Hella Margolin, survivor and Holocaust educator, dies at 85

It was like a scene from “The Great Escape.”

In the middle of World War II, counterfeit passport in hand, Polish-born Jew Hella Margolin sneaks aboard a train bound for Vienna. Suddenly, the train stops. Black-uniformed S.S. men begin searching every car. Margolin ducks into a bathroom and throws the lock.

When a Nazi officer bangs on the door, a quick-thinking Margolin mimics the sound of vomiting and says in flawless French, “Go away! I’m sick.”

The S.S. man apologizes and moves on.

That kind of chutzpah typified the life of Hella Goldberg Margolin, a survivor who worked tirelessly to educate younger generations about the Holocaust.

Pneumonia claimed the life of the longtime Santa Rosa resident on Wednesday, April 4. Margolin was 85.

“My mother was always talking about the Holocaust,” said her daughter Sylvia Paull. “One way she made meaning in her life was by helping in volunteer activities.”

Born in Poland in 1922, Hella moved a year later to Germany with her parents and two sisters. She studied piano, chemistry and languages and had ambitious professional dreams. All that crumbled as Hitler tightened the noose around Germany’s Jews.

In 1939, her father was sent to Dachau, where he was murdered. Margolin, her mother and sisters were relocated to Poland, ending up in the Warsaw ghetto. Their mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she, too, was killed.

Though all seemed lost, the Goldberg sisters were not about to roll over for the Nazis.

“You could easily get out of the ghetto,” said Paull. “The problem was the S.S. was all around. If you did not have a valid passport they would shoot you on sight.”

Margolin escaped and found work on a Polish farm, posing as a French prisoner of war. She worked there for two years, sleeping in a barn. Somehow, she kept in touch with her sisters, who were hiding in Vienna.

One night, her sister appeared as Margolin worked in the pasture. “She said, ‘The S.S. has uncovered you,'” recounted Paull. “‘They’re coming for you in the morning. [Her sister] gave her another false passport and mom got out.”

In Vienna, she found work in a sausage factory, sleeping under her sister’s bed by night to avoid discovery. The factory owner was “a Schindler type,” according to Paull, “who didn’t ask questions.”

After the war, the sisters returned to Frankfurt. There Hella met her future husband, Oliver Margolin, a conductor for the U.S. Army band. The couple wed in 1945, spending three more years in Germany before moving to California.

“They shared a lot,” said Paull, one of the couple’s three daughters. “They were both Orthodox Jews. They both loved classical music. We all played instruments, and every Sunday we had musicians come over. We played music all day.”

One of Paull’s favorite memories is from the time the family moved back to Germany in the 1950’s (her father had remained an army bandleader, and the family would travel all over Europe).

“Once she decided to take us to Denmark for a few days,” remembered Paull. “When we got to the border, she realized she’d forgotten to bring our passports. But she talked the [guard] into letting us into the country. She could talk people into anything.”

In 1966 her husband found work teaching music in Sonoma County. Margolin remained in Santa Rosa for the rest of her life.

With her children grown, Margolin volunteered much of her time to Hadassah, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami, where she taught preschool.

Margolin’s husband died in 1982, but she continued her volunteerism, worked with the Holocaust program at Sonoma State University and spoke to college students about her experiences. She also took great joy in her grandchildren.

Even into old age and illness (she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis last year), Margolin never lost her feisty spirit. “After surviving the war,” said her daughter, “nothing freaked her out.”

Hella Margolin is survived by her daughters, Sylvia Paull of Berkeley, Harriet Becker of Ithaca, N.Y., and Evelyn Margolin of Sacramento; sisters Ruth Mansbach of San Francisco and Estelle Kiefer of Medford, Ore.; and four grandchildren. Memorial donations may be made to the Temple Beth Ami Hadassah or the Jewish International Fund.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.