A PROMISE NOT FORGOTTEN
In her words, Nesse Godin a Holocaust survivor's promise kept to teach
the world what hatred and indifference can do to humanity.
Don’t Let Us Be Forgotten
A Story of Survival
By Nesse Godin
My name is Nesse Godin, and I am a survivor of the Holocaust.
I am not a speaker, professor, or politician. I am a survivor of the Holocaust. I am here for one reason only: to share memories. I do this so that you would know the truth but also, most of all, to never allow such atrocities to ever happen to humanity again.
I was born March 28, 1928, in Siauliai, Lithuania. Lithuania was a democracy where all the people, regardless of race or religion, lived freely together. I had a normal childhood with my parents, two brothers, and family.
Before the Nazis invaded, Jews lived there since the 8th century. There were no problems for Jews in Lithuania. Yes, here and there, you had some anti-Semitism like everywhere else – but not in my hometown. We had ten or twelve synagogues. The Jews lived around the synagogues so that they wouldn’t have to go a long way.
I went to the Kindergarten and, after that, joined my brothers at the Hebrew day school. When the Russians took over Siauliai in 1940, we were not allowed to study Hebrew anymore. Instead, we learned English and Russian in class.
One year later, the Nazis took over and everything changed. My mother remembered from World War I that we should go to the basement, because there might be shootings. So we sat in the basement all night and half a day. It was quiet. So we came out. It turned out that the German army just marched through Siauliai, because it was the main road from Germany to the Soviet Union. We went back to our houses and thought that, since the military seemed to have simply passed through, they were not interested in us. But we were wrong. Two days later, another group marched into Siauliai.
They were called Einsatzgruppen – mobile killing squads.
They brought with them the terror of the Holocaust to my hometown.
We were in our houses when, all of a sudden, this group of men arrived accompanied by all kinds of people that helped them. Perhaps they were Lithuanians just like us? I’m not entirely sure. They came and grabbed the rabbis, professors, and other very important people and took them away. We didn’t know exactly where they were taken to but we found out soon.
My mother had a little dairy store. The day after those disappearances took place, a few farmers came to the store. They saw that the store was closed, but they knew that we lived only two houses away. They came into our house and I remember seeing the farmers waving with their hands. Up and down they waved them. I was curious. I thought that they were going to fly. But then I came closer and I heard them saying, “They were taken to Kuziai Forest where they were made to dig their own graves and then shot. Some of them were not even dead. Buried alive.”
My parents had told me about persecution before but, until then, I truly didn’t understand it.
My parents soon talked to their Jewish neighbors as well as a cousin who came from a different town. Whenever they came to our home, my father used to say to me: “Go and bring me a glass of water.” In hindsight, it was to get me out of the room, away from the conversation. He didn’t want me to know what was going on.
From then on life changed. It already changed when the Soviets took over in 1940. But when the Germans took over in 1941 we couldn’t go to school anymore. My mother’s business was confiscated. My father was allowed to work because he was employed at a shoe factory and the Nazis wanted boots. He was not the only Jewish man working in that factory.
Meanwhile, we were moved into the ghetto in Siauliai. During the day my parents and brothers went to work and I stayed home. To protect me from selections, my father made me a hiding place behind a cabinet.
We still had Jewish police in Siauliai. When they saw that there was danger coming they used to run through the Ghetto and shout “Sechs.” Children and elderly people knew that they had to hide. I used to stand behind the cabinet. Even with the advance warning, the police still found many people and grabbed plenty of them to kill. But they never found me. After the raids we got out and looked at who was still there and who was not.
The raids continued and my parents thought it would be safer for me to have a job. So they paid somebody to get me work. They paid so that I could be a slave laborer. That sounds absurd in retrospect. I got a job at the hospital. I had to go from room to room and lay wood into the oven. We did not have a central heating system at that time. Life continued like that for a couple of months, until one day when we went to the gate of the hospital to go to work, just the same as every day. My father stayed at home; it happened to be his free day.
During the day there was a rumor that something was happening in the ghetto. What it was, we did not know yet. As we were coming back from work, we heard cries coming from the ghetto. Such cries that you cannot even imagine. When we walked in there were Jewish women who were crying, and they told us what happened that day.
SS and Gestapo, along with Ukrainians, ran through the ghetto, found everyone, and ordered them to the gate. At the gate, there was one Nazi. With the move of his thumb, he decided who shall live and who shall die.
