Survivors memoirs recall close calls with death

In just a short period of her life, Zosia Goldberg faced life or death 49 times, and survived.

Like the day after Wold War II ended. As she stood up and stretched, a Nazi pointed his rifle at her head. He could have shot her. But he didn’t.

Then there was the time a Polish farmer hid her and her mother in an attic because just a few moments earlier, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary, and she commanded him to save Jews.

And there are 47 more.

Goldberg, who lives in Florida and is now 85, is seeing her life story in official print for the first time.

“Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust,” was recently published by Mercury House, thanks to the efforts of her nephew, Hilton Obenzinger, a Bay Area writer and poet. Portions of the book will be read in a dramatic reading along with excerpts from a Bay Area survivor’s memoir, that of Esther Kemeny, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Sunday, May 2.

For Obenzinger, a writing instructor at Stanford, his mother’s young sister, Aunt Zosia, loomed large when he was growing up. His own parents had escaped Poland in the nick of time. But Zosia Goldberg did not. A beautiful woman with a quick mind, she evaded capture by passing as an Aryan. Because her grandfather was the highest ranking Jew in the Polish government — and a controversial figure at that -— she spoke Polish like a Pole and not Yiddish. She had attended mostly non-Jewish schools, and therefore absorbed the Catholic rituals. She escaped the Warsaw ghetto through the sewers.

And because she was a woman, she got away with certain things that a man could not. When her cousin tried escaping the ghetto, he was discovered as a Jew when they pulled his pants down. He was killed on the spot.

Obenzinger began interviewing his aunt some 25 years ago, to record her story for his own family. They did 17 hours of interviews. When Obenzinger produced a manuscript, several people who read it said, “Wow, you should try to publish this.”

But the responses from editors were varied, even strange. One doubted the veracity of the story, saying it was too unbelievable with too many close calls to be true.

With the glut of Holocaust memoirs, Goldberg’s story was only published because of Obenzinger’s friendship with well-known author Paul Auster, who read the memoir and agreed to write a forward, which made it qualify for a grant.

Obenzinger said that his aunt does not see things in black and white, often dwelling on Germans who helped her escape, or Jews who might have contributed to her capture. In one instance, a German officer took her to a Gestapo Christmas party, where a picture of Hitler hung on the wall. Goldberg got drunk, and later was taken into another room by an officer who interrogated her. When she confessed, at gunpoint, that she was Jewish, he gave her money and allowed her to run away, offering to come up with a story to tell the other officers.

“He saved her life,” said Obenzinger, “and she wrote him a letter after the war, thanking him.”

Kemeny, who will join Obenzinger at the JCC event, is an Auschwitz survivor originally from Slovakia who penned her self-published memoir last year, called “On the Shores of Darkness.”

Actually, the 91-year-old resident of Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco dictated her story to her then-16-year-old grandson.

“I wanted my grandchildren to know what I went through,” she said.

“Many people say it isn’t true, and I wanted young people to understand.”

The book is also a memorial to an unborn baby. Kemeny was pregnant when she was transported to Auschwitz, but miscarried at five months because of the harsh conditions. She miscarried three more times after the war until, finally, with almost full bed rest, her daughter Judy was born.

In her epilogue, Kemeny writes, “Today, my daughter, her husband, Paul, and my two precious grandchildren are an important part of my everyday life. I am grateful to have known so much love in my life.”

“Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust” by Zosia Goldberg as told to Hilton Obenzinger (187 pages, Mercury House, $15.95).

“On the Shores of Darkness” by Esther Kemeny (143 pages, The Haller Company).

Esther Kemeny will read portions of her memoirs 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St.
Hilton Obenzinger and two actresses, Audrey Hannah and Kendra Arimoto, will read from Zosia Goldberg's memoir at the event.

Two additional readings from Goldberg’s memoir will take place 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20, at Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford University, and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 26, at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Information: (415) 626-7874.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."