Imagine, if you can, being a hidden child, surviving the Holocaust.
You probably can’t imagine it, and don’t even want to try. How could you? The lucky ones were taken away from their parents, possibly when they were too young to know what was going on, or to remember them, and brought up in Christian families. The luckier ones were treated with love. Their parents survived and came back to reclaim the luckiest ones.
And then there are the children who hid with their parents. Children like Susan Geller, who spent almost two years of her childhood in a dark bunker underneath a barn floor with her parents and two other adults, in a space too small for them all to lie down in at once, had they ever wanted to sleep.
Children like Susan were infinitely better off than her little brother, Janek. Their mother was afraid to bring the 2-year-old to the bunker — he might have cried, and imperiled all of them. Her grandmother took the toddler. Both soon were murdered.
Susan Geller, now Susan Gold of Englewood, edited “The Hidden Child Book Club Remembers: An Anthology of Holocaust Stories,” and her story is included in the book. Three of the other 13 storytellers also are from Bergen County. The book was launched officially at the Skirball Center at Congregation Emanu-El of New York on Wednesday. (Ms. Gold also has written a full-length memoir, “The Eyes Are The Same,” published in 2007.
Ms. Gold was born in Zloczow, a city in a region of Poland that is now Ukraine, in 1934. “My father, Gerson Geller, was an engineer, and we had a regular central European upper-middle-class life,” she said. “My mother, Yetta, was a law student when my parents married. One of my grandmothers was the daughter of a rabbi, and of course we observed the Jewish holidays, but my family was very assimilated. We spoke Polish at home, not Yiddish.” In fact, she added, she did learn Yiddish — but not until she got to the United States.
Ms. Gold does not remember much about her childhood, just little flashes, although, she said, more memories came back when she wrote her memoir. She was 9 when she went into the bunker, in a town called Podhirce, “and all I knew was that I had to keep quiet,” she said. “I lived in a world of my own. I slept a lot. I had a vivid imagination, and I dreamed a lot, about all sorts of things, about unreal things, having to do with what life was like before.”
It was a grim and out-of-time experience, marked with bursts of kindness. “There was very little light,” she said, and very little contact with the outside world. “There was one bucket of food a day that came down, and one bucket of waste that went back up. But occasionally the farmer’s wife would take me up to the barn, and I would be able to see daylight through the cracks in the wall.” She also remembers the Nazis once coming to the barn but missing the door to the bunker, and she remembers the time a cow fell through it.
“They put a pillow over my head, so I shouldn’t scream,” she said. They were almost done in “not by a Nazi, not by an informer, but by a calf.”
“The farmer’s family saved us, and they were ‘righteous Christians,’ in quotes,” she said. Her grandfather had made a deal with them — “that they would hide us for five gold pieces” — and they did. At first, there was a problem. They lived in a small town, where everyone knew everyone, and they couldn’t spend the gold, whose provenance no doubt would be traced back to Jews they were hiding.
Soon, when the war dragged on past the few months they thought it would last, the farmer’s family’s found itself increasingly in danger. The penalty for harboring Jews was death. “It was super dangerous for them,” Ms. Gold said. “After the war, when we were out of the bunker, they had a party for us in their house, with vodka, and he got very drunk and told us, ‘You know we were going to kill you. This was going on for too long.’” The farmer told Ms. Gold’s mother and father the plan he’d devised to dispose of each of them, but he told them no such plan for her. “Maybe I was going to be saved,” she said.
The Gellers were liberated by the Russians as they marched through the Ukraine and Poland on their way to Berlin in 1944. “They were very kind,” Ms. Gold said. Those soldiers piqued her interest in Russia, which led to a long career many years later. But still the family was in danger. “We still had all these anti-Semites around us. We had to leave at night. We went back to Zloczow, to see who was around, if there was anybody left. Some people recognized my mother, and said, ‘Oh! You’re still alive!’” Almost no one else was, and the statement was made not with admiration but as a warning. It also was during that time that the Gellers learned that Janek and his grandmother had been slaughtered.
“We knew we had to go west,” Ms. Gold said. “Something was arranged, and someone led us to the border of Czechoslovakia.” By then, in was 1945. The war had ended.
