Friday, June 10, 2005
Nesse Godin grew up in Siauliai, Lithuania and lived a normal, happy life until June of 1941 when the Germans invaded her country. She survived several concentration camps and a death march. As someone that lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, and as a human being who believes we must never forget, she cannot remain silent while people suffer in Darfur, Sudan. Every time she speaks about her experiences during the Holocaust, she also speaks about Darfur. She addressed a group in front of the Sudanese embassy rallying to end the genocide, told the assembled diplomats at the United Nations why we must do something for the innocent people of Darfur, and spoke to a group of 400 students from 90 universities across America that traveled to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, to learn how they can help stop the genocide.
LISA ROGOFF: Good afternoon, and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I am Lisa Rogoff, the University Outreach Coordinator for the Committee on Conscience at the Museum. Thank you for joining us today for the second program in our summer conscience series. The Committee on Conscience is holding weekly programs focusing on the ongoing genocide in Darfur and other crimes against humanity. Please check out our website -- www.committeeonconscience.org -- for a full listing of the programs.
If you have passes to the Permanent Exhibition with a specific time, you can use them any time after that time, so please don’t rush out of the program, or leave in the middle. We handed out evaluations, so please take the time to fill them out, and give them to us on your way out.
The Committee on Conscience guides the Museum’s genocide prevention efforts. In his report to President Carter, Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.” It is in that spirit today that Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin speaks out for Darfur. Nesse lived through a concentration camp, four labor camps, and a death march during the Holocaust. Today, Nesse is one of more than 75 survivors who volunteer their time at the Museum. Nesse believes that as a Survivor of the Holocaust she cannot remain silent while innocent people suffer in Darfur. Last year Nesse stood shoulder to shoulder with Amal Allagabo of the Darfur community in exile as the Holocaust Museum brought all museum activities to a halt to bear witness for the people of Darfur.
Last summer, Nesse spoke in front of the Sudanese Embassy. In January, she told the assembled diplomats at the United Nations why we must do something for the innocent people of Darfur. Today Nesse shares with you her experiences during the Holocaust and how they compelled her to action for Darfur. After, there will be time for questions and answers. In a recent op-ed about Darfur, Nesse wrote, “When will we stop merely saying ‘never again,’ and start acting on ‘not this time.’” Please join me in welcoming my friend, Nesse Godin.
NESSE GODIN: Good afternoon. You heard my name is Nesse Godin, and maybe somebody told you that you have a speaker today. I am not a speaker, I am not a teacher, and I am not a lecturer. What I am is a Survivor of the Holocaust. And I am here with you wonderful people, wonderful young people, for one reason only, to share memories. I do so, so you will know the truth, understand what happened during the days of the Holocaust, but most of all, not allow atrocities like the Holocaust in humanity ever again.
Many times people look at me, and I hear them whisper, “No wonder she survived the Holocaust. She looks like a very strong lady.” Sometimes people even say to me, “You must have been very wise to survive the Holocaust.” Let me tell you, I was not too wise, and I was not too strong. I am very fortunate to have a picture of myself. As you can see, I was not too strong and not too wise. This picture was sent to the United States just before the Second World War where my mom’s sister lived. My family, just like any of your families, was a wonderful family: two brothers, my parents, and here I am at the very end. I grew up in Siauliai, Lithuania where all the people lived nicely together, people of every race, of every religion. Lithuania was a democracy between the First and Second World Wars.
As a child in Lithuania, I did not experience any prejudice. But I would be lying to you if I said there was no prejudice at all. Here and there we used to see signs of hatred on homes, places of worship, and gravestones in the cemetery. I remember in those days our parents taking a bucket of water and soap at night, when nobody could see, and washing it away. Those things do not get washed away.
You know Lisa, who is my boss, always says to me, “Don’t forget to bring your visuals.” So quickly I pulled out my bag of visuals, and I pulled out a picture. As I looked carefully it didn’t say Lithuania. It said the Post, where in my own area where I live in Silver Spring, a synagogue was defaced with swastikas. But we did not go at night to wash it away. All of us, people of every color, of every religion were standing there and saying, “Never again.” As you come up to the permanent exhibition you can see that the Holocaust started with the making of signs of hatred, and ended in killing millions of millions of people. To the young people, please never make any signs of hatred to any human beings.
