My name is Nesse Godin, and I am a survivor of the Holocaust.
I was born on March 28, 1928 in Šiauliai, Lithuania into a little family. My father was from Vilnius; my mother was from a small town, near Kaunas. I had two brothers.
Before the Nazis invaded there was a normal life in my hometown, Šiauliai. Jews lived there from the 8th century on. There were no problems for Jews in Lithuania. Yes, here and there you had somebody that said bad things 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 together with my brothers to the Hebrew day school. When the Russians took over Šiauliai in 1940 we were not allowed to study Hebrew anymore. Instead, we had 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 Šiauliai, because it was the main road from Germany to the Soviet Union. We went back to our houses and thought: The military went by, so they were not interested in us. But we were wrong. Two days later another group marched into Šiauliai. They were called Einsatzgruppen – mobile killing squads.
That started the Holocaust in my hometown.
We were in our houses, when all of a sudden this group came and with them all kinds of people that helped them. I don´t know – maybe there were Lithuanians too, but mostly other people. They came and grabbed the rabbis, the professors and other very important people, about 10 or 12 of them. They took them away. We didnt knew exactly where they were taken to. But we found out soon. My mother had a little dairy store. The day after 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. 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 made to dig their own graves and then they were shot – some of them were not even dead.” Up and down – that was when the earth was shaking.
Now my parents told me about the persecution for the first time. Until then I didn’t knew anything.
Soon my parents talked to their Jewish neighbors and also to one cousin that 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.” 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. The business of my mother got confiscated. My father was allowed to work, because he was employed at a shoe factory and the Nazis wanted boots and he was not the only Jewish man working in that factory.
Meanwhile we moved in to the ghetto in Šiauliai. 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 a Jewish police in Šiauliai. When they saw that there was danger coming they used to run through the Ghetto and shout “Sechs” (in English: Six). 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 else to get me work. They paid 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.
On this day we went to the gate, to go to work, as every day. My father stayed at home. It happened to be his free day. The Nazis did not let us go to work at first – but after a time, they did.
During the day there was a rumor that something was happening in the ghetto. But 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.
The SS, Gestapo and Ukrainian auxiliaries scanned the whole ghetto. They went everywhere. They found everyone: A thousand children, five hundred elderly and a few hundred healthy and strong–among them my father. First of all they put the strong and healthy on trucks and drove them away. The SS thought that they might fight them back. The trucks left and we did not know then where they were taken to.
Life in the ghetto after that was terrible. No laughter of children, no children–no future.
After a while we were told that the ghetto was being closed and that we should take our precious things or whatever we wanted to take. Some people took their diamonds, their fur coat and some took pictures. At that point my family consisted of one brother, my mother and me.
We were brought to the KZ Stutthof. There was a selection right after our arrival. During that my mum was sent one way, my brother another way. I stood there and I didn’t know what was happening. Then a woman 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 from the sound of the whistle that the guards where making. Then we linked up for the roll call. After that they gave us a tiny little 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?” She said: “I’m not scaring you. I’m going to give you advice. 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, I wrapped myself in the straw so that I looked stronger, and 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.
Then one day the officer said to us that we should take our blanket, dishes and other belongings. That’s when we started the death marches.
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 and hunt 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!” and I said: “I don’t want to live anymore.” 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 this 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 we were about 800. 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 diseases. It was a terrible time. Every morning the women took out the dead bodies. They had to undress them, because they needed, 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 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 and 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 asked them and they responded: “Don’t worry. We will take care of you. Everything will be good.”
We all got registered and gave all our dates to the authorities. They said to me that I was still a minor and would need a mother. So they asked me where my mother was. “I don´t know,” I said. So they assigned me a foster mother – a woman that left a child in Lodz, Poland for safety 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 now part of the Soviet Union again. You don’t have anybody there. They killed the Jews!” So I came with this woman to Lodz, Poland. In Lodz, they had already set up a wall to put posters on – for the major cities in each country. There was Kaunas, Klaipeda and also Šiauliai. So I signed my name into the list. A woman stood next to me: “Little girl – 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 the store of my mother – Sara Galperin.” The woman reacted surprised: “Nesse, it’s you! Your mother is alive! Go near the German border. You will find her.”
I was relieved and I went to my foster mother and she was saying to me: “No. I’m not going back. I’m going back to look for my kid. Go, but remember you have to say that you are 18!”
I left Lodz, went to the German border and met again people that knew my mother. They told me that my mother went to Lodz, Poland. So I went back the whole way again and we got reunited.
That was my story about the Holocaust. One of many.
After the war my mother and I found out that my father was taken to Auschwitz. In 1990 I went to visit Europe. I also visited Auschwitz and found out what happened to my father in Auschwitz. 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.
At the end I want to tell you a little story about my neighbors. Back in Šiauliai, 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: “Nessute belongs to us. She is a blonde. She looks like all the Lithuanian girls.”
When the Nazis took over, my mother went to that neighbor, at that point I was thirteen. So she said: “You always said she is yours. Take her.” She answered: “What do you think? That I 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 say: We have to stop it! My own survivor colleagues said: “Why are you mixing in? 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.
Whenever I finish a talk at the museum my last words are: “When you walk out, don’t see a race or religion. See a human being that the Lord–or whatever name you call him—created, and treat him the way you want to be treated.”