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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Episode 8 – Ben Goldwater

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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 from Ben Goldwater.

Ben was born in December 1938, in Brussels, Belgium.  He was living in Eisden, a small city in the north of Belgium, near Antwerp, when war broke out in September 1939. When the German army attacked the French and British armies though Luxembourg and Belgium, his family fled to France.  The French government was not friendly to refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, so after several months, his family returned to Belgium, settling in Mons, near the French border. Ben’s family lived under constant fear of denunciation as Jews and did whatever they could to avoid the local Gestapo.  Ben’s father was active in the Belgian resistance and used his underground contacts to find a woman in a nearby village who was willing to provide a hiding place for Ben and his sister.

B/W photograph of Ben Goldwater walking with his father Samuel Goldwater (Szmuel Jakob Goldwasser) in Mons, Belgium, October 1942. In the background, a German soldier is walking in the opposite direction
B/W photograph of Ben Goldwater and his father Samual Goldwater (Szmuel Jakob Goldwasser) in the same location as 2019.24.2, Mons, Belgium, 1946. In the background, a British soldier is walking in the opposite direction.
B/W photograph of Ben Goldwater holding the hands of Josephine [left] and her daughter, Denise, Mons, Belgium. Reverse notes this photo was taken after an argument over whether to turn Ben over to the Gestapo.
B/W passport photo of Samuel Goldwater (Szmuel Jakob Goldwasser), circa 1948. Goldwater was a member of the Belgian underground in Mesierre, Belgium. He wears an insignia pin on his lapel of the Belgian Underground.
B/W photograph of Samuel Goldwater (Szmuel Jakob Goldwasser), marching with the Secret Belgian Army (Armee Secrete), circa 1944 or1945, Mesierre, Belgium. Goldwater is identified by arrow.
Poster freaturing Belgian Resistance fighters (Armee Secrete) from 1940 to 1945. Ben Goldwater’s father Szmuel Jakob Goldwasser appears six rows from the bottom on the left side of the poster.
Paper WWII German SS Concentration Camp money, 1 Reich Mark with the number 79089. There is nothing on the back. The money is mostly blue in color with the word “AuBenkommando” in diagonal across the center. At the top are the words “SS-Standort-Kantine / Buchenwald.” There is a german stamp on the right side.
Small black suitcase made of leather, wood, and metal- dating Pre-World War II. It was used by the Goldwater (Goldwasser) family when they immigrated from Belgium to the U.S. It has three ‘Cunard White Star, Tourist Class, G’ stickers; and brown, leather reinforcement banding on the exposed corners. The interior is red with a pocket on the top and two leather straps on the bottom.
Large brown suitcase made of leather, wood, and metal- possibly dating Pre-World War II. It was used by the Goldwater (Goldwasser) family when they immigrated from Belgium to the U.S. in 1949. It has gold colored adornments and a brown metal handle. Two stamps near the handle read: ‘Deco, Futura, Brevete’ and ‘BREVETES B. 482.730 LUX.29.065’.

[Ben Goldwater] We got to this woman’s house — her name was Josephine — and I realized that I was going to be left there. I started to cry bitterly. That feeling of abandonment was just overwhelming. I was devastated. My father promised he would send my sister the next day, which he did. He brought my sister to stay with me the next day. And that’s when my sister and I went into hiding with this woman Josephine, who lived in her home with her daughter, Denise. Her daughter, Denise, was a teenager then. So, anyway, she took us in and set up two rickety beds in an attic, which was neither finished nor heated. And that’s the area that was given to my sister and I.

[Andy Miles] Ben Goldwater arrived in Chicago on December 18, 1949, his 11th birthday, and enrolled in the 5th grade at Mason School on the West Side of Chicago.  He later attended Chicago’s Senn High School, where he graduated in 1957.   When he was a senior at Northwestern in 1960, Ben met his wife, Linda.  They’ve been married for almost 60 years and have two children and two grandchildren.  Ben earned his JD degree from IIT Chicago Kent College of Law and has been practicing law, to this day, since 1964.

