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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Episode 7 – Erna Blitzer Gorman

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[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.

The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The Museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

On this episode, we hear the incredible story of Erna Blitzer Gorman.

Erna was born in France but ended up spending almost two years of the war hiding with her family on a farm in Ukraine. In the tiny hayloft where they hid, Erna had to keep so still that she became mute and her muscles atrophied so severely that she temporarily lost the ability to walk. Just ten years old at the time she escaped this confinement, with the war still on, Erna and her family crawled in the snow near the Russian border with Katyusha rocket artillery lighting up the sky.

[Erna Blitzer Gorman] So because of those flashes in the sky and the shooting back from the other side of the road, the dirt road, there was an airplane raid and we scattered off, crawled off the road. And I was with my mom and my dad had my sister. And the airplane came; I imagine it must have been a German airplane that they must have communicated in some ways for it to be there. And they dropped a bomb. And all I could see was the blood running down her side.

[Andy Miles] Erna Blitzer Gorman has had, in her words, “a very eventful life, and a very interesting one.” She came to the United States in 1953 and settled in Detroit, where she lived with her aunt and father. She initially found work in a sweatshop, where she did piecework in the manufacture of shirts, but soon left the low-paying job and found work as a salesperson at a wholesale jewelry house and, years later, sold real estate. Erna was married for 63 years, until her husband passed away about five years ago. She has two sons and three granddaughters, and in late 2019 moved to Highland Park, Illinois, to be closer to family. Erna began telling her Holocaust story in 1992 and has spoken to thousands of audiences, from Detroit’s Holocaust museum to schools and churches throughout the Midwest. She has also been the keynote speaker at two university graduations and holds a pair of honorary doctorates of education. Erna is the author of the memoir While Other Children Played: A Hidden Child Remembers the Holocaust, published in 2010. A passage from that book begins our conversation. We spoke over Zoom.

EG: “In early childhood, life depended on silence. I lived. I have lived Anne Frank’s fears and terrors. I lived. I have lived Elie Wiesel’s loss of a parent, just as freedom lies ahead. I have lived guilt, hatred, and extreme shame. I lived. I have lived Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I lived. I have lived love and having wonderful children. I have lived the pain of cancer when it strikes loved ones. I have lived financial comfort and easy living, the beauty of sunsets and quieting waters. I have lived through agony, in hopelessness of depression. I lived. Destiny has dealt me a generous hand in this fabulous life, oh, how I lived.” Erna Gorman.

AM: You were born in 1934 in Metz, France, so when your family decided to move to Poland in the summer of 1939, not long before the German invasion of Poland, you were just five years old.

EG: Yes.

AM: How would you describe life in those five years leading up to the war? And I know that you don’t have personal recollection of that, but what can you tell me?

EG: I don’t know much at all, I must say. What can I tell you? My family consisted of four, my dad, my mom, and my sister, Suzanne, and myself.

AM: And what would you tell me about them?

EG: I don’t know my mom. I don’t remember. But my dad, he was never very successful, as far as I know. He used to sell clothing — rag business, they used to call it. But prewar — this is all I can remember about him.

My mom and dad met in France. They met and married in Metz.

AM: And moving ahead to 1939, then, what went into their decision to leave France?

EG: I can only assume that it was because they knew what was happening in Germany, because Metz is quite close to the German border, and many other borders. It was a strategic little town, tiny town, but strategic town.

AM: So when you arrived in Poland, you settled in the town where your father had been born.

EG: Right, Rozwadów.

AM: He had a large family.

EG: Very, yeah.

AM: And you remained in Poland for a couple of years. What was life like during this time of German occupation?

EG: Well, my father’s family was very hyper and they were always screaming, and my grandfather was very strict and also a very nervous person. So, you know, my grandfather was quite comfortable and they had a very large house with a courtyard in the middle, and all the children lived in different apartments within that courtyard. And that’s where we remained until one day they disappeared. This is when the Germans had come in.

