Vera Greenwald of Teaneck, who died at 78 on February 2, knew all about making the most of almost anything. The little girl who hid in the woods with her parents while the Nazis rampaged became a teenager on a chicken farm in Vineland and then grew up to become a Jewishly observant young wife and mother in a part of Pennsylvania where there were almost no Jews.
It’s not surprising that when she began her career selling real estate, many years later, in Bergen County, her ability to read people and size up situations, learned over the course of her eventful life — combined with a kindness that may well have been inherent to her — helped her as she helped shape Jewish Teaneck.
Vera Goodman was born in 1937 into a large and flourishing Jewish family in Presov, Czechoslovakia — she was her parents’ first child, and until the war had ended and they’d found a new home in the United States, she was their only child. Her grandfather was a successful, charitable, and highly respected businessman who owned a lumber and coal business; her father worked for his father, eventually struck out on his own in the same business, and flourished.
When the war came, almost all of Vera’s parents’ siblings were murdered; one of her father’s sisters had gone to the United States before the war, a fact that was to prove vitally important later.
When the Nazis began to confiscate Jewish-owned businesses, the Goodmans decided that “they did not want the Nazis to benefit from theirs,” Vera’s son, Joel Greenwald of Englewood, said. Instead, they gave everything away; then they headed for the forest, which was wild and forbidding, but safer than home.
“My mother spent about 3 1/2 years of the war hiding in the woods with her parents,” Mr. Greenwald said. “Out of the 90,000 or so Jews in Slovakia, roughly 5,000 survived, and very few of them were children.
“My mother and her parents hid in a makeshift bunker with 26 other Jews, none of them children, but they soon had to leave. The Nazis were on their trail, and they burned down the bunker,” he continued. “They eventually came to another bunker, which housed 46 people, and they remained there for several months. My mother was the youngest. This all happened from 1942 to 1945, so my mother was about 4 1/2 to about 7 1/2. There also were many Russian partisans who roamed the woods. Once, they warned everybody to run away. My mother ran into the woods with her parents, and they escaped, but most of the other people in the bunkers were caught and sent to the camps.”
The family suffered many close calls and escapes. “With the help of the Russians, my mother and her parents climbed over the frozen snow-capped mountains. My grandmother was able to locate a couple in a village they came to who had no children, and they took them in.
“At one point, my grandfather was outside, helping his rescuer chop wood, and a group of Germans drove by with a hostage. The hostage recognized my grandfather from the forest.” They locked eyes, and Mr. Goodman knew he was in danger. “Later, the hostage denounced him, and the Germans announced that a German family was housing Jews and they would be shot if they were caught. The Germans surrounded the house, but my mother and her parents escaped through the back door into the woods. My mother remembered that.”
Mr. Greenwald thinks that the family who saved his mother survived, because there no longer were any Jews in the house. In fact he thinks that his mother stayed in touch with that family for years, but the nightmare collage of his mother’s Holocaust memories makes it impossible for him to be sure. “A lot of this stuff came to me piecemeal,” he said.
The Goodmans found the survivors of other bunkers in the woods, and joined forces, but there was no food, just scraps of garbage. “They started to starve,” Mr. Greenwald said. “For a few months, they lived off rose hips.”
There are more horror stories. Once, Mr. Greenwald said, his mother and her parents hid behind one tree. “A few feet away, a man and his grown daughter hid behind another tree, but they were captured. My mother remembered the sounds of screaming and of gunfire and explosions,” he said.
“Ninety-five percent of Slovakian Jewry died — but she and her parents survived.” Vera Goodman had not yet turned 8 years old.
Eventually, a Russian appeared and told them that the war was over, gave them bread, and told them where to meet the Russian army.
Mr. Greenwald doesn’t have a lot of details about his mother’s postwar time in Europe — he does know that for a year she went to school in Prague — but can pick up the story in 1947, when she and her parents, sponsored by her father’s sister, took a Swedish ship called the Gripsholm across the Atlantic. Once in the United States, the family settled in Vineland, where her parents, like many others in that largely Jewish town, owned a chicken farm. Vera’s sister, Eva — who is now Eva Nordhauser of Del Ray, Florida, and Suffern, N.Y. — was born in Vineland, and Vera went to high school there.