We spoke in the Illinois Holocaust Museum Library just before his 81st birthday — and the 70th anniversary of his arrival in Chicago.  

AM: Ben, you were born in Belgium 10 months before the beginning of World War II.   When war came, Belgium declared neutrality, but Germany, like it did elsewhere, violated that and moved in. What happened then, to you and your family and to your way of life?

BG: My father had lived in Germany. He was born in Poland, and when his mother died, he went to live with his grandparents in Berlin. And so, having lived in Germany for a number of years prior to the war, he was familiar with German antisemitism. So when Germany attacked the British and French through Belgium and Luxembourg, my father decided this was an unhealthy climate for us in Belgium, so he took my mother, my sister, and I and we fled to France. The French weren’t terribly welcoming of refugees generally and, in particular, Jewish refugees, so we decided to return to Belgium.

Since the Germans attacked the British and French on May 10th, 1940, it would have been, I would say, the latter part of 1940, perhaps very early ’41 when we returned to Belgium. We lived in Mons — M-o-n-s — a city in the southern part of Belgium, the French-speaking portion. And I do remember our initial lives in that particular city at that time.

AM: And what do you remember about it?

BG: I remember, as a child, standing on the corner of an intersection, approximately a half a block from where we lived, watching a German parade with German soldiers sitting on a horse. He had two tympani drums on either side of the horse. He was banging away with martial music playing. And I was watching them.

AM: And were you aware as you were watching them that this was the reason that your life had changed?

BG: I was aware that the Germans were the enemy and that I had to be very watchful, because something terrible would happen if I wasn’t. Obviously, at that age, I had no conception of what death meant. I didn’t know what replacement into work camps or anything of that order, I didn’t know what those things meant. But I did know that I had to be watchful and not speak about certain things in the presence of Germans, or to anyone that might tell the Germans.

AM: So at this time, how old was your sister?

BG: My sister is six and a half years older than I am, so she was born in 1932. So at that time, she must have been eight, nine years old.

AM: So in some ways, she was a bit of an older sibling protector but also she was probably old enough to be aware of how dangerous the situation might be, whereas you might not have had that full awareness at age two and three.

BG: No question that she was aware of it. And my sister was given the I won’t say obligation but she took care of me when I was a young child and it graduated into the time when we went into hiding. She was my security blanket, so to say.

AM: And you had a close relationship?

BG: We were a closely knit family. It was a very loving family, and my sister and I — I mean, we played together, you know. She introduced me to certain things, certain games that we played, certain songs that we sang, you know, as children. And it continued into the time that we went into hiding.

AM: When you had settled back into life in Belgium and the Nazis were occupying the whole country, your mother resisted the edict to sew stars of David on the lapels of your family’s clothing.  Can you tell me that story and also describe your mother as a person?  What do you remember about her at that time?

BG: My mother was a very caring mother. She was what was typical at that time, a housewife. She took care of the family, the house. And my mother refused to sew the Star of David on the exterior of our clothing, although the Germans insisted that all Jews wear the Star of David. It served two purposes: It served the purpose of dividing the local populations into “we” and “them,” “them” being the Jews who had to wear the star and “we” the ones who didn’t have to. And in addition to that, it provided for recognition of Jews at a distance. Eventually, my mother did sew the Star of David on the backside of our lapels so that it wasn’t visible, but if asked to be shown, we could flip the lapels over and show that we were wearing the Star of David. Eventually, my mother felt it was too dangerous and she removed them even from the backside of our lapels. And I can’t tell you the exact length of time, but certainly, until we went into hiding, we hadn’t worn the Star of David for some time.

There were repercussions, negative ones, if a Jew was caught without the Star of David on his clothing. They usually used the euphemism of being sent to a work camp in Germany, when, in effect, that would mean being taken and sent to either a ghetto in the east or a concentration camp. But, of course, that never happened to us because we were never caught by the Germans.

AM: And what about your father?   What kind of man was he, and what did he have in him, do you think, that made him risk his life and join the resistance — which he did basically upon returning to Belgium, right?