The four of us must have been out for the day — I’m not sure — but when we came back to the building, everybody was gone. I didn’t realize, but we were threatened by neighbors, because they had taken over already that huge house, but everybody was gone and they were threatening my family that something terrible would happen. All I see is the horror in my parents’ faces, not being aware of what was really happening.

AM: So having escaped the Germans, you eventually found yourself in Ukraine, settling where you mother had been born, near the Russian border.

EG: Right. Monastyryska. And there I remember quite a lovely family. The most outstanding thing for me was the gentleness of my mother’s family. I always speak of this very pudgy, very poor grandfather that used to take me on his lap. That was the first softness that I can recall in my lifetime.

I know that we lived in a very small house, quite a large family. There were many aunts and uncles. I don’t remember children. I just remember my grandparents. My grandmother was a very tiny, tiny person, you know, with the white apron all the time. And I just remember her baking bread in a stone oven. Always baking. But my grandfather, he used to take me on his lap again, and he would cuddle me and I would pull on his payots. Things like this. And I just never — my parents were not very demonstrative at all. So I don’t remember any softness before that. As a child, that’s a terrible thing, you know.

AM: Yeah. So at your young age, what sense did you make of what was happening?

EG: Nobody was explaining anything to the children, at least in my family.

I’m sure my parents never — as it is the practice now, where they would — people would explain to their children, but even my sister that was six years older didn’t understand what was happening, you know. And naturally, me being so young, I didn’t know either.

AM: Do you remember being scared?

EG: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. Actually, I remember my father sort of exploding a little bit as we left even Rozwadów, my father’s town, already. “Be silent,” and that was the main theme: “Be silent. Don’t ask questions.” Not that I knew how to ask questions; I was so young. I just did what my parents told us.

AM: I was going to also ask, and I know that at this time you were very young, but what did it mean to you at that time to be Jewish? I know that you’ve said that you realized that because you were Jewish, you were destined to die.

EG: Absolutely. But at that time, I knew it had something to do with my religion. In Poland, in those days religion — the Jewish, actually, Orthodox religion was most important in my family, as far as I know. So, at any rate, I understood that. Yes, I did.

AM: And what about the conditions of poverty that you were all living in? How did things go day to day?

EG: Well, as I said, we lived in a very small house and there were aunts and uncles. As far as food, I do not recall. But I recall — they had only about two or three rooms altogether, plus a little kitchenette, which had a sitting area which turned into a bed, and a stove and a little kitchenette. And the aunts and two uncles were in the other rooms and my grandparents.

AM: So things were pretty quiet externally until a young Nazi arrived.

EG: Well, would you like me to you his name?

AM: Please.

EG: OK, his name was Josef Schwammberger, which I did not know that at the time. It’s only when I did my research that I have a — I have a very large amount of information on him. I don’t think he had a heart — (laughs) — for one thing. He was cruel, not that I could see, not that I would know, because I was always told don’t go outside, don’t go try and find a playmate or anything. “You stay inside and you hide.” The point of that was if you made yourself invisible, you did not exist, therefore you had a chance to survive. But I did not realize all these survival problems at the time yet. I knew I was Jewish and it was something to do with that.

Then Josef Schwammberger, when he came in, or gave the orders, you know, we were all moved to a ghetto.

AM: Now was he in charge of a troop, or was he mostly working solo?

EG: Well, he had two — I think two other — perhaps only one German with him, because I never saw them. I was always hiding, you know, so it would not be known that I’m alive. But he had a lot of helpers in the village.

AM: And his objective was to create a ghetto?

EG: Right. And he did that and we were moved — I do not recall that area at all, except, again, being totally restricted to whatever corner I was in, and told to be quiet. And that became my motto, in effect, you know, to be quiet and not to be shown. It was difficult. I remember that very much.

But you know, with all these shiftings, from ghetto to ghetto, I did not know anything why and what was happening. I sort of retreated into my emotions and to my silence, rarely speaking. Rarely.

AM: People weren’t just moving. They were also disappearing on a daily basis and being murdered and sent to hard labor. And you weren’t quite sure what happened to everyone.