“After being in this country for four years, my mother won an American Legion statewide essay contest on what it means to be an American,” Mr. Greenwald said. She also learned English, which she spoke entirely colloquially, without even the hint of an accent, he added.
Ms. Goodman went to Douglass College, where she majored in political science. “She met my dad” — Martin Greenwald, who died in 2012 — “who was a pharmacist from Wortsboro, N.Y., at a Catskill resort called the Sha-wan-ga Lodge.
“She was a switchboard operator that summer, and he parked cars. Think ‘Dirty Dancing.’ They married on March 20, 1960, in Philadelphia.”
The couple soon moved to Milford, Penn., about 90 miles from New York City, and Mr. Greenwald bought a pharmacy. There were not many Jews there. “There were six Jewish families in our county,” Mr. Greenwald said. Unlike the rest of those families, the Greenwalds kept kosher, and they always wanted a more Jewish life. “There was a family there, a Jewish family, that had a Christmas tree, and eventually, through my mother’s influence, the family became kosher. They moved to Atlanta, and then to Israel, and now the family — we keep in close touch with them — numbers 50, and they are all black hat. They owe it all to my mother.”
The Greenwald family — which soon included Joel, his sister Shari (now Shari Mendes), and his brother Daniel — moved to Teaneck in 1973, “when I was 9 and my sister was 12,” Mr. Greenwald said. “My mother wanted us to get a Jewish education and a Jewish cultural life.
As soon as they got to Teaneck, the children were enrolled in the Moriah School in Englewood; Martin Greenwald commuted 75 miles each way every working day to his Pennsylvania pharmacy, and Vera became an integral part of local life. After her children were grown, Ms. Greenwald became an interior designer, but she craved working with people, so “25 years ago, she embarked on a real estate career,” her son said. She and her business partner, Nechama Polak, founded Vera & Nechama Realty. “They helped build and grow the Jewish community in Teaneck, New Milford, Bergenfield, and Englewood in a big way,” Mr. Greenwald said. “About 700 people came to her funeral, and so many came to pay shiva calls, and they all said that the first person they met in Teaneck was her, a wonderful, welcoming spirit — and that was whether or not they had bought through her.”
“She was a people person,” her son said. “She read people very well, very comfortably and very quickly. She knew how to interact with people because she was comfortable meeting them and understanding them. And she had a tremendous amount of warmth and confidence.”
Nechama Polak was struck by her partner’s compassion. “She listened when people spoke,” Ms. Polak said. “In our line of business, we sometimes encounter people who are in the depths of despair — they have just lost somebody, or have financial difficulties. This is not always a happy business, and she was always very compassionate.”
She was “very beautiful physically,” she added. “She had beautiful blue eyes, and carried herself regally.”
She also had fun. In later years, the Greenwalds owned a farm in Pennsylvania, and sometimes the owners of Vera & Nechama would retire there on Sundays. “We would each get into a tube and have an executive meeting in the middle of the lake,” Ms. Polak said. “She was larger than life.
“I am crying a lot,” she added. I am grieving a lot. But as devastating as this has been emotionally, it is the greatest tribute to her that everyone here” — at Vera and Nechama — “is carrying on as a group.”
Betty Kay lived down the street from Ms. Greenwald in Teaneck. “Since her husband passed away, she joined us frequently for Sabbath meals,” Ms. Kay said. “She would share her stories with us, and we would listen to them with great excitement and at times deep thought.”
Ms. Greenwald often would speak publicly about the Holocaust. She did not like that task, but she thought it was incumbent upon her to do it, Ms. Kay said. “She knew that this might be some of these children’s only chance to see a survivor,” and she felt the burden of keeping the Holocaust from happening again, a very real and very personal one.
“Vera was someone who enriched my life in every way,” Ms. Kay said. “She was bright, interesting, exciting, effervescent, intelligent, and experienced, and she had street smarts.
“She had so many connections to people in this community that since her husband passed on, I don’t think there was one time that she ate by herself on Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
“She was just one of those people…”
Ms. Greenwald’s survivors include her three children, her sister, her two daughters-in-law and her son-in-law, and nine grandchildren.