Note to the Reader
An abbreviated version of these four chapters appeared in The State Newspaper, April 28-May 1, 2022.
The version below appears as “the script” which the illustrator used to visualize and represent the story. The images are not included here; this is mostly scenes and dialogue–similar to a motion picture script. To see images from the book, go here.
What do you know about “the Holocaust”? Where did you learn it?
Do you know why the Nazis considered Jews to be “an inferior race.”? What happened to them? How did some survive? Are you aware that the same types of injustices and atrocities are happening all around the world? These are questions you should consider as you read this true story.
There are people even today who deny “the Holocaust” ever happened.
That is unfortunate. The proof and the evidence are clear. This story adds to that evidence.
This story is true. It contains facts about a Jewish couple who survived the Holocaust. Bluma Tishgarten and Felix Goldberg were both young Polish Jews caught up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust); Adolf Hitler’s rise to power; the rise of antisemitism and more. But yet they survived.
The information here has been fact-checked and verified via videotape testimonies as well as historical documents that have survived.
Even though World War II and The Holocaust are long over, atrocities, genocide, intolerance, prejudice and antisemitism still exist today. The phrase “never forget” was coined as a reminder to remember and to study the past.
“I know that they’re hearing it every year. But you still have to remind people.” Felix Goldberg
“In a way, we fear that maybe that’s why we survived–so we can tell the story.” Bluma Tishgarten Goldberg
It’s January, the Goldberg family is departing for the cemetery where their parents are buried. Before they leave the house, Esther, the youngest, puts her hands on the Mezuzah, mounted at the front door, and brings her hand to her mouth.
“Are you OK”, her brother Karl asks?
“No”, she replies? Henry, the oldest, says “I understand.”
They get into the car for the long ride; they pass “The Tile Center,” the business their late father, Felix, started in Columbia after the war. Their mother, Bluma worked there too.
Upon arriving at the cemetery, Esther, Karl and Henry all pick up small rocks. As they walk to the area where their parents are buried, each of them quietly puts a rock on top of the headstone. (It’s a Jewish ritual which one does as a sign of paying respect.) They are contemplative. Esther pulls out a tissue from her purse and begins to dab her eyes. She looks up and says: “do you want to say it?” Karl responds with a nod in the positive.
He pulls out of his pocket a small piece of paper: on it, the Kaddish—a traditional Jewish prayer recited in memory and honor of those who have passed away.
Before departing, Henry recalls quietly “ let us not forget: they survived Hitler’s Final Solution…it was a miracle…no one could possibly comprehend what they went through…”
Two children are born in Poland. Little did they, or their families, know about events that were closing in around them. Things were happening around them that they did not control. They were caught up in Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” –the Nazi plan to eradicate the entire Jewish population.
In 1917, a baby boy was born in the small town outside of Kalisz Poland. 9 years later, 190 miles away, in the town of Pinczow, a baby girl was born. The boy was named Felix Goldberg and the girl was named Bluma Tishgarten. Their parents were happy—as both children were born into growing families. He had four siblings; she had three sisters and a brother. They were Jewish and they grew up as typical children: they went to school, they played games with friends and they did chores for their parents.
Polish winters were cold and snowy and young Bluma often joined her family skiing: and in the summer–she swam in a lake near their home. There was a soccer stadium in Kalisz and Felix was an active player for the Jewish young men’s soccer club. On Saturday afternoons, he would accompany a cousin to go and watch other soccer teams play.
Both families continued long-standing Jewish traditions: observing the Jewish Sabbath (sundown Friday-sundown Saturday). On Friday night, Bluma’s family lit the Sabbath candles and said their weekly prayers. Every Saturday morning, Felix and his siblings attended Cheder (the name for school where Jewish children learn Hebrew language and religious customs).
But by the time both Felix and Bluma were teenagers, it was clear things were anything but normal in Poland. Their families were aware of the pogroms of the past–which drove Jews away and, in many cases, killed many. Now, their world was about to be turned upside down. Their parents had heard rumors that Jews in other cities and towns were being harassed and treated poorly by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.
Some reports indicated Jews were being killed, but the Goldbergs and Tishgartens were skeptical. “This couldn’t happen to us” – they thought.
The Nazis were a German political party that grew into a movement that blamed Jews for many of their problems. The Nazi plan was to eliminate the Jewish way of life–to limit their movements, take away their jobs and destroy anything and everything Jewish–including publications. Books written by Jewish writers had been burned in public displays years earlier.
Jews were considered “enemies of the state,” and an active propaganda campaign began to convince Germans (and others) that Jews were bad and needed to be controlled. Violence against Jews was widely encouraged and as a result many Jews suffered under the hands of German troops as well as German and Polish citizens.
