Surviving the Holocaust: Paula Goldhar’s Story
“I would like to thank everyone for coming,” Paula Goldhar said after the microphone’s technical difficulties were sorted out.
The presentation was held last Wednesday in a University of Waterloo Mathematics Auditorium, hosted by Hillel Waterloo, for Holocaust Education Week. Paula sat between her two grandchildren, Dayna and Eli Goldhar, in between two projector screens at the front.
“I am 91-years-old, I am still driving and I am on the computer. I graduated from a laptop to an iPad and I’m on the market for a smart phone,” proudly explained Paula.
The diverse crowd of 300 students, from both Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo, chuckled throughout the lecture hall.
“As long as I’m here on this world I don’t want to miss out on anything,” said Paula.
“Now I’m going to tell you a little bit about my past.”
That’s when Paula transported the room of students — coming from a wide range of backgrounds — about 75 years back in time, suddenly unravelling humanity’s darkest days.
Life in the ghetto
“I was born in Poland, on Dec. 25, Christmas day, 1924. I was 14 years old when the war started. I was a happy a teenager. We finished school in June. I had a whole summer ahead of me. Little did I know what awaited.”
The Second World War started in September of 1939.
“It was just at the start of the school year. I didn’t know if I would go to high school because in Europe you would have to pay — it was expensive. I was the youngest of a family of eight. My parents couldn’t afford it,” she explained.
“I was always wondering: what am I going to do with my life?”
These words were immediately relatable to many of the students sitting quietly in the auditorium. The words following were not so relatable.
“I lived in Lodz in a big city. For the first few months of the war, it did not take long for the Germans to come into Lodz. It was about a week for them to come in day and night with tanks. Fortunately, though, there was very little fighting. Very little bombs. Lodge was not ruined.”
In the beginning of 1940, there were big signs all over the city warning civilians of prohibited exit, claiming that if anyone wanted to leave, they should do so as soon as possible. Paula’s parents were away at the time, attending a wedding for her oldest brother in a small Polish town. Upon their return, Paula’s family found themselves in what was known as the Lodge Ghetto — a segregated city area occupied by Polish Jews.
“If anyone went out of city limits, we didn’t see them again.”
“The youngest of my four brothers went out once and never came back,” Paula told the crowd.
“Life was getting harder in the Ghetto. We did not work, it was a little town with not much room. Food was very scarce. We would buy some grains from the peasants that lived around. We couldn’t go out of city limits so we had to wait until they came and they brought some food for us. We paid them with what little money we had.”
“Night was very dark in the Ghetto,” Paula said.
“Sometimes, German soldiers would drive in on motorcycles and force people to work.”
In 1942, Nazi Germany implemented what was then called “The Final Solution” — building gas chambers and extermination camps throughout Europe.
“In October, we knew it was coming — that we weren’t going to be able to stay there. The Polish people lived around us and they were giving us all the news from the radio.”
“They came in the morning,” recalled Paula.
German cattle trucks rolled into the Lodge Ghetto at dawn. It was announced that all the young civilians should come out of their shelters and into the Ghetto’s centre market.
“Young people were told to come out to go to work for the Germans. My father pushed us to go.”
“You are young! You could save yourself!” Paula’s father told his children, dragging them along into the centre market.
“From every little house you could see young people running,” said Paula.
Paula’s mother prepared her children a week before, anticipating their need to leave the Ghetto. She packed them items like blankets, bread, salt and toothbrushes.
Paula’s family scurried into the square.
Around 300 children lined up to be selected for work.
“If someone was small or frail looking, they sent them back,” she said.
“My mother was hugging me. She wouldn’t let me go. I was the youngest. My father practically pried me away from her. She was screaming and crying.”
“Go!” Paula’s father shouted, amongst the chaos. “They’re waiting for you!” Paula’s father pointed to her siblings standing before the truck ahead. He pushed her away.
With her heart rattling in her chest, Paula looked back at her screaming mother, helplessly waving back as she was swallowed by the shouting crowd.
“That was the last time I saw my mother and my father.”
A trip to the unknown
As the evening neared, hundreds of selected children were loaded into the cattle trucks.
“We drove a whole night. I don’t know why it took a whole night. We landed in a city called Skarzysko. They had ammunition factories which the Germans took over.”
The children were told to sit on the ground; it was a mild October night. Paula and her siblings found themselves in a gated field. They noticed a four-story building in the distance, glooming over them.
Whispers hushed through the children. The building looked like some sort of barn to keep animals. Little did they know, the dark structure would be the barracks in which they would sleep.
For hours they sat on the ground, nervous, cold and shivering.
Paula told the crowd that in a following moment, something happened in which she would never forget, something that was deeply engraved in the haunting darkness of her memory from then on.
“We took our knapsacks off. Everything was crumpled because all night on the bus we leaned and slept on them. I took my knapsack and I started to shake it out. There were crumbs at the bottom, pieces from a bar of soap and so on. And then a young girl came running over. I’ll never forget her face.”
Paula described the face of this young girl as “skin and bones.”
“She had big eyes and a shaved head. As I was shaking out the knapsack, she came over and held her hands out.”
Paula was stunned by the desperation in this child’s expression, the disbelief in her widened eyes as she glared at the few crumbs with shaking hands.
“I gave her the crumbs and she put them in her mouth. She ate them. We all looked at each other. Then I knew for sure, that’s what awaited us.”
