Never to be forgotten

Resident tells how her family survived the Holocaust.

By: Lea Kahn
   If it were not for the three men who walked into the Hungarian prison where young Vera Goodkin was being held in 1944, she would have been among the 6 million Jews who perished during World War II.
   Instead, she spent the remainder of the war in a Swedish orphanage — thanks to those men who represented the Swedish Red Cross, Dr. Goodkin said last week.
   She recounted the story of the rescue of herself and her parents to audience members at the annual Yom Hashoah commemorative service at Rider University.
   Dr. Goodkin, who lives in Lawrence, was invited to speak at the annual service by Marvin Goldstein, the co-director of the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Genocide Resource Center at Rider. A retired professor of English and French at Mercer County Community College, she has been speaking about her experiences for 20 years.
   The men who rescued her had been sent to the prison camp by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save the Jewish children who were being held there, Dr. Goodkin told the audience, which hung onto every word.
   Dr. Goodkin’s story actually began in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia where her father practiced medicine. In March 1939, the Nazis invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. One day, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the sign outside the doctor’s office.
   The Nazi occupation meant the family had to give up the good life, she said. Jews were required to sew a 6-inch yellow Star of David on their clothing to identify them to others. The Jews lost their civil rights and the protection of the law. They could be beaten or shot to death on the street, and no one would have to answer for the crime, for example, she said.
   The Jews were stripped of their dignity by degrees, she said. No one could practice their profession, conduct business or go to school. They were even told to surrender their winter clothing, she said.
   "Then one day, we heard a knock on our door. The voices on the other side of the door said we had to move, because our house was now theirs. Suddenly, we became homeless. We realized we had no place to go," Dr. Goodkin said.
   The family went into hiding, she said. They were discovered, and they were about to be sent on a train to a death camp. Hoping to reach Budapest and the largest remaining Jewish community in Hungary, the family tore off the yellow Star of David and made their way across the border in 1943.
   The family found safety in Hungary for about four months. Soon, they were arrested. They spent the first night after their arrest in the courtyard of a fortress.
   In the morning, their captors separated the men from the women and children, she said. Dr. Goodkin’s father was sent to one prison, and Dr. Goodkin and her mother remained where they were being held. Mother and daughter were moved to another prison a couple of months later, she said.
   "At the second prison, in August 1944 , Raoul Wallenberg sent three men who were with the Swedish Red Cross to make a deal to save the children. I was placed in a Swedish orphanage," Dr. Goodkin said.
   Dr. Goodkin said her mother remained in the prison, until she was loaded into a train for Auschwitz. But the train was stopped by the Hungarians. It was still on Hungarian soil, and the Hungarians had control over it, she said.
   The train was stopped at a prison so that Hungarian authorities could search its passengers for the Jewish daughter-in-law of the Hungarian head of state. The ruler’s son had married a Jew, she said.
   While the authorities were searching for the woman, Dr. Goodkin’s father saw his wife from a distance. He was the prison doctor at that prison. He made his way over to his wife and slipped her a drink. Dr. Goodkin said her father told her mother to drink it, and she passed out. She was taken to the prison infirmary.
   In the meantime, a Nazi officer asked why the transport was late, Dr. Goodkin said. He ordered the people to be shot, rather than have them be put back on the train. The only survivors were the head of state’s daughter-in-law, Dr. Goodkin’s mother and two other people who had managed to hide from the Nazis, she said.
   Dr. Goodkin said her mother continued to be held in the women’s section of the prison camp and her father was held in the men’s section. Then, Hungarian partisans staged an uprising and sabotaged the prison gates, she said. The prisoners fled.
   "My parents met again. They walked for three weeks to get to Budapest," she said. "It was now under siege by the Russians. People talked about a man who was giving out passes, so my father went to the Swedish embassy and got protective passes for himself and my mother."
   Her parents were taken to one of the "safe houses" that Mr. Wallenberg had established throughout Budapest, she said. The houses had been declared to be Swedish territory by Mr. Wallenberg.
   Dr. Goodkin was soon reunited with her parents. The family spent the last 10 weeks of the war in the safe house, she said. On Jan. 16, 1945, the invading Russian army entered their street and liberated them. The next day, Mr. Wallenberg disappeared, she said.
   After the war, Dr. Goodkin said, her family tried to resume its former life. But the family moved to the United States in 1947, following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, she said. The family lived in New York state.
   "Why do I speak?" Dr. Goodkin asked the audience. "It is because of the murder of the Turkish child and his grandmother. It is for the pain in the eyes of a Bosnian child as he puts his hand on the bus window, against his father’s hands.
   "Now, with the rising of fanatics, sounds the alarm. Will we ever learn? There is ethnic cleansing, in the name of religious devotion. Hatred can, does and will continue if we do not teach the lessons of the Holocaust. We have to show that everyone matters. One person can subvert an evil system," she said.