A Female Odysseus Tells Her Story

By Paul Auster

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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This month, Mercury House publishes Zosia Goldberg’s memoir, “Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust,” as told to Hilton Obenzinger. The full introduction, by novelist Paul Auster, is printed here with permission.

‘I thought fast. I was lucky and got an idea.” These two short sentences come toward the end of “Running Through Fire,” Zosia Goldberg’s remarkable account of how she managed to live through the nightmare years of the Second World War, and they encapsulate the spirit of the entire story she tells us. Like a female Odysseus, this beautiful and resourceful young woman needed more than simple courage to overcome the dangers that surrounded her. Survival demanded cunning, quick thinking under pressure, a ferocious will to adapt to the most frightening and intolerable conditions, and sheer dumb luck — a chance encounter with the right person at the right moment, removal from one prison to another just hours before the first prison was bombed, an endless series of small, unfathomable miracles.

Why did some live when so many millions died? In Goldberg’s case, it seems to have been the result of a rare and fortuitous constellation of circumstances. She was a woman, which gave her the possibility of posing as a gentile — an option not available to Jewish men — and she came from a highly assimilated secular family. Polish was the language spoken at home, not Yiddish, and therefore she could speak without having to worry that her accent would give her away. But beyond these accidents of birth and language, there was the question of character. Although just 21 when the Germans invaded Poland, Goldberg was no longer a girl, and to hear her talk about her experiences to her nephew, Hilton Obenzinger, she was no ordinary person. Stubborn, opinionated, sexy, fearless, with a clairvoyant’s ability to read and judge the intentions of other people, she had an unbending trust in her own instincts. Early in her story, for example, when an ex-boyfriend proposes to escape from the ghetto with her and find shelter in the Aryan section of Warsaw, she hesitates. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” she tells her nephew. “First of all, he was not faithful to me. He was never faithful. If he was not faithful in love, he would not be faithful for more important matters like life and death. This type of fellow I did not need.”

On the other hand, she never deluded herself into thinking she could survive without the help of others. One of the most disturbing aspects of this book is where Goldberg sometimes found that help. At several perilous junctures she was aided by older German soldiers (the young ones were invariably die-hard Nazis, she discovered), and in some of those instances, even after her Jewish identity had been exposed, these men did not betray her. This contradicts nearly everything we have been told about German conduct during the war, and when you factor in the additional help she received from working-class Poles, and then combine that with the various examples she mentions of Jews betraying other Jews, the stark black-and-white picture we have drawn of the Holocaust dissolves into a muddled, terrifying gray — a world in which humanity carried on with its usual greeds and lusts, its occasional flashes of goodness and self-sacrifice, its eternal unpredictability. In one chilling passage about conditions in the ghetto, Goldberg tells us: “People hated each other. You understand, they were starving. They could kill each other for food. We had a family from Lodz in our apartment. My mother cooked. The wife of this man came and ate up my mother’s soup, so my mother complained to me. The man did not like my mother complaining, so he pushed her around and beat her up. When I came home from work that day I hit him on the head with an iron pot. I got even for my mother. He got no pity from me. He never touched her anymore.” And then, one paragraph down on the same page: “We were so demoralized that people became disrespectful of each other. If a married man had a sweetheart, he brought her to his house, and the wife was lucky if he did not throw her out on the street. If he gave his wife food and a place to sleep on the floor, she was considered lucky.”

Eventually, Goldberg slipped out of the ghetto by way of the sewers, got herself captured on purpose, and was shipped to Germany, where she spent the rest of the war doing forced labor — in a munitions factory and on a number of farms. Every day carried the threat of denunciation, of arrest and torture, of death. But she had been given some good advice by one of her father’s gentile friends before leaving the ghetto, and she learned her lessons well. “Remember one thing,” the man told her. “When somebody attacks you, never show fear. Use vulgar words like anybody else, the most dirty words so that you sound sure of yourself. And attack them!” The point being, as she explains to her nephew, “… if a German beats you up and you don’t fight back, that means you are a Jew, that you are scared. A Gentile always strikes back.”

Knowing that things could turn against her at any moment, she was constantly prepared for the worst. “I had long hair tied in a knot at the back. I had razor blades hidden in the knot in order to commit suicide in case I could not take it anymore.” But Goldberg never succumbed to despair. She was interrogated by the Gestapo and badly beaten; she was often close to starvation; she suffered from hepatitis, from mange itch, from lice; and at one point she felt that her spirit had finally been broken. But it wasn’t. In the end, I believe that was her most transcendent accomplishment — as great, if not greater, than the fact that she survived. “Running Through Fire” is a book filled with unspeakable horrors — but it is told without a shred of self-pity. Goldberg never complains, never bemoans her lot. She battles and endures, and in this raw, unvarnished tale of human suffering, she has given us a manual of hope.

Paul Auster’s newest novel, “Oracle Night,” follows the national bestsellers “The Book of Illusions” and “Timbuktu.” Celebrated for “The New York Trilogy,” he also edited the NPR National Story Project anthology.

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