Wednesday, October 31, 2007

True Stories in Aspen Daily News Counter Hatred

I've posted quite a bit about the controversy in Aspen, Colorado over whether a local cable TV station would broadcast a Holocaust denial program at the request of a local "peace activist" who founded "Citizens for 9/11 Truth". (Links to all the pieces I posted on this are included in the most recent one here.)

In response to that controversy, which stirred up a lot of strong feelings in that quiet Rocky Mountain town and exposed a vein of anti-Semitism within a local group called the Roaring Fork Peace Coalition, The Aspen Daily News has published a series or articles recounting the experiences of Aspen's Holocaust survivors. The series, brilliantly authored by David Frey, are available via the links at the bottom of this post. Here's the first of the series:

from Aspen Daily News | Aspen, Colorado:

Aspen woman ‘disappeared’ amid Holocaust — and survived:

Ellen Goldsmith had disappeared. When the Nazis came rounding up Jews into concentration camps, Goldsmith had, miraculously, fallen off the list.

Her brother Leo hadn’t been so lucky. On a sunny day in 1942, he posed for family pictures by the tree in the backyard of their simple, two-story home in Mühlheim-Ruhr, Germany. The next day, with a few belongings packed in a bag, he left for what he was told would be a work camp. It turned out to be a journey to his death at a concentration camp. No one knew that at the time, though.

“He’ll be back,” Goldsmith remembered thinking. “That was the whole reason there wasn’t any uproar. Nobody was given the chance to think for themselves.”

The 77-year-old Aspen resident opened a family album that began with black-and-white pictures of Nazi Germany and ended with Technicolor birthday parties and world cruises.

As a 12-year-old girl, Goldsmith -- her last name was Baldeschwiler then -- stood in a ruffled blouse and plaid skirt as her brother twice her age prepared to leave. He stood beside her, in a jacket and tie, his face dour.

The next day would be the last day anyone in the family would see him. Two short postcards arrived from him in camp. The brief messages shed little light on his brief life behind barbed wire.

“I’m still doing well,” the last one read. “I hope to see you soon. Leo.”

Goldsmith’s grandmother wasn’t so lucky, either. At age 83, she was sent off to a concentration camp less than a year later. She would die there, like nearly all of her family, save a precious few who had escaped to the United States before it was too late. In pictures, her round face and stocky build made her look strikingly similar to her granddaughter today.

“My mother had five brothers and sisters,” Goldsmith whispered. “There’s nobody alive. Nobody.”

In the last months of the war, Goldsmith’s mother was sent to a Berlin work camp to serve the Nazis on a sewing machine. Goldsmith was left alone with her father. But amazingly, unlike most of her family, she was spared the horror of the concentration camps.

“I never had to go because I disappeared from the list,” she said.

Little Ellen Baldeschwiler had witnessed the growing hatred of Jews in Nazi Germany. The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, she saw her family increasingly isolated. Her parents had tried to shield her from the hatred, and talked about it only in hushed tones. Then came Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, and in a night of violence across Nazi-occupied Europe, the synagogue where she attended with her family each Friday was destroyed.

“When the synagogues were burning, that was my first shock,” she said. “Because here we couldn’t go to synagogue anymore.”

She had had only one non-Jewish friend. She was forced to wear the Star of David that labeled her a Jew. When she walked down the street, she covered it with her pocketbook, as her mother had taught her. When she reached fourth grade, she and other Jews were kicked out of school.

Then the Nazis came for her brother. They were coming for her, too. That’s when she disappeared. The Nazis had given the local rabbi the horrific task of compiling the list of Jews to be sent to concentration camps. Goldsmith was friends with the rabbi’s daughter, so he kept her off the list as long as he could. Her father was Christian, and Ellen was just a girl, he told authorities. Her brother was the Jewish part of the family.

The ploy condemned her brother, but it saved Ellen. In time, the rabbi would be sent off to a concentration camp. His daughter would be, too. But Goldsmith was spared. She had disappeared.

Because her father was married to a Jew, he lost his job as a baker. But because he was a gentile, the family was spared some of the atrocities visited on other Jewish families. Their home was never ransacked. When his mother-in-law was run out of her home and her millinery shop, he was able to take her in.

“He was our savior in his own way,” Goldsmith said.

Henry Goldsmith, her husband to be, wasn’t so lucky either. A fighter in the Jewish resistance, he was captured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. But he was smart and good with languages and the Nazis kept him alive, even well-fed compared to others at the camp, so he could help them.

In one photo, taken after liberation, he stands beside two Russians who were imprisoned with him, all three wearing black-and-white-striped uniforms and haggard expressions on their faces.

After he was freed, he showed up at Ellen’s door looking for news of his cousin, who had been imprisoned in the same concentration camp as her brother Leo.

“People searched all the time to find loved ones,” Goldsmith said. “We didn’t have any good news. My brother was murdered. He didn’t last long in the concentration camps.”

While Goldsmith had been spared the horror of the concentration camps, though, she wasn’t spared the horror of war. Two weeks before the war’s end in Germany, as allied forces approached, an American grenade landed in the backyard, the same backyard where she had bid good-bye to her brother years earlier. The grenade killed her father, and a family friend -- a soldier on leave from the front lines -- in front of her eyes. Shrapnel struck her in the chest.

“Then I was fatherless,” she said.

After she and Henry married, the two came to New York, and later to Aspen, where they built a successful business running Henry’s Electric Center and raised two sons. Before his death, Henry made a point of visiting local schools to share his memories of the Holocaust. His memoirs tell a harrowing tale. Escaping to Amsterdam as a child. Fighting with the resistance against the Nazis. Captured. Sent to Buchenwald. Surviving.

The memories linger for Goldsmith, too, even if age has erased some of the details. Claustrophobia still grips her sometimes, reminding her of the bomb shelter she ran to after watching her father die. Dark movie theaters, even automatic car door locks, can trigger it.

For years, the sound of Aspen’s noontime horn reminded her of childhood air raid sirens. But, she said, she doesn’t let the memories consume her.

“I’m still laughing,” she said. “But I have to. You can’t cry all the time.”


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