EG: No. You never knew. You never knew what was — I don’t think my parents even knew. You know, the Germans had a way of making everything very silent because you disappeared during the night. They said we’re taking you to a work camp or, you know, the able bodies would go to — they sort of made it sound plausible. And I think at my age I was not aware of most of these things, but this is what was happening then. They didn’t want to make — in the beginning — make people feel traumatized too much, you know. They were always going somewhere — “resettle,” you know, to another place.

AM: So you mentioned the able bodies, and your father was designated as one of them.

EG: Yes.

AM: And he was given the assignment, with the other able bodies, all men, to march to a forest nearby. Do you want to pick up the story from there?

EG: I can only see my mom crying. She never told me why. But I knew that it was an absence of my father in the household, or wherever we were; in the corner or whatever. I became only aware after he came back to us. After doing the work that they were ushered into the forest. In a clearing, they made a large tomb or pit or whatever it was, mass grave. But we did not know that.

When he came back and told us that, the rest of the families, the rest of the Jews in that ghetto were marched, including my mom’s parents. And my mom’s sisters were seamstresses so they were kept alive.

AM: Because they could repair German uniforms and that sort of thing?

EG: Right. And make shirts for the soldiers, you know, and so forth.

He had been burying my mother’s family, my wonderful grandfather, the one that used to love me so much, and my grandma, and I don’t know who else.

AM: And the people who he buried, they were forced to strip and shot into a mass grave one by one.

EG: Yes. Can you imagine that scene? My heart is heavy now.

AM: So during this time, as you’ve already mentioned, you were repeatedly told not to speak, not to go outside, to make yourself invisible.

EG: Yes.

AM: The thinking was, if no one knew you were alive, then you had a chance to survive.

EG: Right.

AM: That strategy does seem to have, you know, paid off, because, as you say, you weren’t quite sure how it all occurred, but you were able to escape the fate that the rest of your family did not.

EG: Yes. Yes. Indeed. You know, sometimes a human being is destined to survive, by whatever means. How this all happened, how personally I was able to stay sane even through all this period. To me, it’s really a question, why was I so fortunate?

AM: So in these ghettos, people who were living in those conditions faced constant hunger and fear and disease.

EG: Yeah. Of course.

AM: Your dad fell ill. He had typhoid.

EG: Right. The next thing I recall is my mom sponging all these people.

You know, it’s strange that I should say I remember my mom. But I remember a vision of my mom. You know what I’m saying? It’s just I don’t know how else to say that. I just don’t remember her as a human being now. So I remember her sponging my dad and a few other people and I was holding a little pot or something with water. That’s all I remember. I don’t know when my dad came back from that place where they were all ill. I do not recall that.

AM: So the last ghetto you were in, Borki, you say that as you approached the building that you were assigned to live in, you could hear shots.

EG: Well, yes. And I don’t remember how we were moved from the previous place, Monastyryska or another little town. I don’t remember any of that. I just remember that coming into that town where that ghetto was, you could hear shots everywhere.

AM: And in that building you were assigned a corner.

EG: Yes.

AM: Other Jewish families were assigned various places throughout the building.

EG: Yes. And this was our saving place.

AM: And why?

EG: We were fortunate because there were plank floors in that building, and my parents, or just my father, lifted up in the corner the floorboards and started digging with I thought it was cups, but maybe it was something else; I don’t know. But a cavity large enough — it took a long time. And perhaps he had help from my mother. Again, I was not privy of that at all.

So anyhow, it was large enough that we could go into that tomb, yes.

I mean, it sounds even not reality, but it is strange that I don’t know. I think I was myself into another world.

AM: So you were in this corner of the building and one night you could hear the doors being flung open and your mother grabbed you. What happened from there?

EG: Well, and we slid into the cavity and my father and sister followed. And we were truly clustered so close together it was hard to breathe. Now, I thought it was an uncle that put the last plank down when we were in that cavity, but I don’t know for sure how this happened. Maybe my father was able to do it himself through some ways. I don’t know. But I remember the cavity.