BG: That is correct. He joined the Belgium resistance, the underground, which was basically the Belgian army in secret. My father was involved with that group because of a certain aspect of him that would be generally unexpected. My father was an unusual man. He was very, very gentle, but he was also a very strong man. And he had never gone beyond the first grade elementary school, but he had self-taught himself to read and write and speak a dozen languages.

His German was virtually perfect. The only thing that a German could discern is a Berlin accent to his German, and for that reason, he was used by the underground quite often to send him right into Gestapo headquarters and learn whatever secrets could be learned to assist both the resistance and the Allies. They never took him for being anything other than a fellow German.

As a matter of fact — (laughs) — my father was a wanted man by the Nazis. They had a poster in Gestapo headquarters. They nicknamed him The Gentleman because he always wore white shirts and ties. He was always well dressed. And he’d walk into their headquarters with the sign right above him, you know, that he was a wanted man, but they never connected.

AM: And he was wanted at that point because of his known role in the resistance?

BG: I would think so, yes.

AM: And you spoke of your father having a Berlin accent. But your parents were both from Poland; is that correct?

BG: That’s correct.

AM: How did things change when war came and Belgium came under Nazi occupation?

BG: When the war started, we lived in Eisden, which is near the Dutch border, not far away from the city of Antwerp in the Flemish-speaking section of Belgium. After the war started — oh, I should say after we fled from Belgium to France — we did not return to Eisden. We settled in Mons, which is a French-speaking portion, very close to the French border, and there we stayed until the time that we went into hiding. And I can recall — I must have been three years old at the time, but I do recall walking with my father to a neighbor’s house, about a half a block or block away from where we lived. They lived in an apartment. To get to the apartment we had to climb a spiral staircase, and I remember doing that with my dad. The family that lived there had two boys. They were slightly older than I was. They both played the violin. And I remember walking up that spiral staircase with my father, and when we arrived, the door to their apartment was open. And we walked in. There was no one there. But there was food on the table, and the food was warm. And I walked into the boys’ bedroom on my own and I saw the two violins on the — one on each of their beds. And when I walked back into the kitchen area, I saw my father, and I could tell from the look on his face that something horrible had happened. I guess he must have realized that the Germans had taken that family. And we returned home quickly after that.

It was around that time that — it must have been early or mid-1942. My dad took me aside and he was very stern about it. He told me I had to forget that my name is Benjamin. I had to forget that my name is Goldwasser. And I had to forget that we were Jews. I knew that what my father was telling me — if I didn’t listen to him, if I didn’t obey what he was telling me, that there would be dire circumstances, that dire things would happen to us. But I didn’t understand the concept of death. I didn’t understand that we would be shipped away. I didn’t understand at that time why my father had looked so terror-filled and horrified by not finding that family in the apartment that we visited. But I knew that something terrible would happen. I just didn’t know what. And that’s about the time — whether it was the same day or a day or two later that my father told me I was going to live with some woman in a neighboring village, which I didn’t quite accept that concept at that time.

AM: It’s a shocking concept for a young child.

BG: Well, it was more shocking when I had the full realization of abandonment. I was going to be abandoned with this woman, who spoke French differently than I did. I spoke big-city French. She spoke rural French. Culturally she was different. My father and I walked there. I remember walking on the highway there. It was cold, so it must have been early autumn or possibly later in the autumn of 1942.

AM: And it’s just the two of you walking?

BG: Yes. We got to this woman’s house — her name was Josephine — and I realized that I was going to be left there. I started to cry bitterly. That feeling of abandonment was just overwhelming. I was devastated. My father promised he would send my sister the next day, which he did. He brought my sister to stay with me the next day. And that’s when my sister and I went into hiding with this woman Josephine, who lived in her home with her daughter, Denise. Her daughter, Denise, was a teenager then. Her husband had been a Belgian soldier that was taken prisoner by the Germans when Belgium capitulated, and he was sent to a POW camp in Germany. So, anyway, she took us in and set up two rickety beds — I remember feeling every spring in the mattress, the little bed that I had — in an attic, which was neither finished nor heated. And that’s the area that was given to my sister and I.