Is it up to a human to decide that? A thousand children through the age of fourteen died in that way (it missed me by a year and a half). Five hundred elderly died that way as well. So many healthy and strong people, too, lost their lives in this brutal fashion. The Nazis figured they may fight back so they removed them before they could rise up. We did not know then where they were taken to; after the war we found out that they were taken to Auschwitz where they were taken into the gas chambers, murdered, and cremated.
On that selection, I lost my father, all because it was his day off of work. This selection is called the Kinderaction, the children selection. The life in the Ghetto after the children selection was terrible: no children, no future.
After a while, we were told that the ghetto was being closed and that we should take our valuables with us as we were to leave for good. Some people took their diamonds or fur coats while some took pictures. At that point, my family consisted of one brother, my mother and me.
In 1944 we were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp. There I was separated from my family, my name Nesa Galperin became number 54015.
We were brought to the KZ Stutthof. There was a selection right after our arrival. During that, my mother was sent one way, my brother another way. I stood there and I didn’t know what was happening.
I then encountered a woman who asked me, “Little girl, who are you?”
My parents always taught me that if you have to say something say the word, “Amcha,” which meant “a few people.”
The woman then pulled me over and said, “Little girl, stay here with us – this is the good line.”
They were already sending kids away, but at that point, I was already a little bit older and I survived the selection.
So here I was in Stutthof. Every day, the same routine. I woke up by the sound of the whistle. The guards lined us up for roll call. After that they gave us a tiny bit of bread and some hot water – they called it coffee. Then we were sent to labor camps doing different tasks around the area. Time went on and I lived together with the women, separated from my family.
One day a woman said to me, “Little girl, they are going to kill you.”
I was shocked and responded, “Why are you scaring me?”
“I’m not scaring you. I’m going to give you advice,” she said. “If you could get out to the regular labor camp, maybe you will survive. The only thing you have to do is to watch out at the little hill there – women are lined up. That line is for work. But the way you look now they are going to send you away. Wrap yourself in straw, so you look stronger, pinch your cheeks to look healthier and maybe you will succeed.”
I listened to this woman. The next day there was a selection and I stood on my tiptoes to look taller and wrapped myself in the straw so that I looked stronger. I succeeded. That’s how I was rounded up with 5,000 women who were sent away from the KZ Stutthof for labor.
I left Stutthof alive without my family.
After a march, we arrived at our destination, where we had to dig ditches called Panzergraben. Every day we dug these ditches. When we finished one area, we were sent to another. At that time we were not sleeping in camps anymore, but in tents. I was in four labor camps. It was terrible in the cold of winter. Women died of hunger and disease.
In January of 1945, we left the last labor camp and started what is called now the Death March. We marched through the roads and towns of Poland and Germany, leaving many women dead on the road. Some were shot and others were just left to die in the bitter cold. We marched day after day after day. Some nights we stayed outside, some nights we slept in a barn.
It was horrible. One night we stopped at a barn. We slept on the straw. I didn’t know what was going on, but all of a sudden we heard someone yelling, “I let in these dirty women and now they all drink my milk. I won’t have milk to bring to the market tomorrow!”
It was the owner of the barn, screaming. The guards stood up in the middle of the night and they started to hit us with their rifles.
The women were running. I got hit and I fell on the ground. The women said, “Get up. Why do you lie down? They’ll shoot you!”
“I don’t want to live anymore,” I cried out.
I wanted to give up. But they responded, “You don’t have to die. You have to live. Remember what you’ve promised us: Don’t let us be forgotten. You have to teach the world what happened and what hatred, indifference, and prejudice can do.”
The women lifted me up and I survived the night.
I really have to give credit for my survival to the women around me. When I cried of hunger, they gave me bread. When I shivered of cold, they told me to wrap my body in straw. From that night on all of us realized that we could be killed at any time. We continued to march. Day after day after day.
At the very end we were rounded up in a barn. We didn’t know why. We thought that maybe we had to work. I don’t really know exactly how many of us were in that barn. When we started out there were about 800 of us. They picked some women to dig two big holes outside. But we found out that the guards knew that we were going to die there from hunger and disease.
It was a terrible time. Every morning the women took out the dead bodies. They had to undress them because the Germans wanted the clothing. The clothing had use; who cared about the bodies? People are always asking, Why were they naked? Now you know. They did value the clothing, but not the people.