You know, I had developed already then a very bad habit of being unable to control my vitals by then, you know. So the stench and the closeness of our bodies and no air — wow. You know, I cannot fathom this now. It sounds like a made-up story, but I swear to you it’s not.

And you know, the Germans, they were screaming — “Juden, Juden raus, “out, out, out.”

AM: So, as you were in the cavity, all clustered together, the Nazis would thump their boots and rifle butts into the floor.

EG: Right. Because they knew Jews were making these cavities, you know, and that’s what they — and the building was emptied out and we remained there. I don’t remember. All I knew was hunger.

When we came out from the cavity, we stayed in that cavity. We didn’t want to move away from there. So when other people were taken into the building, brought into the building, we just kept our cavity, our corner.

AM: So as you said, Jews were mostly cleared out of this building and there weren’t many people left. And your family eventually crawled out and survived, finding refuge on a farm, thanks to an arrangement your father had made with a Christian farmer. How did that come about?

EG: I don’t know how it happened. When I thought about it, I think that farmer had known about America. And my father maybe told him that he has a sister in America. I don’t know, because we didn’t have anything to give him. And usually people wanted gold or to be compensated. But I think that might have been the truth about this, how he convinced a farmer.

You know, I don’t believe in anything, but maybe it was some sort of a miracle or whatever.

AM: Well, yeah, because how did their paths even cross?

EG: I don’t know. It’s curious.

AM: So he had given your father the information as to where he was and where to go. And you went there, crawling through the dirt and —

EG: Yes. We did until we came to the farm. And the farmer was there with his wife outside their house, or whatever it was. And they were very nervous. And they took us some distance, not very close, but some distance to the little barn that they had.

We went into the loft and there was some sort of a tarp or a blanket and we sat down on that blanket, the four of us, and he covered the loft top with other bails of hay.

AM: And so having taken you on in this way, I mean, he faced serious consequences.

EG: Oh, they all could have been murdered, you know, first of all, probably from another farmer had they been discovered, that he would report them, because farmers or the people would get compensation for anyone that was discovered. Do you understand?

AM: Yeah, they would get like sugar or flour.

EG: Or whatever. I’m not sure. Because they were taking everything anyhow, the Germans, you know.

AM: And the barn was tiny.

EG: Yes, I mean, it was more like a shack. It was just for hay. He had no livestock at all.

AM: So he would come late at night with buckets.

EG: Right. Oh, those buckets. I tell you. Those buckets. They are very present in my mind.

AM: And these were buckets with different purposes.

EG: Right. Absolutely. You know, one bucket for elimination, one bucket with a little water, one bucket with whatever he could spare to feed us. He would come and stand on these ladders there and just pass these things along. And my mother or my father were usually pulling in the buckets. He would leave immediately.

I would go and hide when he would come at night with his buckets, with the three buckets. I would push myself into the corner. So I really never truly saw his face.

AM: And that actually recalls to mind what you said earlier about how in the ghetto, you would conceal yourself away and you really were never aware of who it was, because you were just in constant concealment and hiding.

EG: Right. You know, when we’re speaking, I realize the horror of this place, you know. And it’s just all coming all back to my mind, you know. (Laughs.) It doesn’t seem real to me.

AM: So up until this time, you had been very quiet, but it was during this time, staying in the barn, that you describe yourself as becoming totally mute.

EG: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think I was already before that, mute, you know, some of the ghettos perhaps; I don’t know, because as you know, from the beginning, I was told to be quiet. And I probably was before that time, but all I can see is the distraction of when the farmer would come — that was a big distraction — and then a constant battle of lice and vermin that were plaguing us, you know, because we didn’t have any clothing to change into or to even wash. There was not such a thing as a lot of water, basin of water and soap or whatever to clean yourself or — I mean, it was nonexistent. And I’m sure the farmer didn’t have any clothing to give us. You know, they lived as poorly as we did, except we were in this confinement, you know.

AM: Yeah, and with no speech and no movement and no stimulation, or very little, you say you became dead yourself.

EG: Yes.

AM: Nothing was really flowing in your brain?