I grew up in Lithuania like any child with all kinds of privileges. I went to school. I had grandparents, I had uncles, I had aunts, and I had many dreams, but my dreams did not come true. In June of 1941 the German armies marched through Lithuania. They marched through my country in three days; my city of Siauliai, through the night.
I remember we were hiding in a basement, and did not understand why. When I talked a few years ago about hiding in a basement, people did not understand what I was talking about. But not so long ago, after September 11th, we all understood, because our own government told us, “Get a safe place, get some duct tape, some plastic.” We were afraid of terrorist bombings. Thank God nothing happened here again. In those first days in my town in 1941, no bombs fell and no people were killed in the process of occupation, but the troubles of the Jewish people began immediately. Why am I taking about Jewish people? Because I am Jewish and I promised that I would share with you my memories.
In the first few days of occupation certain units called Einsatzgruppen came to town. They were mobile killing units. I want you to know, those were volunteers that volunteered to go and kill other human beings. They were so very different from the people I speak to when I go to the military. Here in the United States, our own beautiful young men and women that join the Navy, the Marines, and the Army, volunteer to protect us. But in those days the Einsatzgruppen, together with Lithuanians that joined that evil cause -- why do people join those evil causes? –- came running through the city, grabbing Jewish men and boys, allegedly to clean the city of war damage. There was no war damage. They gathered a thousand men and they put them into the city jail with promises of relocation, a better place, a better camp. In one night, a thousand men were taken to a forest near our city where they were forced to get undressed, dig giant holes, and then they were lined up and shot. They fell into the pit and were covered with earth. I did not say these people were buried; we bury the dead.
I remember at the age of 13, the farmers that lived around that forest that witnessed those killings coming to us in the city and telling us what was happening. I saw the farmers talking to my parents. I was 13 years old and I was curious, so I came closer to hear what the farmers had to say. I heard them say that the earth above the so-called graves moved for many days. Why did it move? Many of these human beings were just injured. The Nazis did not bother to check if whoever they “buried” was dead or alive.
Let me tell you from my heart and my soul that this is when I, at the age of 13, knew that the Holocaust was happening to me, in Siauliai, Lithuania, where I lived so nicely with my neighbors and my friends. In the next few days, all kinds of new laws came for us. Our parents were not allowed to have businesses, and we the children were forbidden to go to school. You young people, do you know how lucky you are? You live in the best country in the world, the United States of America, where you have an opportunity to go to school. Many children, even in our times, don’t have that privilege. Count your blessings. We were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk; we had to walk in the middle of the street.
There is a document that you will see as you go up to the permanent exhibition. You will see that there were many victims and all of those victims had to wear different IDs, markers. When I ask professors, “Why do you think they made us wear those markers?” they always say the Nazis thought of you as “second-class” citizens. But for Jewish people, there was a different reason.
What is a Jew? We are white, and we are black, and we look oriental; some of us are blonds, some red haired, some brunettes. How would the Germans know who is a Jew? They made us wear those yellow markers. Now, many of you may say, couldn’t you pretend not to be Jewish? Yes, I could have pretended very easily. I looked like the neighbor next door, a blond little girl with blue eyes. But you know what the problem was? The neighbor next door. You see, you wonderful people, the Holocaust was allowed to happen not just because of the killers, it was the bystanders and informers. Do we by-stand a crime? Even right now, with what is happening in the Darfur region of Sudan, do we by-stand and just say somebody else will take care of it, or do we speak up?
In those days, there were too many bystanders. The penalty of not wearing the star was death. They would have killed me. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to live. So I wore the star with the hope that I would be free. In my town in Siauliai, Lithuania -- I’m saying it carefully, because sometime even if you go through a wonderful exhibition and you see certain things, you think it was the same everywhere. Sometimes it was a little bit different. In my town, our own Jewish council was allowed to stay on and represent our Jewish community of ten thousand. This council had a meeting and they wondered if there was a way that they could save us? They had a wonderful idea. We lived very nicely with the Christian community before the war. The priests were marvelous people. They decided to go to the priests, and beg them to save our lives. They could not take in 10,000 Jews to their homes, but they could let us stay in the churches and say, “Thou shall not kill.”
But when our council came to the priests, they said, “We will help you, we will give you some bread, we will tell you what is happening, but we cannot get involved.” As you go through our permanent exhibition, you will see a statement of Pastor Niemoller that he made after the war: “When they came for the Jews, I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew,” and he goes on to say how he didn’t get involved because he was not one of those people. But then they came for him, and there was no one left to get involved or speak up. This is another lesson for us to learn; we have to speak up right now for people that are in need and in danger.