From there, the family went to a displaced persons camp in Germany, and stayed there for two years. That was the first time in a long time that Ms. Gold had gone to school. “My father had taught me a little, and I was sort of literate,” she said. “He taught me the alphabet and some arithmetic. And I did have piano lessons in the camp — my parents still wanted to be the people they had been.” She also remembers learning Israeli songs and folk dances. The family had no idea where they’d go next, but knew that it might well be Israel.
“It was happenstance that we came here,” Ms. Gold said. Her mother had a much older brother who had gone to New York decades earlier. He had searched for them. “He contacted us through HIAS because he found our name on a list,” she said. So Susan, Yetta, and Gerson Geller got on a ship and sailed across the Atlantic. “All I remember was being seasick all the time,” Ms. Gold said. “I was really so out of it. So many things had happened in those few years.” Chief among them was the death of her brother. “We never talked about it,” she said. “Central Europeans believed strongly in denial as being not only a river in Egypt. It was all a matter not necessarily of lies, but of evasions. So I had no idea what to believe.
Yetta Geller’s brother, Isaac Imber, lived in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, with his wife and children; for a while, the Gellers slept in his living room. Mr. Imber made his money in real estate, his niece said, but he was also a well-known Yiddish poet, and “a big Zionist.”
When the Gellers got to the United States, Ms. Geller, the one with business acumen, somehow had $500. “My father was the intellect,” Ms. Gold said. “Somehow or other, we got a loan from HIAS, and from a relative here, and we bought a grocery store in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. My mother worked like a horse, lugging cartons, six and a half days a week. We lived right next to the store. My father was depressed. He would just sit at the cash register, reading a dictionary and the English newspaper.” Although none of them spoke English before they arrived in New York, they all learned it quickly, and “by the time they died, they were fluent,” Ms. Gold said. Her own English now is entirely unaccented, although she was 13 by the time she began to speak it.
Ms. Gold went to junior high in Brooklyn, and then went across the East River for high school. She and her parents wanted her to go to college, but “none of us had any idea of what an out-of-town college might be,” she said. And then she met the dean of the brand-new Brandeis University, Clarence Berger, who was in town on a recruiting trip. “It turned out that he had been an officer liberating a concentration camp,” she said. “I had taken some SATs, and I hadn’t done well on anything except French, but when I told Dean Berger my story, it was like carte blanche,” she said. “He didn’t look at my scores. He just admitted me, and gave me a scholarship.
“This out-of-state thing was like heaven to me,” she said. “My parents had no car, but my roommate’s parents, who lived in Washington Heights, picked me up, in the fall of 1952, through the burning colors of the fall, after war-torn Europe, after Williamsburg. We drove right to heaven.”
Ms. Gold majored in intellectual history. “It was the 1950s, and you had to get engaged by your junior year and married right after your senior year. And I did. And I fulfilled my mother’s mandate that I marry a doctor.” Elliot Gold was a radiologist; he and Susan were married, eventually moving first to Tenafly and then to Englewood. They had three children; Peter, the youngest, died of an aneurysm in 1979, when he was 13, a death that devastated the whole family and guided his siblings’ career choices. Liza Gold, who lives in Vienna, Virginia, is a forensic psychiatrist, and Jonathan Gold of Randolph is a camp director, “because his younger brother went to camp with him,” Ms. Gold said. Both of Ms. Gold’s surviving children have two children each.
Ms. Gold was a stay-at-home mother at first, and then became a New York City permanent substitute teacher. (It’s a Byzantine system; best not to ask for details.) In 1975, when a money crunch made the city fire all its non-tenured employees, Ms. Gold went to work at Chase Manhattan as a market researcher, drawing on her knowledge of Russia and Russian to work on trade with that huge country. Her next job often took her to Russia; she finally ended her career by retiring from AIG as a vice president and chief representative of its trading office in Russia.
All this equipped her for her writing career; she wrote a novel, “Norilsk: A Tale of Suspense in the Time of the Oligarchs,” soon after she retired.
But Ms. Gold’s heart is still with the children who were murdered, or who survived the Holocaust with parts of their hearts or their souls murdered. So are the hearts of the other one-time hidden children whose stories are in the book she just published. Those stories must be told, and they must be remembered.