EG: No, no. It becomes like — you’re just a shell and there is nothing in you. What was there for me to think about? It was horror all the time. I never thought even, because from a very young age, I was put in that situation never to think or to speak or to move. It’s unimaginable now to me how I could have not become so perhaps even out of my mind, I mean, to a point where I could be put away. As I mentioned before, I was nonhuman. I mean, I was just a shell.

AM: Yeah. So while you were there, your parents felt the pressure that they might have to leave and you recall your mother often asking if they could stay on.

EG: Well, you know, the farmer, his whole family could have been shot, you know, to be made an example of.

My mother was always begging him, “Let us stay another while,” another while, another while. That’s all I can remember from that time. And the next thing was that we were busy trying to keep the welts, because of the lice and vermin, that were developing in our bodies, at least on mine, I know. And the constant scratching — you needed to be careful because if you drew blood, you would die. I mean, my parents used to — my father on one side, my mother on the other side, tried to gently clean me, you know, from some of the lice. That’s what I remember.

AM: Your family did eventually leave the loft, after almost two years.

EG: Yes.

AM: Was the war still on at that point?

EG: Yes. You know, it was when the Russians — we were very close to the Russian border, as I said before. And the Russians were beginning to come through that area and there were battles outside, you know, and the farmer was absolutely panicky because he was petrified of the Russians as well. And he said you must leave now. What are you going to — how can you do that? You know, we don’t know what’s really happening, you know. My limbs became totally atrophied and none of us could walk down that ladder.

AM: Did the farmer help you leave?

EG: Yeah, he carried us down. I mean, I remember him putting me — (laughs) — over his shoulder.

Anyhow, so we crawled in the snow. Now, why didn’t we die of exposure? Ask me. I don’t know. I don’t know.

It was, you know, terrifying to me at all, completely. And they were fighting on the other side of the road, a German platoon. And we were laying flat, the four of us, together in the first few hours perhaps of the fighting, you know.

I speak about a Russian Katyusha, which is a gun that they were shooting. Now they have where they come out of a cannon or something more modern. But in those days, they were small things that they were putting on their shoulders and squeezing something. And a flash in the sky would come out of that contraption that they had on their shoulders. So there was a lot of that happening.

So because of those flashes in the sky and the shooting back from the other side of the road, the dirt road, there was an airplane raid and we scattered off, crawled off the road, is more the precise way of leaving the road, rather than, you know, running or something. And I was with my mom and my dad had my sister, in a different place, you know. I don’t know exactly.

And the airplane came; I imagine it must have been a German airplane that they must have communicated in some ways for it to be there. And they dropped a bomb. And all I could see was the blood running down her side.

AM: Your father sought the help of the Russians and they took your mother to a nearby infirmary.

EG: Right. In another village, I think.

My mom was the only Jewess that came into that infirmary at the time, or at least what I can recall. And she was riddled with lice and vermin in her clothing and her hair. And they laid her on a cot away from the other patients, but, you know, I could hear the word Żydówka. Żydówka in Polish means Jewess. That registered in my head somehow. When they looked at this poor woman that hasn’t probably washed and cleaned and wasn’t human-like, who else would become an animal like that? Just a shell of a human being?

Well, she died. And she was crawling with lice and vermin.

We wrapped her in a blanket and we left, you know. And we put her in the shallow grave.

You know, to this day — I mean, all my relatives are buried in graves like that. But I didn’t have that same emotion like seeing my maternal family because all I did is hear afterwards. But this was my mom. And I was just 10, 10 and a half, I don’t know.

You know, afterwards I said she deserves better than that. I wish I knew where her remains — even though I don’t know my mom at all. I don’t know her, whether she ever cuddled me or whatever.

AM: So she passed. But your survival was still very much uncertain, because the same dangers continued —

EG: Yeah.

AM: — the bombing raids, and, as you say, you were covered with lesions from the vermin.

EG: Oh, yes. And they were so painful, too. You know, they were like boils. And we worked ourselves back to the Russians’ side. I mean, maybe we joined them, and, you know, the Russians were always singing when they had a quiet time, Russian songs, you know. And I remember one of them took me on his lap and held me down and I think it was my dad or maybe it was somebody else that took a knife and sliced open some of the boils.

