed when news that Germany had declared war on the Soviet Union. Five days later, Nazis marched into their town. Soon after, Golda’s older sister, Chaisoshe returned home to join her family after Minsk University was evacuated, walking the last 30 miles with a friend. With limited means of escape, the entire Jewish population was trapped.

All Jews were registered and forced to wear yellow stars on the clothes and post the yellow stars on their homes. A Judencrat (Jewish council of three men) was formed to organize labor. While Chaisoshe remained hidden in their homeMeir and Golda worked long hours in menial jobs: cleaning and plowing the streets, digging up bricks, and mucking out horse stalls. All other work by Jews was forbidden.“We performed useless task mainly to make us feel we were slaves,” Golda later wrote in an autobiographic essay in The Holocaust DID Happen. (Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, 2010) 

For the next five months, as reports of mass executions of Jews in neighboring villages were reported, Golda and her family lived in absolute fear. On December 2, 1941, their worst nightmare was realized when they learned in the early morning hours that Nazis were beginning to round up all the Jews in Glusk for a “death march.” As the Goldin dressed in multiple layers of clothes and hastily packed bundles of food, they made plans to split up, run, and hide. Chaisoshe and a college friend were first to leave.“ You have some friends,” Elke told her husband. “Take a child. You may survive.” As Meir took Golda’s hand, Golda grabbed Malka’s. But Elke insisted that her youngest child hide with her in their shed.

Meir, Golda, and another relative they found in the street began frantically knocking on the doors of their Russian neighbors, begging for places to hide. But they were repeatedly turned away because of fear, ignorance, or indifference.The circle of Germans, politsaislocal collaborators, and dogs surrounding them grew tighter.

The three finally found refuge in the attic of an abandoned store on the main street. They climbed up to a loft filled with hay and silently watched the street below. The streets were soon filled with dushegubka, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed internal gas chamber, As the Nazis forced women and children into the black-topped vans, Golda recalled in 2010 Yad V’Shem video, could hear a single woman screaming in agony as the van moved towards a former hospital that the Germans had converted into the slaughterhouse.

When these precursors to the gas chambers used in the concentration camps could no longer keep up with the number to be killed, the remaining Jews were herded together by Germans and the politsais. They were helped by local residents who joyfully made a game out of rounding up anyone trying to escape. “Jude! Jude,” they would yell to the Nazis, who would then shoot the “offender” and leave the corpse on the street. The numb, terrified victims could do little but march to their almost certain deaths.

Throughout the terrifying day, Meir, Golda, and the cousin heard the sounds of gunfire from Myslotino Hill, an area two and a half miles outside of Glusk. They learned later that over 1000 Jews men, women, and children were killed in a volley of bullets and then thrown in pits prepared earlier by the Germans. 

At two a.m., all was quiet. Praying that somehow members of their family had survived, the three fugitives descended from the hideout and began walking to the town’s outskirts.They narrowly missed falling into the hands of a roving band of Russian murderers who were “drunk on blood and vodka” and bragging about the number of Jews they had killed.

The threesome began their trek through deep snow and bitter cold to Zhivun, a village 23 miles from Glusk. As Meir had been born, raised, and, as an adult, done business there, they hoped to find help. While in route, Meir and Golda hid in the forest while the relative attempted to enlist the aid of friends. The two heard a volley of bullets, and the cousin never returned. 

Meir and Golda had better luck. For the next six months, Golda stayed with the local peasants helping with housework and, when necessary, being spirited from home to nearby forest to another home to escape discovery by the Nazis.Meanwhile, in between trips back to Zhivun, Meir worked with the partisans, members of the resistance movements who lived in the forest. The war had not lessened their anti-semitic feelings as they were initially reluctant to accept Meir into their circle. Meir, however, proved to be worthy comrades, helping the partisans to bomb railroads, ambush German convoys, and do whatever they could to fight the German forces.

During this time, two eleven year olds they encountered in Zhivun who had also escaped from Glusk gave Meir and Golda the bad news regarding the Goldin family. The two children initially had hidden with Elke and Malka until Elke told them to go back into the village where she correctly believed their blonde hair and blue eyes would help them blend in with the Gentile population. Two days later, a Belarussian neighbor and his son, with whom the Goldin had had a close relationship before the Nazi invasion, came to search for valuables and steal the cow. They found Elke and Malka hiding in the hay and turned them over the Nazis, who killed them. Chaisoshe and her friend met the same fate two days later when four local teenagers found their hiding place and turned them over to the Germans for bounty money. Meir and Golda later learned that 32 members of the Goldin family they had left behind had been killed.

Once he was established with the partisans Meir went back to Zhivun to get his daughter, who was at fifteen now old enough to participate in the guerrilla warfare. In addition, a Jewish doctor who joined the ragtag group enlisted the help of Golda and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee in providing needed medical assistance. (The two woman remained lifelong friends.)

Meir and Golda survived in the forest for the next two years, living as did the real-life partisans portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. They finally gained their “freedom” on July 4, 1944, when Belarus celebrated heir victory over the Germans (The Germans and Soviets continued fighting through May 1945).“Freedom,” however, still had its limitations. When they first met with Red Army soldier, their initial comment was, “I thought the Nazis killed all of you Jews!” Meir, Golda, and the new families they created after the war lived in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when, upon Golda’s insistence, relocated to the United States.

Golda’s story has been saved for posterity in her two hour interview in Russian as part of Steven Speilberg’s Shoah project. In addition, her descendants continue to carry on her and the Goldin legacy through their family reunions, Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic, and through their sharing this story with me. No, Texas, there is no “opposing view to the Holocaust.” Just ask those, like Golda, who lived to tell their tale. 

To be continued….

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, December 16, 2021.