One day some women went out to take out the dead bodies – like every day. They returned into the barn and said that the guards were gone. Somebody else suggested that they were maybe hiding behind a curtain. We didn’t know, so we sat all day long not knowing that the guards ran away. They already knew that the Russians were coming. But we did not.
At night all of a sudden we heard people speaking Russian. I knew a little bit of Russian because I had learned it in school when the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940. The soldiers came to us and said: “You are free.”
The women were happy and kissing each other, but I started to cry. I was still young – only 17 years old. I did not know where my mother was.
The women asked, “Little girl, why are you crying?”
“What is going to happen to me now?” I cried.
They responded, “Don’t worry. We will take care of you. Everything will be good.”
We all were registered by the Russian authorities. They said to me that I was still a minor and would need a mother. They asked me where my mother was. I had no idea. So they assigned me a foster mother – a woman that left a child in Lodz, Poland for safe keeping.
She said to me, “You have to go with me. We have to go to Lodz, Poland.”
I asked her why I should go to Poland – I was from Lithuania. But then another woman said, “Lithuania? It’s part of the Soviet Union again. You don’t have anybody there. They killed the Jews!”
So I went with this woman to Lodz. There, they had already set up a wall to put posters on – for the major cities in each country. There was Kaunas, Klaipeda, and also Siauliai. So I signed my name on the list.
A woman standing next to me asked, “Why are you signing there? I don't remember anybody looking like you.”
I looked her in the eyes and said, “But I remember you. You were my mother’s friend. You used to buy milk and butter in my mother’s store – Sara Galperin.”
The woman was shocked. “Nesse, it’s you!” she cried. “Your mother is alive! Go near the German border. You will find her.”
I was beyond relieved. That feeling of knowing my mother was alive is indescribable. I went to my foster mother and asked her to come with me to the German border.
“No,” she said. “I’m not going back. I’m going to search for my child. Go, but remember, you have to say that you are 18!”
I left Lodz, went to the German border, and linked up with people that knew my mother. They told me that my mother went to Lodz. So I went back the whole way again. We were reunited!
After the war my mother and I found out that my father was taken to Auschwitz. In 1990 I went to visit Europe. I visited Auschwitz and found out what happened to my father there. The SS didn’t even hear people’s names when they came. They were sent straight into the gas chambers and their bodies burned in crematories, among them my father.
As I close, I want to finish with a little story about my neighbors. I was the only blonde from my family. I was a tiny little girl and one of my neighbors used to tell to my mother, “Nesse belongs to us. She is a blonde. She looks like all the Lithuanian girls.”
When the Nazis took over, at which point I was 13, my mother went to that neighbor and said, “You always said she is yours. Take her.”
She answered, “What do you think? That I will put my whole family in danger?”
She didn’t take me. She could have taken me, sent me to her brother or cousins somewhere in the countryside. They wouldn’t have even known whether I was a Lithuanian or not. But they did not. Not many Lithuanians helped the Jews.
But why should I act like them? Elie Wiesel and I held a rally for Darfur and I volunteered to talk, to try to help put an end to it. My own survivor colleagues wondered why I was getting mixed up in that matter. After all, they argue that nobody spoke out for us.
I said, “Because they didn’t speak up for us, we have to speak up now for every human being.”
And that’s what I am doing. What was we cannot change, but what is, and what will be, we can make a difference.
All throughout the Holocaust, I prayed to G-D to save my life. But there came a time when I saw a mountain of naked skeletons and, right there, I did not want to live any more .I went into the barn, sat in the straw, and prayed to G-D to die.
But the women around me said, “Stupid girl, Hitler wants you dead, you have to live. In spite of the Nazis you must survive. And if you survive,” they said, “remember us. Light a candle for our souls. But most of all teach the world what happened during these dark days. What hatred and indifference can do to humanity.”
On March 10, 1945, we were liberated by the Soviets. We the Survivors are fulfilling the promise that we made to our people that were so brutally killed. I personally volunteer for the United States Holocaust memorial museum in Washington, D.C. I call the museum the most wonderful institution of education. It teaches how to respect every human being that the lord created and not to allow genocide in the world again.
We the Survivors of the Holocaust are getting old. Many are not alive anymore. The youth must take hold of our promise and continue to stop hatred in the world. They must continue to fight against hatred so that no one has to suffer like we did.
Whenever I finish a talk at the museum my last words are this: “When you walk out, don’t see a race or religion. See a human being that G-D, or whatever name you call him, created. Treat him the way you want to be treated.”