Holocaust survivor Vera Herman Goodkin hopes her story will invoke change
For 37 years, Vera Herman Goodkin never shared her remarkable story with anyone except her husband, Jerry.
The Lawrence resident’s closest family and friends knew she was a Holocaust survivor. But they accepted that she preferred not to speak about those years, so her story remained her own.
Everything changed when she was asked to help with an event being held at Rider College Oct. 5, 1983. As a professor of English and French at Mercer County Commnity College—she retired in 1997 after 34 years of teaching—Goodkin was an active member of the community. The event, she learned, was to honor a well-known Swedish diplomat who had been instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Goodkin revealed then that she had been one of those children, who, because of Raoul Wallenberg, was able to escape the fate that so many Jews could not.
She gave the keynote speech at that event. She hasn’t stopped sharing her story since.
On April 9, Goodkin spoke to an audience in Mercer County Community College’s Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, this year held April 8. The date commemorates a number of historical events, and typically falls between the second and fourth week of April.
As is the case for many Holocaust survivors, “it takes just a little bit out of us,” every time Goodkin speaks of the horrors she witnessed. It never gets easier, and it has never been cathartic. Yet she continues to speak at schools, events, conferences and any time someone’s willing to listen.
“I owe it to my rescuer,” Goodkin said. “I owe it to members of my family who perished. I owe it to all the children who never got a chance to grow up, all the men and women that lost their lives. But primarily, I keep hammering away at it because we’ve learned nothing from the Holocaust. Because…the victims are different, the perpetrators are different, but man’s inhumanity to man goes on.”
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Goodkin’s family didn’t immediately recognize the fate the Nazis had planned.
The only daughter of a physician, Goodkin lived a comfortable life as a child growing up in Hradec Kralove, Czechoslovakia. Her mother managed her father’s office.
Her grandparents lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary, where Goodkin’s mother, Margit, grew up. They had worried in the early 1930s and suggested Margit move her family to a safer location, but Margit wouldn’t hear of it. Czechoslovakia was their “utopia.” Goodkin’s grandparents remained fearful. On a visit to see her grandparents, her grandfather led her outside, a small satchel tucked in his hand. “Remember this,” he said as he pulled up the threshold of the shed and buried the pouch in a small hole, nailing the wooden plank back down to seal the hiding place. He did not tell her what it contained.
Many Jews believed the situation would pass, saying the Jews were being made into scapegoats for Germany’s poor economy. But in 1939, when Goodkin was 9, the German army took over the town, and the process of dehumanizing the Jews began in their utopia. The Nuremburg Laws effectively took away any rights the Jews once had; they lost their citizenship, their right to attend schools, and the ability to practice their professions. Goodkin’s father went from practicing medicine to carrying stones in the quarry, a dangerous and humiliating job.
The sound of knocking and boots clicking outside Goodkin’s home marked the beginning of the family’s flight for survival. Two Nazi soldiers in crisp uniforms stood in the doorway and announced, “You don’t live here anymore,” Goodkin recalled.
For the next three years, Goodkin’s family traveled in the night’s shadows, hiding in friends’ homes behind false walls, in basements and in abandoned cottages.
In November 1943, their whereabouts were disclosed. As “alien Jews” not native to the town of Banska Bystrica in Slovakia, where they were staying, Goodkin’s family would be on the first transport to Auschwitz.
Hope blossomed when Margit heard of an “underground railroad” of farmers assisting Jews traveling between the border of Slovakia and Hungary to the last remaining intact Jewish community, located in Budapest.
After surviving a train ride without having to provide identification, they followed a farmer who could help them cross the border. His home was located in the woods, and upon their arrival, Goodkin and her parents were instructed to quietly climb a ladder up the side of the home to avoid waking the tenant’s mother-in-law, a Nazi sympathizer.
As they settled in, they found they weren’t alone. Goodkin recalled keeping company with the rats, and she feared for her father’s bald head; she took off her scarf and tied it around his head to protect his exposed scalp.
“I remember feeling very brave that night,” she said.
After the farmer led them into Hungary, Goodkin’s family boarded a train to Budapest. They lived there for two more months until January 1944, when the Jews were forced to move into a ghetto. From the ghetto, they were transported to the prison dungeons in the middle of the night. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they noticed that everything was made of stone. Not a single piece of furniture could be seen, but oddly enough, the walls had polka dots. And, upon closer inspection, they saw that the polka dots were moving. Crawling all over the dungeon were bed bugs.
Goodkin and her mother were separated from her father in the holding prisons. One month later, the women and children were sent to Kitarcsa, Hungary, where Goodkin’s mother sewed Nazi uniforms.
In April 1944, after many prisoners began to suffer from disease and malnutrition, the prison commander introduced three gentleman from the Swedish Red Cross. The men, he said, had convinced him that the camp was not a suitable environment for young children. With the mothers’ consent, the officers would take all children under age 14.
Many mothers refused, Goodkin said, but Margit pushed her daughter into the arms of one of the officers. She told Goodkin years later that if Goodkin might have the opportunity to eat, sleep in a bed, and live on to tell her story, then as her mother, she couldn’t deny her that opportunity.
When the children left, the men admitted they didn’t work for the Red Cross, but for Raoul Wallenberg, who wanted to save as many Jewish children as possible.