Life at the labour camps
Paula and the children were led into the large building. At first, straw was scattered across the floor, but because of a lice infestation, they resorted to sleeping on wooden boards.
Life at the labour camp was treacherous. Paula and the other children would work twelve hour shifts at the ammunition factory, with the deafening clatter of machines ringing through the area at all times.
They were fed only cans of soup and a rare slice of bread for nourishment. Many other children died of starvation as time passed. Sickness spread as the seasons changed. They struggled for warmth on winter nights.
Most of Paula’s siblings were divided amongst other surrounding camps — some more deadly than others. Luckily for Paula, she was not separated from her older sister.
“She watched over me and I watched over her,” said Paula.
One of her brothers, who worked carrying vegetation at another camp, was shot dead after three months of labour. The Nazis were unforgiving to hunger or any signs of weakness.
“If I couldn’t get up to go to work, if I was hungry, cold, my sister practically pulled me down from the barracks to go to work. She knew if I wouldn’t go she wouldn’t find me again. I did the same to her. That’s how we survived.”
One dark night, Paula, her sister and the other children were forced to witness a man being executed. Paula watched the mortified expression of this young man as he waited for the pointed gun to fire.
Diseases spread and hundreds of people died everyday.
“We were in the camp for three months when we were hit with the typhus epidemic,” said Paula.
Typhus sickness was an extreme fever that led to death in many instances during the poor wartime conditions.
Paula was struck with it but managed to survive thanks to the aid of her older sister, who was then immune to it because she already faced the sickness as a child.
Paula eventually grew accustomed to the sight of dead bodies surrounding her each day.
“Later on, you know, you get used to everything,” Paula said.
“We’d look up and see the sun in the sky and know that was the only thing that was familiar to us from our previous life.”
A year later, Paula and her sister were relocated at another camp with another ammunition factory.
At this point, there was more food available because there were far less prisoners still alive.
“Life was a little bit better. They gave us another piece of bread. They lost a lot of people. There were no more young people to bring to work. By that time already, the Polish Jews were gone.
We knew that our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, sisters, little children, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews — that they were all gone.”
Most of the boys from Paula’s home town were killed. Out of 200 boys her age, only a few remained. One of them would later become her husband.
On Jan. 16, 1945, Paula and her sister came back one night to discover that there was no whistle to indicate the next shift the following morning.
“There was no whistle. Everyone was looking at everyone else. What’s happening?”
Everyone was afraid to leave the barracks, uncertain of what circumstances had arose. The silence was interrupted by an announcement.
“Everyone should come out of the barracks!” someone shouted to them.
They all walked out of the barracks and headed to the gate at the end of the camp. From there, they entered a large warehouse on the other side that was initially used to store the ammunition that Paula and the others had been producing.
Through the doors, the children looked up at the sky and saw, in the distance, that it was ignited with red light.
“We knew that the Russians were here.”
They stood in the freezing January air for long hours. Trains arrived and picked up large sums of survivors. However, Paula, her sister and a group of friends remained still, too nervous to leave the borders of their imprisonment.
Far ahead, gunfire crackled through the whistling of the cold winds. A group of brave boys ran over to witness the commotion.They returned shortly after bearing implausible news. They were free.
“We didn’t know how to react to that.”
Paula and her little group stayed in the barracks for another night, timidly listening to the thunderous booms of bombs falling in the distance around them.
“Survival depended on luck. I believe strongly. It was all luck.”
In the morning, they walked out to find their old city no longer recognizable. There was no longer a place to stay, no shelter to sleep in. They turned back to the barracks to sleep another night. It had become the only home they knew.
It was up to Paula and her friends to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Shortly after, they began working for the Russian army, peeling potatoes. They were fed generously and even paid small sums of money.
Paula went on to move to Canada and start a big family.
As a 22-year-old, she moved to Canada in 1948. She met and married her husband in 1950, later having three children. She now has eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
After showing the audience some family photos on the projector screens, Paula shared some final thoughts.
“Who could imagine that a country like Germany, with all their science and all their poets, would construct something as diabolical as gas chambers?”
As a Jewish student, who fortunately has not had any family members directly impacted from the Holocaust, it was an honour to hear Paula speak. It was an even greater honour to be permitted to write her story down.
As each survivor ages another day, it’s more important than ever for these stories to be shared.
It’s more than a significant pursuit, it’s a responsibility — an obligation to share these heart-wrenching stories so such darkness will never surface again.
The reality of the matter is unsettling but undeniable: my children, all of our children, will likely never get the opportunity to hear a survivor recount their torment first hand.The Holocaust will be lost in literature, textbooks, movies and any means of communication that can keep the past alive.
Unfortunately, thousands of stories have already died, shutdown and buried, lost in a progressing world that is always susceptible to have history repeat itself.
This is why our responsibility hangs in the air. This is why our duty to share must never be overlooked.
Unbearable cruelty was unprecedented during Paula’s past, but so was the unconditional love and selflessness that allowed her to speak before us over 75 years later.
This past shows us how terrible humanity can really be, but also how resilient and devoted we can be for those we care about.The Holocaust reflects our worst and best sides. These recounts are our only access to that mirror.
“It’s up to the future generations to talk about it and think about it so those lives will not be forgotten,” Paula said somberly.
“Six million lives. They deserve to be remembered.”