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At Reunion, Survivor Encounters Friends, Family and Memories

November 6, 2003
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It didn’t take long for Goldie Weiss to register a gasp of recognition at a reunion of Holocaust survivors.

It came not from seeing a fellow survivor, but from a photo of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower stepping over dead bodies after the liberation of a concentration camp.

“That’s exactly the way it happened,” she told her two daughters, getting off the elevator on the fourth floor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her eyes welled with tears.

The 77-year old Cleveland resident who spent time in three concentration camps is one of 2,200 Holocaust survivors who came to Washington for the reunion marking the 10th anniversary of the museum. It was her first visit.

Weiss was one of nine children. Both her parents and three siblings died in the Holocaust.

At first, she walked briskly through museum exhibits chronicling the first months of the Nazi regime. When her daughters called her over to see something, her tone was defiant.

“I know all that,” she said.

One daughter, Sandy Moore, stared at a photo of Jews entering Czechoslovakia, Weiss’ homeland. “What does it mean, just to ‘take’ a city?” she asked, hung up on the phrasing of the caption.

“They just drove in and took it,” the survivor replied, matter-of-factly.

For 10 years, Weiss avoided this museum. “Whatever I see here, I lived through,” she said. “Why torture myself?”

Then she finally came this week, and 33 members of her extended family joined her.

At times during her tour of the museum, she encountered kinship in strangers. She asked Joseph Zeller what camp he was at. “All over,” he replied. They walked together a while, entering a room surrounded by windows marked with the names of Jewish villages.

Weiss’ daughters crouched to look for the name of their mother’s birthplace. Zeller soon found his, and posed for a picture.

Weiss was not so lucky.

Her attention drifted to a picture of anti-Nazi demonstrations in the United States.

“They did demonstrate in America, but when? Too late,” she said.

After she finally walked away, heeding her daughters’ insistent calls, she arrived at images of European Jewish life before the war, in the shtetl. There were scenes of families smiling, children playing. She lingered.

“This makes me think of home. This is exactly what my grandmother looked like,” she said.

Another reminded her of her sister, and she sighed.

“My sister had two kids, aged three and four. They perished right away.” She shook her head — but she stopped and smiled at one last picture: A house just like hers, in wintertime, with a sled out front.

“It’s so unbelievable that I was in a concentration camp,” she said. “I can’ t believe it myself.”

Weiss said she understood why children don’t understand the enormity of the Holocaust. It was so long ago that there are times that even she forgets about it.

Entering the exhibit on the Final Solution, she inhaled sharply and grabbed a tissue from her pocket. She walked though a rail car just like the one that took her on her four-day journey to Auschwitz.

“We stood, we sat, we were a packed car,” she said. “We cried.”

Overhead is a sign replicating the one that stood over Auschwitz’s entrance.

“I feel good that we survived,” she said beneath the sign. “We’re here, we made a life for ourselves. We had children.”

“He didn’t win,” she added, speaking of Hitler.

Weiss lived through the concentration camps with two younger sisters. She was 17, they were 15 and 13. The youngest was too weak to carry her pack on her back, so Weiss took the contents and split them between her and her other sister. For 10 weeks, she stared at a crematorium across the way from her in Auschwitz and worried about her sister.

In the lineup every morning, the two elder sisters would sandwich the youngest between them so that the Nazis could not tell she was weak. They feared she would be taken from them.

“They would have gassed her,” she said. “She was lucky because she was tall.”

She fell silent, looking at bunks similar to those she shared with 13 other inmates seven facing in one direction, seven facing the other. No blankets, no pillows; just wood.

She started to cry.

“I remember a young girl asking, ‘How’s Mama gonna sleep like this?'” she recalled. “I tell her, ‘Your Mama is dead already.'”

Next to the bunks are metal bowls like those that once held her meager meals.

She showed one daughter how she shared one bowl with 13 bunkmates, cupping her hands and lifting them to her mouth. She called the other daughter over and repeated the information and the gesture.

Leah Mandel said the visit brought to life stories that her mother had been telling for years.

“I definitely think that people who don’t have a connection can’t comprehend this,” she said. “If it were me having lived through this, I don’t think I would be able to walk through this.”

Moore said that as a child she heard the same stories over and over, and became sick of them. Now, she asks for them to be repeated.

“My mother would say, ‘I’ve told you 100 times,” Moore said. “And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I am listening now.’ “

Weiss, encountering an exhibit of hundreds of shoes, remembers when she first entered the camp.

“When we arrived there, we were stripped naked and the first thing they did was shave us everywhere we had hair.”

Weiss recalled watching a woman, a friend of her mother, losing the will to walk on a death march. She was shot right in front of her daughter, and Weiss was grateful that she didn’t have to see her own mother killed before her eyes.

Close to the end of the tour, and Weiss saw a video of the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, her third and final camp. Another woman was watching too, and the two talked about the day.

“Remember?” they asked each other in accented English, their voices growing louder. Other patrons shushed them.

“No one came to count us, we were standing for them to count us,” Weiss recalled. “One girl ran straight from the kitchen and said ‘We’re free, there are no Nazis left, there are no soldiers, there is nobody.’

“We all started running, we didn’t know where we were going,” Weiss said, a smile finally on her face.

That night, they stayed outside until early in the morning, not wanting to return to their bunks. Their British saviors couldn’t coax them to sleep.

At the end of the two hours, Weiss sat down, said ‘Oh, my God,” and bent her head over her knees.

“For two weeks later, I am going to be thinking about this,” she said. “I won’t be able to sleep.”

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