AM: And her willingness to take you in was connected to her affiliation with the underground?

BG: I can’t say that. I know that my father obtained her name through the underground, but I don’t believe she was affiliated with them. And I might add that her taking my sister and I in was not an act of good will, per se. She didn’t do it to save the lives of two Jewish children. My father paid her, and that’s why she took us in.

AM: And you mentioned cultural differences between you and your sister on the one side and her on the other side. What were some of those cultural differences, and do you remember her taking what you would identify as antisemitic actions?

BG: Well, I was still a little boy at that time, and we didn’t have, for example, an indoor bathroom where one could take a shower or bath. So bathing was done in a tub. And she tended to look at me and to show me to other people that would come into her home because apparently they had never seen a circumcised male. I didn’t realize that I was being shown for that reason. My sister did. That did upset her, as many things at that time upset her.

Through the period of 14 months that we lived with Josephine and her daughter, Denise, she beat me regularly. My sister not so much because maybe she was gender-biased. But I did get beaten on a regular basis, sometimes more times than others. I took it for granted that I was receiving corporal punishment possibly for something that I had done, although I don’t think I did anything. But we were there and I had my sister to comfort me.

AM: And what sort of free rein did you have? Were you confined to the attic?

BG: No, no. The attic was where we slept. And we slept a lot of time in the attic because, number one, she would turn the clocks back so that we thought it was later than it was and we went to bed so that she and Denise could have dinner, because she limited the amount of food that my sister and I received. She and Denise ate the lion’s share of whatever food rations she had. But otherwise, we had pretty much the run of the house and the grounds, except we didn’t go outside. We couldn’t have friends. We couldn’t attend school. But my sister and I, we spent a lot of time together, particularly in that attic room. And we would play games, sing songs. We would tell each other stories. We would invent stories. And because we had very little else to do, my sister taught me how to read and write during that time. I was barely four years old when I read my first book, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, a rather intense book for a child, but it taught me how to read words, to understand what I was reading. I may not have understood the story line, but I understood the words that I was reading. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.

AM: So the war came quite close to where you were. You could hear planes flying over and sometimes crashing and bombs exploding. Was that something that characterized your whole time there, or were there periods where that became more prevalent?

BG: I didn’t know it then, but those were British planes that flew at night because the Americans bombed during the day and the British bombed at night. I didn’t know where they were bombing. I didn’t know where they were going. But we could see German searchlights through one window in the ceiling of that attic room that we shared. And through that window we could see German searchlights searching for planes. We could see the flight of planes when they were caught in those searchlights. And on occasion, we could see a British plane that was shot down in flames. Many times we could hear not only the anti-aircraft guns, but we could hear the bombs falling and exploding. We didn’t know where they exploded, but we could feel the vibrations. During that time, Josephine and Denise would hide in a root cellar. My sister and I were left behind in the attic.

Again, I was protected by my youth because I didn’t know the risk that we were under, in case a bomb might drop near us. But my sister did and she was traumatized by it. Nothing I could do about that.

My parents, by the way, were hidden nearby in another place but quite close to where we were hiding. The reason for the separation is that if they got caught my sister and I would survive the war, and if we got caught, then they might survive the war. But my parents were willing to brave a German curfew that didn’t allow anyone to be out on the street after dark to try to come to see us once a month. Josephine tried to prevent it on a number of times, claiming that we had gone to bed early or that we weren’t feeling well.

AM: So they would arrive under the cover of darkness, knock on the door, and Josephine would basically resist?

BG: She’d let them in because we could hear their voices, but she wouldn’t let us see them. Perhaps she didn’t want us to tell my parents the kind of treatment that we received. We received inadequate food from her. She gave us food on a daily basis, but she ate the larger portion of whatever rations she received, she and her daughter, while she left perhaps scraps for my sister and I to eat. And my sister tried to satiate herself by drinking huge amounts of water where she became bloated. She couldn’t take three steps without feeling pain in her side. On the other hand, I became rather scrawny. I presume malnutrition.