You know, to me the Russians were very kind. Everybody was always upset with the Russian army. They said that they did horrible things as they conquered. I don’t know that. That was right after a very crucial time — ’44, ’45, just liberated. To me, they tried to make me human again.

AM: Did the Red Cross also provide some assistance?

EG: Well, the Red Cross eventually took us, you know, but they were cleaning us. Into the pores the lice and vermin settle, lay eggs, and eventually, you know, it becomes live lice or vermin, whatever it was. And they were stripping the clothes off of us and they had a pump, like a bicycle pump, filled with DDT, I think it was. And they would spray us with that. But that took several processes.

And then they took us to Paris. It was bewildering to me at the time, the feelings that I — I didn’t have any feelings. They just made you move this way, move that way, turn around, and they were trying to deal with my lesions that I had all over my body. And it was a very, very difficult time for me.

So I think we went — we must have gone on a train, which I have no recollection of. But when we came to Metz, I had an aunt there and her family that were in Switzerland — they survived in Switzerland, the whole family. They had a small apartment on the third floor for us, for my father, sister, and I. And I don’t recall — those were very trying times as well. I had a lot of difficulties comprehending everything because everything was so new to me, even to walk on the street or whatever it might have been.

AM: And you were placed in the first grade.

EG: Oh, yes.

AM: And by this point, had you resumed speaking?

EG: Well, I might have said one word or two, but, first of all, I still had part of my head shaven because of the lesions that I had that needed constant care, you know. And I had clothing, Red Cross clothing, which I’m sure at the time were not the kind of clothing that you receive these days from the Red Cross. You know — (laughs) — I still have my first — from that class I had totally failed in everything because I didn’t really understand — I needed a one-to-one care and teaching. But you know, the worst part was at recess time the children were calling me sale juive, sale juive, which I didn’t understand my French then yet. I didn’t — you know, I hadn’t had a chance to learn the language yet. One particular time they started to jump around me, to sort of dance around me, and they were calling me that name, sale juive. I lost control of my vitals, which I always did when I was fearful throughout the years. It was horrible. Children can be cruel, and it was so destructive that I withdrew even more.

AM: And you didn’t go back to school. Is that right?

EG: Right. Right. I never went to school. I never — my whole lifetime.

First of all, my sister was married off. She was very beautiful and she was 17. And I had to take care of my dad. My dad was a broken man at the time. He just couldn’t make a living. He couldn’t feed himself and me. So I had to go to work; from the age of 11, 11 and a half on, I had to go to work.

AM: And what work did you find?

EG: At a tailor shop I was sewing buttons.

AM: And how long did you stay in France before coming to America?

EG: You see, I could have come very early and very young, which I probably could have had schooling, you know. But there was no such availability to me because my father was still Polish. He had to wait for a Polish quota. He never became French, lived there all his life and never bothered to become a citizen. You know, he just did whatever life he had there, you know, to survive.

But I couldn’t leave him there by himself. I was the one taking care of him from then on. They were very difficult times.

But I could have come, as I said, much earlier to the United States, but my father couldn’t until 1953 when he got permission to come into the States.

AM: So in aspiring to come to the U.S. and then finally making that trip, what did America represent to you in the early ’50s?

EG: Hope. You know, I knew that this was the place for me. I became very quickly adapted. I was speaking many languages then and I picked up the English language very quickly. You know, automatically I became a very friendly person from then on. I knew that my scowl on my face would not help me. I knew that I needed to smile, to be pleasant, and to adapt quickly. But I had a wonderful time after the first year when I came to the States.

AM: You have said that if you’re meant to survive, you survive regardless, no matter how horrible things can be.

EG: True. True. Because I should have died many, many times over during that war. Why were we never discovered in the years prior, the hiding? Why were we able to stay for such a long period of time in that hayloft? I cannot understand that I truly lived all this horror. Now I’m thinking it’s unreal. When necessity dictates that you — you take the challenge and you do what is important.