Slowly the rumors became fact as the war came to Felix and Bluma’s hometowns. Little did they know, their lives were about to change forever.
Felix (young man) “Father, why are you removing the Mezuzah from the door?”
Father: “Son, it is now dangerous for our family to be identified as Jews.
By taking it down, those who are not from here will not know that we are Jews. I want to protect my family and we need to keep a low profile.”
Quickly things began to change for Jews. People who were previously their friends and neighbors were no longer. They were not allowed to go to school or play with non-Jewish friends. Jewish owned businesses were boycotted and then forced to close.
And Jews were required to wear a label that made it clear who they were to Nazis and Poles.
And then, the German army invaded Poland and the Soviet Union. The year was 1939. World War II had officially started. From the air, German planes rained down on targets. Thousands of German troops crossed the border and began destroying everything in their path.
And the first thing they did when they arrived at the town of Pinczow was to burn it to the ground, leaving Bluma and her family homeless. She was just 13 years old at the time. Her closest sister, Cela, was 16. One house, on the outskirts of town that was not destroyed, belonged to an uncle and the family moved there.
Bluma (to her father): “Daddy, are we safe? I’m afraid. “
Father: “Sweetheart, we are for now. I don’t know about tomorrow. I just know we must be vigilant. We might soon have to move away from here because it’s getting increasingly dangerous for all of us to survive.”
But the Nazis came looking for them, because their mission was to destroy their way of life AND kill all of the Jews.
As part of the Nazi effort, signs were erected around Polish cities and towns where Jews existed. These signs read “Jews Forbidden” in areas where their movements were restricted. Other signs read “Do Not Help Jews- To Do So Means Immediate Death.”
Signs and posters were part of a massive propaganda campaign designed to convey the idea that the Jews were the problem and that they must be eliminated.
For the time being, the Tishgartens and their Jewish friends were allowed to remain in town, but their access to school and stores was restricted. They had a curfew and had to be off the streets at 6pm each night. They wore that yellow Jewish star on their clothing so as to be easily identifiable.
Bluma and Cela Tishgarten were teenagers; their parents had carefully considered what the family would do if and when the situation got worse. One day it did. On a morning they would long remember, their mother heard gunshots. She carefully peered out the window to see Nazis marching neighbors from their homes at gunpoint. Frightened, she called to her two daughters:
Mother: “Girls…Come here NOW..I need you to listen to me carefully. The Nazis are here, and they will kill us if we don’t act quickly. …take this (she stuffs into their pockets) money and jewelry….it’s all I have…
It will help you survive, you must GO now, run out the back door into the woods and hide. Do not come back”
Bluma: “But Momma where will you go?”
Mother: “Your father and I will try to get away, but you must go now..(shouting) SAVE YOURSELVES. I love you. GO!”
She literally shoves them out of the house. (They never saw their mother again)
Crying, distraught and scared, the girls ran out the back door into the woods. They immediately saw other neighbors doing the same, but rather than join them, they decided to run away separately.
Cela: (running, looking back at her sister who lags slightly); “Hurry Bluma, we must run faster, away from danger.”
Bluma: (huffing, a bit out of breath, visibly shaken): “I have never been so frightened in my life. Where are we going to go?”
Cela: “I have an idea; I will show you.”
It was getting dark, so they made a makeshift shed from found materials and they spent their first night like this. They would constantly be “on the move” trying to hide and find food. For weeks, they would sneak into a town and beg people to give them food. That’s how they survived until….
Running and hiding from the Nazis, and moving at night from town to town, hoping someone would give them some food, became exhausting.
Cela: “Bluma, all of this running and hiding is bound to get us caught and perhaps killed.”
Bluma: “What do you think we should do?”
Later that same day, an answer came literally to them. From a distance they could hear a loudspeaker: it was a message from the Nazis: “Jews, give yourselves up now and you will not be harmed. We will take care of you. Come into town tomorrow.”
Cela: “Bluma, I’m thinking that now might be the time to surrender. Do you agree?”
Bluma (reluctantly) “I don’t know. I’m not sure. But as long as I’m with you sister, I’ll feel safe.”
The next day, they decide to give themselves up. With their hands raised high, they slowly exited the woods, entering the town and were immediately seen by the Nazis who escorted them to a large truck filled with other people. The truck drove them to a train station where they were ordered into the “cattle car” jammed with many others. The train began to move.
Bluma (to sister): “I can hardly breathe.”
Cela: “Me either. Perhaps we can try to move to that small opening near the door.” (so, they slowly try to maneuver to get to that spot)
Bluma: “Can you breathe?”
Cela: “Not very well. Let’s huddle together to stay warm.”
