NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Students at the North Ridgeville Academic Center heard one Holocaust survivor’s experiences during a presentation Thursday afternoon.
“I want to tell you that, although it was the Germans that started it, without the cooperation of the local people, they could not have done all the horrible things they had done,” Erika Gold said. “Because some countries say they had nothing to do with it, that’s not true. They helped the Germans to gather the Jews and send them away.”
Gold, 86, told the eighth-graders of her time in Nazi-occupied Hungary and the narrow luck and creative thinking her family used to survive before emigrating to Cuba and later the United States. Her presentation was in conjunction with the students’ unit on the book “Refugee” and a trip to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, social studies teacher Katie Flynn explained. The book ties together current refugee and immigrant issues with Jewish refugees from Germany during World War II.
“I think the individual stories connect with younger teens a little bit more than grand ideas — hard for them to comprehend those big numbers, but the individual really takes it home for them,” Flynn said.
Gold was born months before dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, but it would be years before the Axis’ march against Jews and other marginalized groups came to her hometown of Budapest.
Hungary may not have been the first to fall under Axis control, but it was influenced by the events around it. For example, Gold said her father owned a store and one of his clerks was Polish. When Poland was occupied in 1939, the clerk was picked up by Hungarian authorities and sent back to Poland.
“I don’t know why they did that, but after she left we never heard from her,” Gold said. “So that I figured wasn’t a good thing. She probably got killed as soon as she got in.”
In March 1944, after her country attempted to make peace with the Allied forces, Hitler quickly occupied Hungary. In two months time, more than 400,000 Jews had been transported to concentration camps, she said.
“What they had done in Poland in five years, they accomplished in Hungary in less than two months,” she said.
Soon, laws including the emblematic yellow stars, ghettos, and strict curfews were in place. Non-Jewish residents were no longer allowed to work at Jewish-owned businesses and eventually her father was given a notice to close the store and was taken to work at nearby oil refinery.
Narrowly avoiding being taken to a concentration camp, her mother got her and Gold jobs in a factory making German soldiers’ uniforms. They worked during the day and slept on the factory floor at night. In November her mother got word her father was slated to be taken to a labor camp but was able to get him forged protective papers. She did not know until they were reunited after the liberation that he had even received it, she said.
“At this point I want to tell you that all of the horrible things that happened during the Holocaust and all the horrible things you hear me talk about, there were some nice people who were trying to do the right thing. … They were not allowed to do it, but they felt that it’s the right thing to do and they did it anyway. But they didn’t talk about it, so we didn’t know until they either were old and decided (to talk) or they passed away and the family found the papers.”
On Dec. 1, 1944, Gold and her mother were part of roughly 300 women and children taken from the city. When the convoy stopped in a busy marketplace overnight, they jumped off the truck and blended into the crowd in the market — they had not sewn the yellow stars on their winter coats as it was spring when the edict came down. The pair walked away and eventually made it to their former housekeeper’s apartment, where they hid until Russia liberated Hungary. They were reunited with her father shortly thereafter.
Gold said they went back to their apartment in Budapest, finding it untouched but without running water, gas, or electricity. The family stayed in the bathroom, as it was the only room with its window intact.
In 1948, the family bought Cuban visas — joining many Hungarians who went there in the hope of eventually getting American visas. Gold said she didn’t learn Spanish, as they were sure they would be in the country for a short time. Roughly two years later they moved the United States and settled in Cleveland Heights. She graduated from the city’s high school, then earned a degree from Case Western Reserve University and became a medical technician.
In closing, she urged the students to be educated voters once they’re old enough, and to learn whatever they can.
“Everything else can be taken away,” Gold said of the students’ education. “And I don’t mean God forbid there is another Holocaust, but there are fires, there are floods … but whatever, you know, and it doesn’t have to be book-learning, something practical. … You have to make sure that you take advantage of anything you can learn because that’s only thing that’s really yours.”