You know, it’s difficult for young people nowadays to fathom that human life did not mean much to the world then, especially when a country wants to eliminate you because of your religion. You know, I keep in mind my life comparable to some of the people that are being slaughtered to this day because of one group hating the other. And if a government constantly tells you one way is our way, it’s the only way, then people begin to understand that. That’s what Hitler did.

AM: Erna, when did you start telling your story?

EG: When I was married and my children were at the university, I was sitting in my comfortable family room and watching cable TV when it was the beginning of the skinhead movement. And they were sitting on a dais all dressed in the German uniform and they were — one of them stood up and raised his arm and said, “We are here to finish Hitler’s work.” What did he mean, this young, manipulated young man stating a fact like that? Did he know how destructive this is to — fearful to the Jewish population, whoever hears them, especially a survivor? How dare he say things like that?

So I became very ill after that and my children and my husband made sure that I see a doctor, a very fine psychiatrist, because I had lost it to a point that I wanted to die. I was that ill.

So I did go, and for two years I saw him.

I used to hide from people. I didn’t want to see anyone that I knew. It was a horrible time for me. And everything started coming back. But also, I started — you know, one of the suggestions that Dr. Luby, my psychiatrist, mentioned that I should start taping, speak into a microphone. And I made several tapes, but they were kind of disjointed. There was no particular flow to it. I couldn’t get my mind to coordinate anything.

So after that, one of my friends suggested I — there were some challenged young people in the museum that I should go and speak in a little room, you know, so I would not be exposed to other people. And I gently spoke to them however I possibly could at the time. I was not able to do so much. But you know, these people had worse problems than I did, and I felt, who are you to complain when you see challenged people?

AM: What kind of challenges did they have?

EG: Many were in wheelchairs. They were sort of like vacant, some of them. You know, nothing seemed to come into their minds.

AM: Well, it’s an interesting contrast that you speak about there because I think for many people to listen to a Holocaust survivor tell her story, like you’re doing now, someone who didn’t have that life experience might have that thought that you just expressed, which is, you know, boy, I think I have it tough; this story is putting some perspective into my life. And here you were, getting that perspective from these people you were telling the story to.

EG: Yes. You said it better than I did.

AM: And there’s a commonality there too, because you speak of nothing coming into their minds, and that’s how you describe yourself during your captivity in the hayloft.

EG: You know, I’ve had many difficulties in my life throughout. I suppressed my feelings of the past my whole life except the last — when I started remembering, I went to a psychiatrist.

My father and sister, we never spoke of the past. It was an unconscious pact. And to this day, had I spoken to my father, he could have confirmed — told me where my mother’s remains are. Maybe he knew the road. And you know, right after the war, nobody wanted to hear the stories. They were too ugly, including my aunt in Metz and her family, which was grown and I was still a child. They never, ever wanted to hear it — not that I could say it then. I was too hurt inside. I was practically a destroyed human being. But nobody wanted to hear. And even when I came to the United States, my aunt said to me, “Listen, let’s not talk about your past; you’re starting a new life.” It was true.

But, you know, many of the survivors were unable to speak. And later on, when their life was more comfortable, that they could handle it better, it started little by little. Something triggers it where they feel that they must tell.

AM: And for you, when you tell your story, is it difficult?

EG: I really don’t feel absolutely confident when I speak to a large crowd. I don’t, because it’s opening wounds that are constantly sore in my body. It’s a sore. And I must do it to the end of my life. It’s a must. More often it’s because of my mother, which she is lately very much with me.

I remember many, many times in the beginning, when I would speak to adults only, there were many women that would come up after to me and say, “I was raped. I can’t push this stuff from my emotions.” So she says, but how do you do it that you’re able to speak to all of us here?

I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.

Don’t make me mushy.


You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast, rate it, and subscribe.  

I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Erna Blitzer Gorman for her time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.

Also available: a Podcast Extra” in which Erna talks about Poland after the war and telling her story.

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Photo credits: David Seide

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