One day, I recall I was so hungry I raided the garbage can. Josephine had cooked carrots and had thrown away the carrot greens, the tops. And I raided the garbage can, took out the carrot greens and ate them. I got an extra beating for that because Josephine said to me that if people found out that I had raided the garbage can, they might think she wasn’t feeding me. Of course, she wasn’t.

At any rate, ultimately, it came that my parents did get to see us. My mother was able to speak to my sister privately. My sister explained to her what was going on in that household. And after 14 months my father obtained false identity papers, again through the resistance, and we moved to a neighboring village called Mesierre, where we lived out the war.

AM: And when you say that, you lived out the war as a family of four?

BG: Well, actually as a family of four for a period and basically as a family of three, because, again, my parents decided to separate my sister and I. They sent her to a convent. The convent, the nuns had 21 girls that they had at this convent, of which 19 were Jewish girls. They treated the young women well, but of course, they tried to convert them to Catholicism. And my sister would periodically ride her bicycle and come home to see us. But the separation was important, that if we were caught then my sister might survive the war.

AM: So when you had moved and were in the home where you stayed for the remainder of the war, I would imagine that you had the same circumstances, where you basically were hidden away. Is that correct?

BG: Well, we had false identity papers and I used a name other than my name. It got to be so common for me to use that name that I virtually forgot who I really was.

AM: And what was that name?

BG: Jean Govaerts. Govaerts was a name of a Dutch family that had died and the resistance were able to provide false identity papers in those names for my parents. Of course, as their child I became Jean Govaerts. My father was Pierre and my mother was Simone.

AM: How would you describe your life at this time?

BG: We saw Germans, many of them training for the Eastern Front, so that we saw the German recruits training in their underwear and their undershirts in the middle of winter because they were training for the Russian winters to be sent east.

My father, again, was used by the underground at that time because the adjoining village to Mesierre where we lived was a place called Casteau. And Casteau was the place where the Germans had built this huge detention camp. It literally housed thousands of prisoners and most of them were either political prisoners, members of the resistance that had been captured, and Jews, and from there, the Germans decided where they would send the Jews. Most of them were sent either directly to Auschwitz or to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Again, my father, because of his linguistic abilities, was used to enter and leave the camp and he was used to smuggle messages and sometimes weapons in and out of the camp. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I remember one time my father took me with them because he felt that the Germans couldn’t believe that somebody from the resistance would take a child along. Camp was surrounded by high barbed wire fence. And the cleared area meant that no one could come close to the camp without being seen, nor could anyone leave the camp without being seen. And I remember being outside of the barbed wire with my dad and suddenly an opening — a door opened up in the barbed wire, and a German soldier came out. And as he came up to me — I had curly blonde hair at that time — he said in German that I was a cute little girl. (Laughs.) And he patted me on the head. And as I said before, my sister had taught me how to read and write and I noticed the patch on his shoulder that said Österreich, which meant he was an Austrian soldier. And he told my father to wait there. My father had a decision to make: Does he disregard that order and go home? In which case, he would easily be found out because these are small villages. Everybody knew everybody. And they might get suspicious as to why he disobeyed the order to wait there and that might lead to discovery that we weren’t really who we said we were. So the other choice he had was to wait and see what this German soldier wanted. And after a number of minutes, he came back out of the camp and he carried with them a loaf of Bavarian rye, which he gave me. To have real bread, especially a loaf of Bavarian rye bread, was something that nobody could see. We ate ersatz bread, which was made out of the chaff, not the seed of wheat. And so we brought it home and my mother wouldn’t eat the crust that touched his uniform — (laughs) — so she cut that off. But we feasted on that bread.

After we were liberated, the camp at Casteau was used by the Allies as a POW camp and also a camp where collaborators were housed. But the Allies needed the soldiers to go on with the war in Germany, so my father’s underground unit was given the job of guarding the camp. And my father had one of the huts that housed maybe a thousand prisoners. And one of his prisoners was the same Austrian soldier that we met before. So my father was able to return the favor by providing him with a few extra scraps of food, because food was unavailable. We didn’t have food, so obviously the prisoners didn’t get much to eat either. But he was able to provide him with a little extra food. What goes around comes around, even in wartime.

