Devorah Hilsenrath always knew her parents and younger brother and sister were murdered in the Holocaust. Until recently, however, she never knew the date they died. Without it, she could never be sure when to light yahrtzeit candles in their memory.
“Since I do not even have a tombstone to visit, this information is very significant to me,” said the Highland Park resident.
Now thanks to sleuthing by her daughter and son-in-law, Rochelle and Phillip Goldschmiedt of Teaneck, and with help from archivists in Germany, she has been able to solve part of the mystery and bring some small measure of closure to a 70-year-old tragedy.
The Goldschmiedts traveled to Berlin more than a year ago to visit the site of a coat factory owned by his grandfather and taken over by the Nazis.
They also drove to Bad Arolsen to visit the offices of the International Tracing Service (its-arolsen.org), an internationally governed center for documentation, information, and research on the Nazi period. It contains about 30 million documents.
Because of the meticulous recordkeeping of the Third Reich, ITS was able to locate the transfer documents of Hilsenrath and her father, Baruch Goldberger, with their signatures. Her family was rounded up just after Passover 1944 from the Hungarian ghetto. That would have been late April or early May.
Although her father’s exact date of death couldn’t be determined, the date of the family’s arrival in Auschwitz — May 7, 1944 — was stamped on those documents. That helped Hilsenrath determine the exact yahrtzeit date for her mother, Chaya Bayla Goldberger, and two siblings, Shlomo, 12, and Rachel, 10. There were no specific records for them, said Hilsenrath. “The Nazis didn’t bother to keep records for those that never made it into a camp” but were murdered upon arrival.
Her own recollection of the date — she was 13 at the time — had been clouded by the grueling events, including a more-than-three-day ride in an overcrowded cattle car with almost no food or water. Hilsenrath’s memory of what happened when they finally disembarked, however, remains clear to this day. She was pulled off the line into a group of strange women.
“My father was sent off to the left holding my little brother’s hand,” recalled Hilsenrath. “My mother and little sister were off to one side. My mother was holding my sister’s hand and her other arm was across her chest as if to say, ‘Oy vey.’ It was the last time I ever saw any of them.”
Hilsenrath had heard, but was unable to confirm until she saw it on the newly found papers, that her father was sent to Dachau, where he died.
“I learned that he did construction work in Dachau. I never knew that.”
As for Hilsenrath, she was tall for her age, and as her group was being led away, a Polish prisoner whispered to her in Yiddish, “Maidele, tell them you are 16 years old,” a piece of advice that may have saved her life.
“I had beautiful thick hair and they shaved it off,” she said. “It was a rainy day in Auschwitz and we marched in mud. I got a striped dress and they threw a pair of ill-fitting shoes at you.”
Awakened every morning before dawn, the group was forced to stand for hours waiting for a Nazi officer to come inspect them before they headed off to break rocks under the watchful eyes of Nazi guards. Those who sat were severely beaten.
In October of that year, Hilsenrath and her cousin were selected to be among a group of slave laborers at a munitions factory in Leipzig before being told they weren’t needed and being returned to the barracks. About 20 minutes later, a guard came and said he needed one more, selecting Hilsenrath. She never saw her cousin again.
Hilsenrath worked 12 hours a day drilling holes for screws in the wings of planes. One day, the Nazis accused the workers of breaking too many drills and as punishment forced them to stand in the bitter cold by the electrified fence. Hilsenrath recalled a Nazi officer who stood in front of the starving prisoners, slicing off pieces of salami for his German shepherd.
With the Russians approaching, the prisoners were led on a death march — those who faltered were shot on the spot. One day, while being allowed to fill their canteens with water, Hilsenrath and another cousin — the only other survivor from her large extended family — noticed a nearby underground shelter. That night as the guards slept, they escaped to the shelter. They stayed, slipping out at night to gather raw potatoes and turnips from the nearby field until their liberation by the Russian Army.
Hilsenrath arrived in the United States in 1949. Several years later she met her future husband, Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath, with whom she raised four children. Rabbi Hilsenrath served as religious leader of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth from 1964 to 1994; he died last February.
“These days, our family gathers on the date of the yahrtzeit, where we recall personal and family anecdotes,” said Hilsenrath. “This helps keep their blessed memory alive.”
For more information about ITS, go to its-arolsen.org.