“This extraordinary book enables the reader to see the Holocaust through two different lenses. Each lens gives us a compelling view of a world, far from our present reality, which we need to know. Each lens opens a gate and leads us into a reality from which we return transformed. This book which started as a gift of love from the author to her survivor parents-in-law, turns out to be a gift of seeing life anew to every reader. It enables us – no, it compels us-to see our everyday lives in a new dimension of appreciation, meaning and purpose. I urge everyone to look deeply into this book and accept its priceless gift of a new life.
The first lens reveals the remarkable story of Sam Goldberg and Esther Wisznia Goldberg who survived the cruelest and darkest depths of the Holocaust. Their stories are told separately and parallel until they come together, to hide in a dugout pit in forest ground, abutting the farm of a Polish family that agreed to hide them and try to feed them (all in secret, lest they be discovered and executed for helping Jews). By this time, every member of Sam and Esther’s family had been killed in various ways.
Esther and Sam enjoyed warm, loving childhoods as they grew up in observant Jewish homes. Sam survived German air bombings, flight to Russian-occupied Poland, draft service in the Russian army, Nazi P.O.W. camps for Russians (where hundreds of thousands were murdered), escape, recapture, and being sent to build Treblinka death camp. He spent thirteen months in this place of extermination as supervisor of the laundry. At several critical moments, he was kept alive by the arbitrary whim intervention of the deputy Director of Treblinka, Kurt Franz an SS officer who shot prisoners for sport but somehow decided to keep this Jew alive. Sam took part in the prisoner uprising in Treblinka. In the subsequent chaos, he and tens of others fled but most were caught and killed. Of about 875,000 Jews sent to Treblinka, about 65 survived the war. Sam was one of them.
Esther survived German air bombing of her home town, Stoczek, her home burning down, flight to Bialystok and then to Slonim, Einsatzgruppen killing of her entire family (She was spared because she was in the hospital recovering from typhus). She returned to Stoczek, survived random selections, months of hiding with her husband under a haystack in the barn of a sympathetic Polish family, the murder of her husband when he went out to seek for food, the birth and death of her first child -until the final twelve months in the pit in the forest.
Each of these stories is told with breath-stopping matter of factness, with a heart-breaking eye for the telling detail, with restraint and accuracy, compounded of extended conversations with Sam and Esther and meticulous research on the background and circumstances by the author. This section puts the volume in the immortal ranks of survivor accounts which tell the story of the Shoah with fidelity, sanctity and unforgettable power.
The second lens reveals how the author, Karen Treiger, a third/fifth generation American who grew up in Seattle, Washington, galaxies away from the death planet of Treblinka, takes up the task of telling the story of Sam and Esther, after their death. She and her husband and various friends and family members go back and visit the scenes of the Goldbergs’ lives. They also visit Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and other scenes of the total destruction. Alas, the Jewish presence is mostly buried in the ruins. The depressive effects of these revelations are tempered and somewhat overcome, in the encounter with the families of those who risked their lives to hide and feed Jews. We learn how in the deepest rings of hell, where mass murderers ruled and flourished, there were a precious handful of righteous Gentiles who risked all to save Jews. In the worst moments of the Holocaust, there were humans who chose life, both Jews and non-Jews who upheld the sanctity of human life and honored ethics and human responsibility. They also meet people who fan the sparks of rebirth in Polish Jewry.
Gradually, the author reveals to us how the encounter with pure evil and death of the Holocaust has the paradoxical effect of opening our eyes to the preciousness of life, to the miraculous goodness of everyday living, of the difference we can make by caring for others and not standing idly by the blood of our neighbor. This section teaches us that we must confront and remember the Shoah, even if our family was never there.
Reading this book is an invitation to live a fuller life - to become the children and grandchildren of those martyred and of those who preserved their image of God and Jewish identity under impossible circumstances. One can only bow one’s head, out of an unutterable gratitude, to the author for her contribution to the sacred narrative of our people. I call this book sacred, for (as with all forms of scripture) it tells not only what happened - but how to live in light of the story.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, President Emeritus, CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; chairman, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 2000-2002.