AM: You alluded to liberation. But before we get there, I did want to try to get a sense of your knowledge of your father’s activities at that time. I mean, you must have known or suspected that he was involved in some extracurricular activity, so to speak, but to what degree were you aware of it? And did you have a sense of the extra danger that he was in and also, by extension, your family was potentially in?

BG: Well, to start out, I think, as you know, I’m an attorney now, and to use a legal expression, much of what I learned was hearsay, because I didn’t personally witness or hear these things. But one thing I do recall: There was a time when my father and I were standing in a gangway between the place where we lived and the house next door. And I saw, as I said to you before — we lived at a T intersection, the head of a T intersection. Walking down the leg of the T were four men that I could tell by their appearance were Gestapo. And they came walking towards us, each of them carrying a Schmeisser sub-machine gun. And as they got close enough to us, one of them came straight for my dad and I, the other one went around to the left, one directly went to the front door, and one stood outside. And suddenly my father came out of nowhere, started to speak in a very angry tone to me and he shook his finger at me and in French he said, “You can’t play with Emile anymore”— Emile was a little boy that lived nearby — “because he’s not a good boy and I want you to go in the house now and I don’t ever want to see you play with that boy again.” And he was really shaking his fist, and of course, it came out of nowhere. (Laughs.) I didn’t know where it came from.

What I learned then is that the Gestapo had come because the man next door held weapons and munitions for the resistance group to which my father belonged, and he had gone to a tavern and he had shot off his mouth about how he held these weapons in his basement. And of course, there must have been a spy in the tavern who overheard it and the Gestapo went there to arrest him, not my dad. And he was taken into custody by them at that time and they did find the weapons and munitions there. Strangely enough, the man next door did survive the war and was freed after the liberation. But that was a pretty frightful event. (Laughs.)

AM: Looking back now, what do you think of the bravery of your father?

BG: What I saw of my father, my mother as well, is the courage that they showed — I’m a parent and a grandparent now, and I can’t imagine, with all the education that I have, I can’t imagine doing the things that they did, and doing it with such courage, which ended up saving our lives. Of course, I would do anything to protect my family, but I don’t know if I could muster the courage that they showed. My father was the gentlest man you’d ever want to meet, but when it came to what he did during those years, it showed terrific strength, both of mind and body. And what it taught me is how to be respectful of him. I have the highest respect for him and for my mother.

My mother and my sister both were traumatized by those years. My mother never recovered from it. For that matter, my sister still hasn’t recovered from it. Those are the crimes that the Nazis perpetrated, which just never go away.

What it taught me is family, to care for my family. I learned from my father that it’s paramount. Perhaps that’s why I met my wife, married her. We’ve now been married for 59 years. So I wanted to meet the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life, as my father did. And I have accomplished that. I did provide for my family, my children. I provided them with an education and the tools for success in life. And both of my children have grown up to be successful. They’re attorneys, as I am. And I’ve got two grandchildren that I trust will end up like their parents.

I think basically that type of family strength came from what I witnessed from my parents. And I don’t know how else I can say it other than I have the greatest praise and admiration for them and for what they were able to accomplish.

Near the end of the war for us, I had a letter from General Eisenhower that directed my father’s underground unit to try to slow down the German retreat out of France and Belgium, because if the Germans were able to retreat all the way to Germany, they would be able to fight the allies on their own soil. My father’s underground resistance group consisted of somewhat under 300 men. My father, among them, went to try to slow down the German retreat, and he got into a battle with the Germans near the village of Casteau that I mentioned before. And out of somewhat close to 300 men in his unit, maybe a couple dozen survived. I don’t know how well they were able to slow down the German retreat, but that’s what they did. My father was very fortunate. He came out of it without a scratch. And as a child I would ask my dad if he killed any Germans. To the day he died, he never would tell me. All he kept saying to me is, “I fired my rifle; when I ran out of ammunition, I left.” That was it. He would never tell me if he killed any Germans. I’m sure he must have, but who knows.