What did our council do when they could not get help from the priests? They approached the Germans in charge and they paid them off, bribed them, and convinced them that the Jews of my town would be useful for slave labor. “We will make boots for the army. We have many shoe and leather factories,” they said, and they agreed. We were not allowed to stay in our homes anymore. A ghetto was formed. Today, when you think of a ghetto you think of an inner-city neighborhood. In those days, a ghetto was a jail.
In my town there were two sections, four square blocks each, surrounded with barbed wires, a gate to go in and go out. You were not allowed to just take your belongings and move into the ghetto; you needed a certificate. How do you get the certificate? It was given by a special committee, SS, Gestapo and Lithuanians.
The Nazis did not know were we lived, but our neighbors did. They told them who went to synagogue on the Sabbath. Why did they do that? Maybe if they would not have done that, the Nazis would have skipped a house or two. They came to my home, my parents, my two brothers, one was 18, one was 20, I was 13, a little girl, skinny little girl. They looked around the house. They told my parents how many beds, how many pillows, how many dishes, and how many members of the family were allowed to go into the ghetto. They did not issue a certificate for me. I was not fit for slave labor. I remember the fear that I had when I thought I would be separated from my family. By miracles of miracles my mom succeeded to give some money to a young Lithuanian secretary. She was your age, about 17 years old. When the committee left the house, my parents were counting those papers, and there were five. Let’s talk about this young Lithuanian secretary. She could have taken the money from my mom, put it in her pocket and walked out, but she made a difference. She made her own decision. Do we all make our own decisions and make differences?
Every one of us, every single day, can make a difference to help another human being, whether it is in our own country or far away where they need help right now. This is how I, at the age of 13, was smuggled into the ghetto. The same way as my parents succeeded to bring me in, some family succeeded to bring children, elderly, and sick into the ghetto. Now, you may wonder, I described a ghetto like a jail, why would anybody want to bring children, elderly and sick into a jail? Let me tell you what happened to the people that did not get that certificate. 3,500 of them -- men, women, and children -- were taken to the city synagogues with promises of relocation, a better place, a better camp. In one night, those 3,500 human beings were brutally killed in another forest near our city called Zagare.
By the time the ghetto was closed, half of our Jewish population of 10,000 was already killed. Life in the ghetto; what do I remember? I could read you all kinds of documents. We have it in our research institute, upstairs on the fifth floor. But I promised you that I would share my memories.
I remember two things as a child in the ghetto: hunger and fear. Fear for my life. We the children, hiding in places that you cannot even imagine. Sometimes they found us, sometimes they did not. And hunger. If anybody would have given me one extra bite of bread, how grateful I would have been.
We cannot change that that was, but every time I open a newspaper or a magazine, I see hungry faces of children from all over the world. Let’s make sure that no child in this world begs for a bite of bread with no answer like we the children of the Holocaust. Please, even in our own country there are so many children that come to school, and they do not even have a lunch to bring. I could stand here and talk to you for hours and hours, but I will just share with you one single day in the ghetto of Siauliai, Lithuania.
On November 5, 1943, I was already fifteen and a half years old. I already had a job. My parents paid somebody off so I could leave the ghetto in the morning, work outside, and then come back at night. Why was it so good to have a job where I got to go out of the ghetto to work? If you were a kid, it was not very good to be in the ghetto, because there were selections all of the time. Like this, you went out to work and then you were not there for the selections. On this one particular day, when I came to the gate to go out to work, I saw trucks near the ghetto. We were told we could not go to work that day. I remember running right back to the little room that I shared with nine people: two uncles, two aunts, my parents, my two brothers, myself. I remember my mom putting layers of clothing on me. She put bread in my pocket. The words that she said, I will never forget. She said, “My child, the trucks are here. Trucks mean deportation; deportation means separation of families.” There was such chaos in the ghetto; people did not know what to do. Should they hide in the little hiding places in the ghetto? Some people said that there was no use in hiding; the Nazis would dynamite the area to wipe away the evidence. A little bit later, however, orders changed. We were told a mistake was made; we should go to work. So I left the ghetto that morning, but all day long we wondered what the trucks were doing there. Delivering food? Taking someone out?
