Holocaust survivor and Hebrew teacher Goldie Rassen dies at 93

Goldie Hiatt Rassen hid from German soldiers, slept in frigid barns, dug trenches, and survived the heartache of losing her first husband and infant daughter. Yet for all her strength, she was unprepared to grow old.

“Toward the end of her life, she was frustrated by her weakness, worn out by the march of her own aging,” her son, Joshua, recalled. Because she lost all her relatives in the Holocaust, she was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the aging process, he said.

“The walker, while a great help to her, was also a blow to her self-image. Still, she’d pass it off as her ‘Mercedes,'” he said. “She had a great sense of humor.”

Rassen died Nov. 18. She was 93.

Rassen was born and raised in a Lithuanian shtetl, the youngest of 12 children. When the Germans occupied Lithuania, she and her family were sent to the ghetto in Kovno. She worked there for many years, and in 1944 was sent to a work camp near Danzig, Germany. Throughout the winter she dug trenches and underground bunkers.

One day, after months of hard labor, she heard she’d be sent to Auschwitz, which she knew would be a death sentence.

“And then such a sharp feeling, such a strong striving to life would start in my heart. I still wanted to live,” she said in her second husband’s memoir, “We Want to Live.”

“An understandable boldness and daring suddenly awakened within me.”

She and a friend escaped the work camp in the middle of the night. They found an abandoned barn and spent two nights there, afraid to move.

When they worked up the courage, they hid their “Jewish” clothing as best they could and found work by assuming fake names and pretending to be non-Jews from Lithuania.

She continued this façade until the war ended in 1945, when she returned to Lithuania and encountered another survivor, Jacob Rassen. The two married and in 1946 moved to Worcester, Mass. Both worked as Hebrew teachers in the Boston area.

The couple moved to San Francisco in 1985 to be closer to their two children, Joshua and Rachel Rassen, and two grandchildren. Jacob Rassen died in 1986.

Rassen’s experience during the Holocaust made her passionate about Jewish community and continuity, and above all else, Israel. She and Jacob traveled there often.

She became active in Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, where she taught adult Hebrew classes and developed a loyal following of students and admirers.

“She sat in the same place every Saturday morning, and around her sat this large cluster of much younger people who adored her,” said Rabbi Emeritus Alan Lew.

Later, when Goldie Rassen lived at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, she shunned Bingo and card games, favoring lectures and long walks that would let her engage with people and her surroundings. She taught Hebrew to the other residents, and even taught basic Hebrew to nurses and the servers in the dining hall.

“She was a great Hebraist,” Lew said. “And she was famous for correcting the rabbis about their Hebrew … She was quite extraordinary.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.