19-year-old Felix Goldberg wanted to survive and felt that fighting for the Polish Army would be the smartest move. For a short while he rode horseback with other Poles fighting the Germans. But they were soon overtaken and he was captured.
He spent some time in a ghetto whose conditions were tolerable. Eventually he was released and was able to travel, so he did.
Felix recalls: “Everybody had to wear that (Jewish Star) because of being Jewish. But I took a chance and took that emblem off, and I was riding (the passenger train) without it. But I was recognized. I looked very much Semitic.
And so they took me off the train and waited for the next train. But in the meantime, an SS man worked me over pretty good, socked my face, knocked out two of my teeth”, and declared: “You will go back to the Warsaw ghetto.” But Felix thought, I don’t want to go back to the Warsaw ghetto.
The Nazis put him back on a train, but this one was the “cattle car” jammed with hundreds of others.
Man (to Felix): “Where do you think this train is taking us?”
Felix:” I don’t know but I don’t plan to stay much longer. This train will certainly take us to our deaths. I want to survive.”
Felix slowly opened the train door…just enough for him to get through it and finally jumps from the moving train……rolling several times on the ground before stopping, getting up and quickly moving into a wooded area.
Eventually, after wandering for days in the woods and trying to evade capture, Felix was captured and put on a transport for Auschwitz.
Life there was horrific for Jewish prisoners. They were awakened at 4 in the morning. They marched in formation out of the barracks and stood there in the freezing weather. The Nazis counted them to make sure no one had escaped. Breakfast, if you can call it that, consisted of coffee and some soup: no bread. They could see smoke rising from the chimney of a nearby building, but Felix said no one, at the time, knew the significance.
Only the strong survived, the weak were not so lucky. Felix was assigned to the Jawarzno Coal Mine. The workers marched 2 hours there every morning. He was assigned to the coal mine elevator, which carried coal and fellow Jews up and down. The work was dangerous and often the walls of the mine collapsed, killing Jews in the process. Now, in addition to carrying coal, Felix carried bodies. The Nazis directed him to put the bodies in the back of a truck, which made its way to the crematoria.
In order to survive, Felix admitted “if you want to live, you take risks”– he sometimes stole bread and wine from guards. He was careful to hide whatever he took so that no one knew of his hiding place.
One night, upon returning to Auschwitz, they discovered that a large part of the camp had been targeted and destroyed by the Russians who had bombed the camp by air.
With fewer places to house Jews, many were put on transports. Felix Goldberg was on the move again. This time the destination was Buchenwald- the infamous concentration camp.
Every Day A Miracle, Just to Survive
Sisters Bluma and Cela Tishgarten have managed to stay as healthy as possible as they are moved around by the Nazis. They are workers now, and not threatened because they are essentially slave laborers: they will do the work Germans need them to do.
One of their jobs is at a munitions factory, where they make bullets. The process involves hot, melted metal and Bluma is momentarily burned on one of her arms. The conditions are poor and they are required to work long hours. One day, she could hardly keep her eyes open.
Bluma recalls: “I felt so tired that I closed my eyes and nodded off, standing, for just a minute. There was this gray headed man (supervisor) who when he approached, everybody shook with fear. All of a sudden he slaps me (on my face) awake and tells me to ‘get back to work.’ I was really frightened, but that’s all that ever happened to me, thank God. I never closed by eyes again at work.”
At night, exhausted, she falls asleep in the barracks which was jammed with hundreds of other women. She thought of her family. Had her parents and siblings survived? If so, where could they be? Would she be reunited with them? She prayed that day would come.
Nazi: (inside barracks at 5am) “Everybody wake up. You have five minutes to be outside. HURRY HURRY HURRY.”
Bluma to sister: “What do you think is happening?
Cela: “ I don’t know, but I have a bad feeling.”
The two women join many others as they march to the train station.
Cela: (directed to Nazi) “Where are we going?
Nazi: “Be quiet, and get on the train.”
It is after midnight and it is obvious, they have been moved to another location, but they know not where. They are directed to their new barracks, which consists of nothing but wood slats on the floor. It is winter and it is bitterly cold. Blankets are in short supply. It is so crowded they can hardly move. These are the conditions in which disease spreads. It does and not everyone is strong enough to survive.
In the morning, they march in formation and an SS guard calls out each name and the women answer “here.” Their breakfast now consists of watery soup and a piece of bread. After breakfast, they are marched to a location in the woods.
The sisters find themselves, this time, at a make-shift factory. They see planes, lots of them, sitting on the ground. Bluma wonders what work they will have to do here.
The women are ordered to get in line, where they wait for instructions. When it’s Bluma’s turn at the front of the line, the supervisor asks if she knows how to paint. And she says “yes, of course.”