That evening as we were coming back from work, we heard cries coming from the ghetto. As we came in, the people that were crying so bitterly told us exactly what happened that day. SS, Gestapo and Ukrainians had joined the evil cause. Now, I see them on The History Channel saying they didn’t understand, they didn’t know.
I hope that you young people, if somebody comes and asks you to join organization or, God forbid, a gang, you ask questions so you will not be sorry later. In those days, people didn’t ask questions, they just joined the wrong crowd, the Nazis. They ran through the ghetto and they found every single person there. Jewish women were not allowed to have babies during that time, but babies were born in the ghetto, and on that day every one was found and had to gather at the gate. There, one soldier with a point of the thumb -- to the right and to the left -- decided who shall live and who shall die. Is it up one human being to decide who shall live and who shall die? A thousand innocent children, through the age of 14 -- it missed me by year and a half -- 500 elderly and sick, and a few hundred healthy and strong men and women that had the day off from work. You see the Nazis always took the healthy and the strong before they even had “selections,” because they were afraid they would fight back, that they would cause an uprising. They took all those people away. We knew they took them to the railroad station, but we did not know where they were taken to then. After the war we found out that they were taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where they were brutally killed. Life in the ghetto, after the first selection, was terrible. No laughter, no children, no future.
In 1944, the German armies were retreating, but they did not leave us behind. They packed us in into the famous cattle cars, 75 to 100 people, destination unknown. This is a map that was a document; nothing but dots on it. This was compiled by the liberating forces, the Allied forces, the American, the English, the French, and the Russians. Every dot on this piece of paper represents a place where human beings were tortured, abused, and killed. Large dots mean that there were gas chambers and crematories. Stutthof was where all the people from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and overflow of Auschwitz were brought. As soon as we arrived there we were ordered to put away our belongings. “We will come back for it,” they said. We never saw it again. Next, one soldier with a point of the thumb -- my mom was sent one way, my brother another way, there I was, 16 years old, all alone standing there not knowing to cry, where do I go, what do I do. Some Jewish women said to me, “Little girl, come with us.” They held my hand, and right away I knew somebody was taking care of me.
My group was taken to a very large room where we were ordered to strip naked. Once we were naked the guards started yelling, screaming, and beating us. It was traumatic. I was 16 years old, naked in front of all those Nazis. Then two doors opened up and we walked in. Over the doors it said, “Shower Room.” We bathed; we walked out, not even realizing how lucky we were. In 1998 I went back to those places, and what I saw that over every gas chamber it said, “Shower Room.” The ones that were taken in to be killed thought they were going for a shower. They must have needed people for slave labor so they took us in the real shower. Outside we stood naked for hours and hours. Then we were given one dress, one pair of underpants and one pair of shoes. Everything was taken from me: my family and my belongings. I had one more precious thing left. You all have it. You take it for granted: a name.
I had a beautiful name, Nesse Galperin. I became prisoner 54,015 in the concentration camp of Stutthof. Why was I a prisoner? I was a good little girl. Because of that evil that was allowed in humanity. It didn’t make any difference where you were. In those camps you were tortured, abused and killed. Every morning they lined you up; you stood there with your face down, you were not allowed to look at the Nazis. They looked you over. If you were too young, too old or too sick, they took you away to be killed.
One day as I stood in this roll call, a Jewish woman said to me, “Little girl, they are going to kill you here.” And I looked so scared, and I asked her why she was saying that? She explained to me that she was trying to help me. She said if I could get out to a slave labor camp, maybe I would survive. She told me where to go, what to do and how to act.
I saw that women were being lined up. They were given a blanket and a dish for food. I snuck in the middle of the row like she told me to do. I pinched my cheeks to look healthy, I stood on the tiptoes to look taller and I succeeded to leave the concentration camp with 5,000 women.
We were divided, a thousand in a slave labor camp. I was in four of those, but due to time, I will just tell you a little bit about that one slave labor camp. The house, a canvas tent; the bath, a bundle of straw; one dress; one pair of underpants; one pair of shoes; a blanket; and a dish for food. The food, a tiny little piece of bread in the morning, with brown water they called coffee. At night some watery soup in which you could not even find the potato peel. The labor was so hard. We had to dig giant trenches for enemy tanks to fall in. They did not have to kill us there. We started to die of starvation and disease. It was the most horrible year of my life.
