[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                          May 8, 2009

Holocaust survivor talks 
about experiences

By Rob Schuette, The Real McCoy Staff

His only ‘crime’ was being born Jewish. Beginning at the age of 11, Henry Golde spent the next five years in what he called nine of the worst prisons — World War II concentration camps — that ever existed in this world.

Photo: The audience at the Fort McCoy observance of Days of Remembrance gives a standing ovation to the guest speaker Holocaust survivor Henry Golde. (Photo by Val Hyde)
The audience at the Fort McCoy observance of Days of Remembrance gives a standing ovation to the guest speaker Holocaust survivor Henry Golde. (Photo by Val Hyde)

Golde, a Holocaust survivor, spent an hour April 23 telling members of the Fort McCoy community about his experiences and thoughts of that time in a serious talk, filled with irony, humor and hope for the future, as part of the installation’s Days of Remembrance (Holocaust) observance. Those experiences included losing members of his family at the infamous Treblinka death camp in Poland to the attitude he takes today to advocate the triumph of love over hate.

After telling about a mostly normal childhood, except perhaps for the anti-Semitism in the Polish city of Plock where he grew up, Golde told the audience about how things changed after the war started, his survival and what led him to the place he is at today.

"I could talk about my experiences for three days and still not tell everything," Golde said. "Let me tell you first a few things about how I did survive — was it luck, fate or a small miracle? I’ll let you decide."

Life was not too bad in Plock, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Warsaw. Golde said one big problem was that the non-Jewish children beat up the Jewish children after the Jewish children attended school on Sundays.

Children in Poland attended schools six days a week back then, and the non-Jewish children were off because it was the day of their religious observances.

Photo: Henry Golde recounts a story from his concentration camp experiences. (Photo by Val Hyde)
Henry Golde recounts a story from his concentration camp experiences. (Photo by Val Hyde)

"My father explained to me that Jews were God’s chosen people," Golde said, when he questioned his father after one beating. "I asked him why couldn’t God choose someone else."

Another memory of that time was the Polish army had an artillery and cavalry brigade in town, that, in his belief, wouldn’t allow foreign troops to invade the land.

The Polish troops went off to fight against the German invaders during the early days of World War II and returned two days later without their horses.

The first German soldiers he saw were the members of the Wehrmacht, who treated them humanely because they were the professionals and only cared about winning the war.

However, the situation became worse and worse as other German troops followed, culminating with the arrival of the SS or Nazi special police personnel.

"They confiscated businesses," Golde said. "They made you wear the yellow star of David — one in the front and one in the back — with the word Jew written in it. Nazis thought all Jews were cowards, which is why they had us wear yellow, the color of cowardice."

When the Nazis tried to put down the rebellion of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, the Jews bravely fought back any way they could. Jews kept retreating, however, and finally took to fighting from the sewers. The Nazis killed them by putting poison gas into the sewers, but it took the Nazis longer to win this battle than it did for the German army to invade Poland.

Then Golde described the deplorable conditions he lived under after being separated from his parents and brother.

Jews lived in buildings with two to three families put in one room. Meager food rations, when they were available at all, consisted of bread and a watery soup. Golde stayed there for several months before they were gathered and told that some would be sent to work while others were to be sent ‘home.’

One German soldier noted Golde’s youth, and ordered him to the group to return home. A German officer noted even though he was a youth he could work hard, and sent him to the group that would work.

"(The officer) saved my life," Golde said. "The people who were being sent back ‘home’ actually were sent to extermination camps."

Prisoners in concentration camps worked until they couldn’t work anymore, and often were treated very inhumanely, he said. When they couldn’t work anymore at the camp he/she was taken to a forest area and shot and killed.

The conditions they lived under were very unsanitary. Golde described how they were allowed one shower a month and they had to walk five miles there and five miles back to get it. The people who were too weak to walk the five miles didn’t shower.

A hole dug into the ground served as a group latrine.

Clean underwear and other garments also were in short supply throughout his incarceration. Golde said they often made do with brown paper to clothe themselves.

The squalid conditions led to cases of typhoid, filth, dirt and lice. Prisoners who became sick and were deemed incapable of recovering were taken out and shot, he said.

Golde recounted several stories of how he felt he was going to be killed, including when he was sick or broke the rules in trying to go out to go to the bathroom at night. Each time he was saved by a German who for some reason that he didn’t know — perhaps because he was a child — decided to spare him. One time, he even heard two Germans arguing his fate — one who wanted to kill him for the bathroom transgression and the other who didn’t — he wondered where he might be shot and if he would feel pain before the one who wanted to spare him prevailed, and he survived to face another day.

In addition to surviving being sent to nine concentration camps, Golde also survived forced marches. Included was one where they were marched two weeks with only two meals, and those were when they stopped at farms.

Toward the end of the war, the Germans knew the war was going badly for them. One camp commandant told him they would be freed by the Americans.

In another twist of irony, the surviving people he was with were liberated by the Russian army, which took a detour from their original mission to reach the camp.

"The Russians were nice to us in the beginning because they wanted us to go to Russia," Golde said. "But we knew about their political system and their way of life. No one wanted to go."

A Jewish doctor had connections to send them to England, where Golde lived from 1945-52. He eventually emigrated to the United States, where he wanted to go all along, and arrived in New York.

Golde, a tailor by trade, said he had been told there was "gold in the streets in New York," but all he found was a sweat shop to work in. So he took other jobs, and became, as he described, an entrepreneur.

Eventually, he came to Wisconsin, where in retirement he belongs to several Holocaust organizations and also speaks to school children and other groups about the Holocaust.

"After the war, I thought, in my childish mind, that people could learn to live in peace and this could never happen again," Golde said. "I was wrong."

So Golde came to the decision to tell his story so people wouldn’t forget. A friend pointed out to him that he still had a lot of hate in him because of what happened to him and his family, so he decided to forgive. Students were a natural focus of the story since they will grow up to be the next generation of leaders.

"If the students remember just one part of my story, they will never allow this to happen again," he said "When I forgave, I learned to love. Love is everything, and hate is nothing."

For more information about the program or future ethnic observances at Fort McCoy, call Master Sgt. Claudia Simpson, Fort McCoy Equal Opportunity Adviser, at 608-388-3246.


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