AM: One thing I’ve wondered throughout our conversation, or at certain parts of our conversation, is as a small child, as a small boy of three, four, five years old, was the war experience predominantly a solemn and nerve-wracking experience for you, or was there some sense of an adventure that your small-boy eyes were observing?

BG: I think I was aware enough to know that it wasn’t just an adventure. This was real. But I may have said it earlier in this interview, I was saved by my youth, and perhaps the ignorance of youth. I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what it meant to be a Jew in a Nazi-occupied country. I know and I heard, you know, other people talk about the “dirty Jews.” But that’s what we had to go through, even after the war.

AM: Let’s talk about how you got here. You did have some difficulty initially.

BG: Yes. My parents were never Belgian citizens so they had to obtain their Polish passports because they were born in Poland, which was rather difficult because many of the records had either been destroyed or were unavailable. But they got their Polish passports. And because the United States had immigration quotas at that time, which, as an example, had no immigration from Africa or Asia and had limited immigration from Eastern Europe. Most of the quota was filled with people emigrating from Western Europe, Scandinavia, Ireland, England, Germany.

My parents went to a USO club soon after we were liberated and asked if anybody there spoke Yiddish. And a GI identified himself as Maurice Levy. He lived in the Bronx. He had taught himself how to read and write French, and he could read and write and speak Yiddish. And Maurice became a very close friend of ours. Whenever he was near our home he spent time with us; he brought his buddies to stay with us. They would bring raw materials. My mother would cook home-cooked meals for them.

When he left the service in 1945 — or I should say, when he mustered out and went back to United States — he located my mother’s family. He worked for the postal service so he was able to find them. He took a trip to Chicago, told my mother’s aunt and uncle that we had survived the war, and they immediately started the necessary paperwork to sponsor our coming to the United States. Still, we had to wait for a visa, and we waited over four years for a visa. So although the paperwork started in 1945, we didn’t get our visas to come to the United States until 1949.

My family in Chicago also provided us — they booked passage for us on the Queen Mary. And we left from Southampton in England, traveled to New York. We arrived in New York on December 15th, 1949. We spent three days with Maurice Levy and his family, and then we came to Chicago. And we arrived in Chicago on December 18th, 1949, my 11th birthday.

I was enrolled in the fifth grade. Couldn’t speak any English. And I had a friendly teacher that could speak German, and so with the few words of German I was able to take some books home. And in taking the books home, I read every word with a French-English dictionary at my side and learned how to speak English. Within two weeks I was conversant. The dictionary’s a wonderful tool.

Maurice Levy, when he came to Chicago, met my mother’s family, and in addition to their sponsoring coming to the United States, Maurice met my cousin, and in 1951 they married. So he not only was a friend but he became family as well.

Anyway, as I said, I became an attorney. I have two children. They also became attorneys. And I have two grandchildren. And these are all things that could not have happened if I hadn’t survived the Holocaust. It’s pretty much like — I tell the kids when I speak at the museum here, it’s similar to the story that we see at Christmastime on television, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where Jimmy Stewart, who plays the role of George Bailey, tells his guardian angel that he wished he had never been born and the guardian angel shows him what life would have been like had he never been born. And I can say somewhat the same thing: If I hadn’t survived the Holocaust, I wouldn’t have come to the United States. I wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have my children. I wouldn’t have my grandchildren. I wouldn’t have had my education. I wouldn’t have become an attorney. I wouldn’t have been able to assist the thousands of clients I’ve represented during my career. None of that would have happened. And that gives thought to the fact that the Nazis killed some 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of others, and of the 6 million Jews, it is estimated that maybe a million and a half were children who never got to live out their potential. We’ll never know whether one of those children might have grown up to find a cure for cancer or develop technologies that are unheard of yet. Could have accomplished so many things in the arts and the sciences, in medicine, in education. But we’ll never know because their lives were snuffed out before they could reach their potential. They were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

I just trust that the people that I talk to learn a lesson from my experiences and of course the experiences of those who suffered in the concentration camps. I can’t tell the horrific stories of those who survived the concentration camps because I was never interned in one. But they can stop another Holocaust from happening. I’ve always felt that the fact that many of the people in the occupied countries showed apathy at the time this was happening to the Jews — they felt that it’s happening to Jews and I’m not a Jew, so therefore, who cares? And that sort of apathy permitted the Germans to be as successful as they are.

