Writer moves out from the shadows

Vera Herman Goodkin wrote a memoir, "In Sunshine and in Shadow, We Remember Them," about her family’s experiences – before and after World War II – and their rescue by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

By:Lea Kahn Staff Writer
When young Vera Herman Goodkin tried to tell her story of Holocaust survival, she received one of two reactions — accept it and move on, or outright disbelief that people could be so cruel.
   It took Ms. Goodkin another 36 years before she decided to tell her story anyway, and an additional 20 years before she decided to commit her memories to paper.
   The Camelia Court resident’s recently published book, "In Sunshine and In Shadow, We Remember Them," recounts her family’s experiences — before and after World War II — and their rescue by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
   The book also discusses her extended family’s persecution — first by the Nazis because they were Jews, and then by the Communists because they were viewed as capitalists. The family lived in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, which later became Czechoslovakia. That country peacefully divided in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
   Ms. Goodkin, 75, tried to talk about her experiences soon after she and her parents immigrated to the United States in 1947, but most people were not receptive. Then, in 1983, she was invited to help arrange a commemorative effort for Mr. Wallenberg.
   "Six weeks later, I was sharing my experiences and I haven’t stopped talking," Ms. Goodkin said with a smile. She has been involved as an educator with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, speaking to students and adults.
   The memoir, which covers five generations of her mother’s family, has been incubating for several years, Ms. Goodkin said. She began to give serious thought to writing the book after she retired as an English and French professor at Mercer County Community College in 1997.
   "Each time for the past 22 years that I have spoken groups, there has always been one person who asked, ‘Did you write this down,’" she said. "The book probably would have come about, anyway. I am in my mid-70s, and I am one of the youngest survivors. We won’t be around much longer."
   "In Sunshine and In Shadow," along with a study guide, is intended for both student and adult audiences, Ms. Goodkin said. She is in the process of writing a teacher’s study guide for the book.
   "The book is not only a Holocaust story," she said. "It goes back to my great-grandparents in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I wanted to show this (current) generation that we were a vibrant part of society. We were not born to be victims. That’s why (the rise of) Hitler was such a blow — ‘It couldn’t happen in our country.’"
   Ms. Goodkin’s great-grandfather was a midlevel bureaucrat, and her grandfather was a merchant. Two of her five uncles were pharmacists. One uncle was an attorney and another uncle was a physician. A fifth uncle, who was killed in World War I, studied engineering before he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army.
   Ms. Goodkin’s father was a physician and her mother divided her time between serving as his office manager and taking care of her only child. The family lived comfortably in a Czechoslovakian town, until the Nazis seized control of the country.
   One of her uncles — the physician — was kidnapped and held for ransom in 1939. He had been lured away to help a patient. He was killed by his captors. His wife and daughter later died at Auschwitz, the German concentration camp.
   Another uncle, the attorney, survived World War II with his family. The two pharmacists and their families also survived — one was protected by neighbors and the other found sanctuary in the household of a Catholic priest.
   But Ms. Goodkin’s maternal grandparents and other relatives perished at Auschwitz.
   Ms. Goodkin and her parents spent four years — from 1939 to 1943 — in hiding from the Nazis and their sympathizers. They became "professional escapees," always one step ahead of the Nazis, she said. The family landed in Hungary in early 1944, but they were arrested four months later.
   Ms. Goodkin’s father was sent to Sarvar Prison, a death-camp holding facility on the Austro-Hungarian border, where he became the prison’s doctor. Ms. Goodkin and her mother were moved to Kistarcsa Prison in Hungary. Ms. Goodkin was plucked from that prison in 1944 by three men who had been sent by Mr. Wallenberg to rescue the children. She was placed in a Swedish orphanage.
   Ms. Goodkin’s parents were miraculously reunited at Sarvar Prison where her father was the prison doctor, she said. There was an uprising and the gates to the prison were opened. Her parents fled to Budapest, where they received protective passes issued by Mr. Wallenberg.
   The family was soon reunited, and spent the last 10 weeks of the war in one of the "safe houses" that Mr. Wallenberg had established by declaring the houses to be Swedish territory.
   Ms. Goodkin’s parents tried to resume their lives in post-World War II Czechoslovakia, but decided to move to the United States after the Communist takeover. The family settled in New York state.
   Ms. Goodkin’s three surviving uncles did not fare well under the Communist government in Hungary. The attorney lost his legal practice. The two pharmacists lost their pharmacies and worked for the Hungarian government.
   It was important to write her memoirs, Ms. Goodkin said, so that people would remember what happened and work to keep such persecution and prejudice from happening again.
   "People are more willing to listen," she said. "They see the creeping evils all over the world — in Cambodia and Darfur (in Sudan). I try to tell the students that we are human beings first, and then we are men or women, rich or poor. If we emphasize the things that unite us, what divides us is not important."
   The book would not have been possible without the frequent discussions she had with her mother, Ms. Goodkin said. Her mother, who died 10 years ago, recounted family stories to her, she said.
   "I am extremely fortunate and acutely aware that I survived my past," she said. "I could reconstruct my life much better than those who emerged alone (from World War II)."
   The book is available through the publisher’s Web site, www.comteqpublishing.com