• Woman recounts mother’s Holocaust story

  • “I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an accountant, an American, a Jew and a child of a Holocaust survivor,” said Joyce Hess, daughter of Holocaust survivor Sonia Golad. “These characteristics make up my identity. My identity is not much different from others in this community except for the last characteristic — that of being the child of a survivor.”

    • email print
  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    “I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an accountant, an American, a Jew and a child of a Holocaust survivor,” said Joyce Hess, daughter of Holocaust survivor Sonia Golad. “These characteristics make up my identity. My identity is not much different from others in this community except for the last characteristic — that of being the child of a survivor.”
    Hess focused on the theme of identity as she shared her mother’s experiences in labor and concentration camps during her Days of Remembrance address April 25 in the Lewis and Clark Center’s Arnold Conference Room.
    Hess’s mother was 12 years old and living in Vilna, Poland, when Germany invaded in 1939.
    “Her life changed in a way she never could’ve imagined. Her happy childhood ceased to exist,” Hess said. “Her own identity just beginning to be formed would be reshaped forever.”
    Thus, began Golad’s journey through labor and concentration camps. In 1941, she and her family accompanied 85,000 Jews to Vilna Ghetto where they remained for the next two years mostly surviving on bread and water for food, Hess said.
    In June 1943, Hess’s mother and her mother’sfamily — her father, her mother, her older sister and her younger brother — were relocated to Narva Labor Camp in Estonia.
    “Narva Labor Camp was particularly hard on her,” Hess said. “People just collapsed and died all around her. She had to take turns with the other prisoners putting bodies into the ovens.
    “One by one, the Nazis tried to strip them of their identities by taking away their personal effects, shaving their heads, making them wear striped dresses and giving them a number instead of a name,” she said, “but my mother, young as she was, remained strong and true to her identity as a Jew. That identity, supported by faith and prayer, carried her through the horror of the times.”
    In 1944, Golad and her family were moved again and she was chosen to be a maid to the commandant. In this role, she experienced a whole new kind of harsh treatment, Hess said.
    “One of her jobs was to start the fire in the potbelly stove,” Hess said. “The commandant would soak the logs in a bucket of water so when she couldn’t start the fire, he would hit her on the head with a club.”
    In the following months, Golad and her family continued to move from labor camp to labor camp until they were finally separated at Stutthof Concentration Camp. She never again saw her father, her mother or her younger brother. Her older sister survived and she did eventually see her again.
    Page 2 of 3 - From Stutthof, Golad was sent to Neuengamme where once again she was chosen to be a maid to the commandant.
    “This particular commandant was extremely cruel,” Hess said. “He told his guards to take their leftover food and empty it into the waste paper basket, so when they all left the office she would put her head in the basket and lick the food like a cat or a dog for survival.
    “They made them believe that they were not human beings but animals,” she said.
    In April 1945, Golad was moved to her final camp — Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
    “This camp was the largest one that she lived in because there were hundreds of thousands of women. The barracks were filled and there was no place to sleep, so they had to sleep outside on top of the dead bodies,” Hess said. “Once again, she relied on her faith and her survival instinct to make it to another day.”
    Not long after her arrival at Bergen-Belsen, Golad was officially liberated.
    “Now she would add a new characteristic to her identity, that of being a survivor,” Hess said. “Now, she would move from the struggle to survive to the struggles of starting a new life.”
    Hess said her mother had a desire to learn and become a productive member of society, so she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Germany assisting in the placement and immigration of Jews. Then, in 1947, the UNRRA sponsored her immigration to the United States.
    When Golad arrived, she was sent to Chicago to work in an office while she attended night school for two years.
    “She wanted to expand her identity to include high school graduate,” Hess said.
    Later, Golad met and married Hess’s father, David Golad, a World War II veteran who aided in the liberation of a camp, but she said there was still an important part of her mother’s identity missing — becoming an American citizen.
    “While she would always have the memories and experiences of her childhood, she wanted to move on with her new life as an American, surrounded by Americans and living the American dream,” Hess said. “In 1950, she applied for citizenship, passed the test and was sworn-in as a U.S. citizen. She always considered this to be one of her proudest accomplishments.
    “Her identity continued to be shaped with the birth of my sister, Esther,” she said. “My brother and I completed her dream of parenthood.”
    Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Hess said she always knew that her mother survived the concentration camps, but she didn’t know anything of her experiences until she was 15 years old when her brother had to write a term paper on the Holocaust.
    Page 3 of 3 - “I remember the day vividly,” Hess said. “She started talking and we listened. It seemed surreal as she spoke for hours, but time stood still. We were mesmerized by her story.
    “We never knew the pain she had experienced, the heartache she had felt from the loss of her family, the struggles that she endured to start a new life without any guidance or assistance,” she said. “She was deeply scarred by her life’s experiences, by those years of physical abuse and neglect. She was haunted in her sleep by the nightmares of the horrors that she had seen.”
    Hess said she was so taken by her mother’s story that when she entered high school she asked her to formulate a presentation for her social studies class.
    “She came, she spoke and she continued speaking right up until her death,” Hess said. “Whenever she spoke to students, you could hear a pin drop. Their vision of the world changed after listening to her experiences.”
    Hess said both of their consciences would never let them forget prompting Golad to always conclude her presentations with the same message.
    “The responsibility to inform the next generation is ours, the children and grandchildren of survivors. We have to summon the courage to share the story of the atrocities that mankind is capable of committing,” Hess said. “She would say, ‘My message today is tolerance. You do not have to love everyone, but you must not hate.’
    “I believe that our children in generations to come must hold on to this feeling to bring this world to a better place. Our identities cannot be based solely on our genes or where we live or on our families or our careers,” Hess said. “They must be based on our beliefs and on our souls and on the faith that guides us to make the right and righteous choices in our lives. I know that my mother’s message was heard, and will be passed along to make this world a more tolerant and peaceful place.”
  • Comment or view comments