In January of 1945, the Germans were retreating again but they did not leave us behind. We were the evidence of their crimes. That is when we started the death marches. Why is it called the death marches? We gave it that name.
As we were walking through the towns and villages of Poland and Germany, we saw many, many human beings with a bullet in their back or just left to die on the road. We walked that way until the middle of February 1945, where we set up camp outside of a small little town. They pushed us into a barn. I don’t know how many of us were left dead on the road. Maybe we were still 800 there. Nothing but straw on the ground and it was still crowded. The guards ordered fifty women outside. They ordered them to dig two long holes. We thought they were going to kill us, but the Nazis had different plans for us. On one hole they put some sticks and it served as a bathroom. They called it the latrine; human beings need a bathroom. The other hole was to be a grave. The guards knew that we would die in that barn of Typhoid, Dysentery and hunger. Every morning the healthier women had to drag out the dead, undress them naked -- the clothing you can recycle -- and dump the bodies into the hole. My dear friends, what my eyes saw when I was not quite 17, I have a hard time to share, but I know I must tell you the truth. As I was going to the so-called bathroom, I saw a mountain of skeletons covered with skin, all my friends, all my relatives dead on this mountain.
All through the Holocaust, I was a little girl that prayed to the almighty. I used to say, “God, please let me live through the day. I would love to be free.” At night I said, “Let me sleep through the night. I want to be free.” But there came a time when I prayed to die. I just sat there and said, “God let me die. I want my body and my bones to be on top of this mountain with my friends and my relatives.” And the wonderful Jewish women around me, all through those terrible days, shared a bite of bread with me, wrapped up my body in straw to keep me warm, and picked me up from the ground when I was beaten up. They said to me, “Little girl, who wants you dead? The Nazis want you dead. You have to live, you have to have hope. If you survive, promise us that you will not let us be forgotten, that you will tell the world what hatred, indifference and prejudice can do.”
On March 10, 1945 my camp was found by the Russian Army. Out of the one thousand original women there were not quite 200 of us. Two hundred with physical wounds and mental wounds. I have a scar on my face and a few more scars on my back. Those were wounds inflicted upon me by the Nazis; they healed a long time ago. But our mental wounds, our memories, we the survivors will carry to our graves.
Six million Jewish people and millions of others were brutally killed in the Holocaust. Here I am with you, so grateful to you, you wonderful people, that you came to our most wonderful institution of education. What can happen if we allow hatred, if we allow prejudice? I know today that you are going to be different people once you go through our permanent exhibition. We the survivors are really thankful to the United States Government for having this institution of education, an institution that fulfills our promise to teach the world what hatred can do. We the survivors are the first ones to stand, like I said months ago, shoulder to shoulder to those that suffer right now, especially right now in the Darfur region of Sudan. I beg you, join us, hold our hands, speak up, and not allow humanity to go backwards and allow those things again. I beg you to write to your senators and to the President. Everything that you say counts. We the survivors are doing so with the help of our wonderful Committee of Conscience and Mr. Fowler. Please, I beg you, help me fulfill the promise I made to those that helped me survive. Thank you very much. May God bless you, may God bless America.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
LISA ROGOFF: Thank you, Nesse. We are going to have some time for questions and answers. We have two microphones so please just come up. While we are waiting for some people to ask questions, I also wanted to tell you know that there is an exhibit on the second floor, right after you come out of the permanent exhibition in the Wexner Learning Center dedicated to Darfur so you can learn more about the situation and what you can do.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. When I hear what you have shared with us, and I think about what is happening in Darfur right now, it seems to me that it is only when the rest of the world can oppose perpetrators of genocide with the same commitment that those people are committing their crimes will it end. When we can give as much of ourselves to stopping the crime as they are to keeping the crime going, that is when it will finally end. I’d like to know more about what we can do.
NESSE GODIN: One person can do everything that they can, but together, if we all speak in one voice, and go like we went, a whole crowd of us in front of the Sudanese Embassy, a bunch of survivors, we will make a difference.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Let’s go.
NESSE GODIN: Let’s go. That’s it, that’s what we all need to do. We need to encourage our own government to help those people. When I survived, I thought never again would I see children orphaned. I thought I would never again see houses being burned. I thought, never again would I see innocent citizens being killed, but it is happening all over. First Rwanda, now we have Darfur.
LISA ROGOFF: If there are no more questions, please join me in thanking Nesse.