By JoAnne Goldberg
Special to the Almanac
When Valerie Caveney, who teaches honors English classes at Menlo-Atherton High School, assigns a book to her freshmen students, she likes to invite someone to speak to them about the topic from life experiences.
Recently, Ms. Caveney assigned the book "Night," Elie Wiesel's story about his experience with his father in the Nazi Germany concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 and 1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of World War II.
Because my mother, Palo Alto resident Margot Goldberg, has a complementary story to Elie Wiesel's, I asked if she would be interested in speaking to the class. She was, and Valerie was thrilled to have her.
When my mother was around the same age as the M-A freshmen, she left her family in Germany, boarding a train for England. She was one of 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland who were saved from the Nazi concentration camps by a program called the Kindertransport.
"When we said goodbye in 1939, my parents told me that we would be reunited after the war," Ms. Goldberg told the M-A class.
"Did you see them again?" asked a student.
"No," she responded.
Although she initially managed to correspond with her parents, once the war started, messages were limited to 25 words or less and transmitted via the Red Cross.
Soon, even those terse messages stopped arriving. After the war, Margot learned that her parents, along with dozens of relatives, had perished in the camps. Only her older brother, who had already been sent to school in England, had survived.
Ms. Goldberg told the students that she had not visited a camp or read the book, describing Mr. Wiesel's story as too painfully close to her own experiences. But she was able to recount her memories of Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass" in November 1938 that included mass violence against Jews along with the destruction of hundreds of Jewish homes, synagogues, and cemeteries.
The Nazis broke into her family's home at 3 a.m., smashing her parents' glasses, china, and furniture, and taking her father, a leader in the community, to prison.
Amidst the day-to-day cruelty and humiliation inflicted on the Jews, some neighbors defied the Nazis and tried to help her family. A few shopkeepers, despite the "no Jews allowed" signs they were forced to display, would slip out the back and hand her and her brother treats in a paper bag.
When asked why her family did not leave, Ms. Goldberg said that her family had lived in Germany for generations, and could not imagine that the situation would remain dire. "'This can't last. This will blow over,' they said." By the time they understood the enormity of the Nazi policies, it was too late to escape.
Questions from the M-A students evoked stories of wartime Britain, where Ms. Goldberg spent her teen years: the rationing, the deprivation, and the nightly air raid sirens.
After a while, Ms. Goldberg said, people became so inured to the sirens that they did not bother to leave their beds for bomb shelters. She was living in a small English Midlands town that was not a Nazi target, but houses were sometimes destroyed by bombers dumping their extra warheads after attacks on nearby cities.
A private girls' school was sponsoring her, and she was shuffled from home to home before settling with one family whose daughter Marjory remains her best friend.
Ms. Caveney's students were captivated by the descriptions of a pre-Internet, pre-television world.
"We all carried gas masks, everywhere," said Ms. Goldberg, noting that the masks included a compartment for K-rations, or snacks that she and Marjory would devour at the first opportunity. "I was always hungry."
After the war, the U.S. Army was recruiting German-English translators, and Ms. Goldberg signed on. Spending a year and a half working for Army intelligence in Berlin, she learned about the United States, developed great admiration for Americans, and became determined to immigrate here. In 1951, she became a citizen.
"When we learned about the Holocaust in school, it seemed so distant and so surreal," said one student after the presentation. "Seeing and talking to someone who actually lived through it was a great experience."
Another commented: "I know it might have been difficult to talk about those bad times, but the stories showed me what it was actually like to be there."
Ms. Goldberg, who has spoken to students in German high schools on several occasions, said: "it's important that this tragic time never be forgotten."