So, he directs her to read the directions that are on a piece of paper and points her in the direction where a plane sits on the ground. She spends all day, like the others, painting Nazi swastikas and numbers on planes. The work continues for weeks and the women are marched a long distance from the woods back to the camp. Eventually, it begins to take its toll.
Cela, Bluma’s sister has a fever and is very weak: the result of having contracted typhus—a disease caused by lice—which spreads in close quarters. Since the barracks were overcrowded, many others also got sick.
Cela (sickly to sister): “I am so tired and weak I fear I won’t live much longer. Please can you get some medicine for me or more food?”
Bluma: “Yes of course.. I will try.”
Bluma knows that to leave the barracks at night is a huge risk. What if she gets caught? What might happen then? She decides she will do anything for her sister—who has looked out for her throughout their long ordeal together.
She waits until nightfall, where she quietly sneaks out of the barracks and enters the empty kitchen…the lights are off…there she finds and takes an apple, puts it in her pocket. Carefully, she looks left and right and times her movements so that she is not spotted, as she makes her way quietly back to the barracks.
Bluma: “Here, (removing apple from pocket) I got you an apple. Eat slowly and try to save some.”
Cela: “God bless you dear sister.”
At one point, Bluma also got sick and it was Cela’s chance to return the favor—the sisters looked out for one another.
Every day was a fight for survival. One day Felix Goldberg found himself in a long line. He didn’t know why. But in the front was a Nazi officer—who towered over everyone else. The man was the infamous Josef Mengele. Felix quietly inquired: “what’s happening?” and the answer he got was “pray you get assigned to the right.”
Mengele was known as the “angel of death.” On this day, the Nazi doctor was separating the weak from the strong. Those judged to be strong were sent off to work; the weak went to their deaths.
It was Felix Goldberg’s turn to be examined by Mengele. He was rightfully apprehensive as what to expect. He instructed Felix to pull up his shirt. He felt Felix’s arms and saw that he was strong and fit. “You, go to the right.” To the right meant you survived to live another day.
Could It Get Much Worse?
It appeared the Nazis were losing the war. As the Soviets closed in, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz with what has become known as the infamous “Death March.” Thousands had already died inside the camp and the forced evacuation meant many more would probably die. The weather was brutally cold. The Jewish prisoners had little if any clothes and many had no shoes—just one or two pairs of socks. SS guards would shoot anyone who appeared to tire, slow down or who got out of line.
The men marched arm-in-arm. One of Felix’s partners was a man named David Miller. The two would become life-long friends. When a partner did get tired, it was agreed that he would try to sleep with support from the others.
Felix recalled that if someone died, others would quickly try to take socks or other clothing for themselves. It was every man for himself.
Along the way, the marchers encountered a large potato farm. The Nazi’s agreed to let a local farmer cook the potatoes. They ordered the Jews to get in line but to only take one—if you got more than one, you would be executed “on the spot.”
Felix didn’t care. He was starving. He got in the line for his first potato and ate it. Then he got back in the line for another. He was not recognized. He figured if he was going to die, it would be on a full stomach.
The View From America
What did Americans know about the Nazi atrocities? As it happened: not much.
Radio was one of the primary ways Americans received their news during World War II. Thousands of American soldiers were scattered throughout Europe and their families were eager for news. They gathered around the radio, eager for nightly news reports.
The journalist Edward R Murrow, stationed in Europe, for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) regularly transmitted reports back to radio listeners. One night, he managed to get himself and his equipment atop a building in downtown London so we could describe what he saw for his audience- German planes bombarding the city:
“The lights are swinging over in this general direction now. You’ll hear two explosions. There they are. That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here. Coming in–moving a little closer all the while. The plane’s still very high…”
Reports about the killing of Jews appeared sporadically in newspapers. Many Jewish organizations, receiving first hand reports from Europe, were pressing American lawmakers to do something to help the Jews. Messages also reached the White House.
President Frankin Roosevelt, in particular, came under criticism:
“Authenticated information that the Nazis were systematically exterminating European Jewry was made public in the United States in November 1942. President Roosevelt did nothing about the mass murder for fourteen months, then moved only because he was confronted with political pressures he could not avoid and because his administration stood on the brink of a nasty scandal over its rescue policies. . . . Franklin Roosevelt’s indifference to so momentous a historical event as the systematic annihilation of European Jewry emerges as the worst failure of his presidency.”
Author David Wyman, “The Abandonment of The Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945”
Quoted here: http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/pdfs/holocaust.pdf
What happened to Felix Goldberg and Bluma Tishgarten? How did they survive the war? We invite readers to learn more about them at https://www.StoriesOfSurvival.org and in the new graphic novel
“We Survived The Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story” (Imagine and Wonder, September 2022)