They can’t show apathy, these kids today, towards any wrongdoing, any injustice. They have to speak up. And they can prevent another holocaust from happening. And I’m not referring to a holocaust against Jews. I’m referring to a holocaust or an injustice against any people, even against a bully who picks on one or two other people. When you see an injustice, you’ve got to stand up and speak up and speak against it and stop it.

And I think, unfortunately, the civics education that we get in our schools today may not go far enough in teaching these young people the rights that they have, how our Constitution works, what a wonderful instrument it is, and the foresight of the Founding Fathers and what they built into the Constitution. They have to have an understanding of these rights, and for many people, there’s not only ignorance of what occurred during the Holocaust but ignorance of their own rights right here in the United States.

This is the greatest country in the world, and unless you’ve lived elsewhere, where you’ve been under some other system, you can’t really appreciate what you have. I think that I think is the most important part of what I do when I speak to these kids. It’s something that we tend to forget sometimes. And I think it’s important that they know what their rights are and what wonderful lives they lead under our system of government.

AM: Outside of those public speaking engagements that you have, how often do you tell this story in maybe not this level of detail but in a detailed way, to family or friends or even colleagues? And was there a process by which you came to be more comfortable telling that history? I mean, was there a period of time where you didn’t talk about it at all?

BG: I don’t think I ever felt discomfort about talking about my experiences. But I never thought about talking about it to other people. It wasn’t because of discomfort; I just don’t know that I ever had an opportunity to. Nobody asked me and — (laughs) — I just didn’t feel that it was something I should tell, until a man that I met my first day in high school. He sat right behind me. His name was Robert Greenberg. He’s also an attorney. His wife is a docent here at the museum and his wife questioned me about it, and when she found out that I was a survivor, she suggested that I speak to the museum. And so a staff at the museum interviewed me, and I’ve been speaking at the museum now ever since this building was constructed. I’m willing to speak to other people if it means that I open their eyes to something that they didn’t know before. I’ve spoken to private groups. I’ve spoken to different high schools. I’ve told my story in French.

AM: When we finish this, we’re going to do the whole interview again in French. (Laughter.)

Is there a sense in which the experience that you had and the fact that you are a Holocaust survivor, is there some component of that in most or much of what you do in some way? For example, as an attorney: Do you think it somehow informs your work?

BG: I think it enhanced my sense of justice because of the injustices that I experienced as a child. Whether or not that led me into becoming an attorney, I really can’t say.

AM: I think we covered a lot of ground, but do you have a parting message for the listeners to this podcast?

BG: I think people should learn what occurred so that history doesn’t repeat itself. And I think that’s the most important part of what we, the survivors, tell our audiences. If they don’t know or don’t understand what occurred before, perhaps they can’t help if it occurs again. But in order to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, they have to know what the history was like to begin with.

Linda Goldwater: This is Ben Goldwater’s wife, Linda, and I want to add that he has the most wonderful disposition. Our children, who are in their 50s, even laud him and tell him that they are very fortunate to have both of us as their parents, which of course makes us feel very good. And most of the time when he speaks to the students, they write him letters and they are so heartwarming and so touching because most of them say how he changed their lives for the better and they’re so happy to meet him. A lot of them, before we leave, they shake his hand. I am so lucky and my children are so lucky. He is a wonderful person and I love him.


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, Ben Goldwater for his time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.

Also available: a Podcast Extra” in which Ben talks about antisemitism in the Belgian schools he attended.

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Photo credits: David Seide

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