Wallenberg, of Sweden, represented the War Refugee Board, which was organized and funded by the U.S. with the purpose of protecting Hungarian Jews. He was empowered by the Swedish government to issue passports to as many Jews as possible, and was given money to purchase or rent “safehouses” to provide them shelter. From July 1944 to January 1945, Wallenberg saved more than 100,000 individuals from the Nazis.
Goodkin was taken to a children’s home, but soon grew sick with scarlet fever and had to be sent to a hospital. Her illness would eventually save her life. One Sunday afternoon, drunk members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross broke into the home and, despite the Swedish Red Cross flag flying from its roof, killed all 26 children there.
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In July 1944, Margit was put on a train with 2,000 others headed to Auschwitz. As the train neared the Austrian border, it began to veer off its route. Of the 2,000 passengers, one woman wasn’t supposed to be on board, and the train pulled into a prison camp to empty out its passengers and find her.
As Margit tumbled out of the train car, she looked across the camp and caught sight of a man—her husband, Emil. He disappeared for a moment, then reappeared, brushing by his wife and handing her a small vial of liquid. Margit quickly gulped down the concoction, and immediately passed out.
Emil had been working as the prisoner physician in the camp, and his plan had been to put Margit on a stretcher and bring her to the infirmary to keep her at the camp. As Margit was being carried, the SS guard began chasing her, saying he had to deliver 2,000 bodies and he didn’t care whether they were dead or alive.
As he was running, the guard was notified that the German high command, angry about the delay, had changed his orders. The guard was told to line up the passengers along the perimeter of the camp and kill them with machine guns.
Margit was one of only four passengers from the train who survived. She became a member of the prison population, and Emil returned to his work as prisoner physician.
Three months dragged by, and Margit and Emil never saw each other because the women and men were separated. By that point, the Germans were faring poorly in the war, and an uprising in October 1944 had sabotaged the prison gates. Goodkin’s parents found each other and fled with many other escapees.
“Our life has been full of miracles, but then again every survivor is a living, breathing, walking, talking miracle,” Goodkin said. “None of us were meant to leave there.”
The couple walked for three weeks toward Budapest, where Emil sought out the Swedish Embassy. They had heard rumors of a Swedish diplomat who was distributing Schutzpasses, or protection passes, and providing safehouses for Jews. On Nov. 30, 1944, they met Wallenberg, who smiled at Goodkin’s father when he learned his identity.
“We have your little girl,” he said.
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After hiding 10 more weeks in the basement of a Swedish safehouse, Goodkin’s reunited family finally returned to Czechoslovakia to reclaim their old home.
Margit still wanted to see what remained of her parents’ home. Goodkin, weak from prolonged malnourishment, stayed behind with an uncle as her parents made the trip. Before they set off, however, Goodkin shared with them a foggy, dreamlike memory of her grandfather’s buried satchel.
When they got there, the satchel was in its hiding place just as Goodkin remembered. What she hadn’t known is that it contained her grandmother’s precious heirloom jewelry.
The Goodkins would remain in Czechoslovakia for two years before traveling to the U.S. Communism began gaining influence in their utopia, and they wanted no part of it.
“He said to my mother, ‘One totalitarian regime per lifetime is enough,’” Goodkin recalled.
When they arrived in the U.S. in 1947, Goodkin’s father resumed working as a physician.
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It’s not the type of memory that will ever fade, despite years spent trying to suppress or forget what happened.
In the beginning of her captivity, Goodkin tried to forget the memories of her happy, normal life. She recalled her favorite Shirley Temple doll, one she missed terribly, and eventually forced the image out of her mind.
“I said to myself, ‘No, I never had a Shirley Temple doll,’” Goodkin said, “and never thought about it again.”
Yet the memory of her experience during the Holocaust years is just as clear now as when it happened, Goodkin said.
She recalled the moment she reunited with her parents, a moment, she said, of indescribable feelings. Goodkin had held them tight, thinking the reunion was a mirage that would disappear if she let go.
It took many years for Goodkin and her parents to share their individual experiences of the Holocaust with each other. They told their stories in bits and pieces, never speaking of it from beginning to end in one sitting.
Up until Emil died in 1972, he spoke very little of the years of the Holocaust, Goodkin said. She and her mother grew even closer after her father’s death, and over a number of years, Goodkin learned much of her parents’ story from her mother. Margit died at age 92 in 1995.
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The front room of Goodkin’s home features several pieces of custom made furniture, and in the sunroom, a painting depicts a young girl—Goodkin, at only 4 years old.
Goodkin’s father had shipped some of the family’s most cherished items from her childhood home in 1939, when traveling to the U.S. had still seemed possible. The items had sat in storage, and after Goodkin’s father had worked long enough to earn some money, he paid to retrieve all of their items.
As Goodkin and her parents combed through their belongings, she came across a small box. Inside was a layer of cotton, which she brushed away to reveal her favorite Shirley Temple doll.
Goodkin went on to receive her master’s degree in French and doctorate in English, and has lived with her husband in Lawrence since 1962.
In 2006, Goodkin published a novel, In Sunshine and In Shadow: We Remember Them, which tells the history of five generations of her proud Jewish family. To this day, she still practices Judaism.
“If you’re willing to make a concession and say the limit of human understanding stops at a certain point, then you can salvage your faith,” Goodkin said.
She remains active in speaking about her experience in the Holocaust and connecting with other first, second and third generation Holocaust survivors.
“We survivors who speak hope that maybe our words will make a difference, that they will induce some of the young people to become more proactive, to become upstanders rather than bystanders, and not let things like this happen again,” Goodkin said.