David Goldberger and Paul VanDeCarr

Recorded October 30, 2009 Archived October 30, 2009 41:14 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: LMN001769


David Goldberger (84) was interviewed by Paul VanDeCarr (41) to talk about his wife Helen Rotenberg Goldberger who passed away and suffers the Holocaust

Subject Log / Time Code

David talks about his wife who passed away
David remembers the time of Helen family in Poland
David talks about the difficulties of Helen when she escaped from the Ghetto
David talks about the agencies that used to help displacement people after the war in Poland
David talks about the mental illness of Helen


  • David Goldberger
  • Paul VanDeCarr

Recording Location

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth


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00:11 My name is Paul vandecar and 41 years old. Today's date is October 30th 2009. We're in lower Manhattan, and I'm here with my friend.

00:25 I'm David goldberger. I'm 84 years old. The date is still October 30th 2009. We are in the storycorps booth and I'm here with Paul who is a friend.

00:45 So David, we're here to tell a story about your your late wife. But maybe you just tell me a bit about yourself first. Okay? I am a professional musician. I play the piano and I have taught the piano for many years.

01:06 I taught at the mannes College of Music and at Long Island University and Hunter College and I am now mostly retired completely retired from teaching but mostly retired from from my other activities to I still give an occasional piano recital but only for friends not for the larger public. I have edited some 50 volumes or more of piano music and I've written numerous articles on various musical subjects, which have been published here and abroad

01:49 And you lived in Manhattan for many years. I lived in Manhattan for 50 years, but I currently live in Hollywood Florida. I must say that I eventually got tired of the very long Winters in New York. Not terribly cold, but very long.

02:10 So you want to tell the story of your late wife Helen? Could you say your full name? And why do you want to tell her name was her maiden name was Helen rothenburg when she married me and became Ellen rothenburg goldberger. I feel that her story is important because when we speak of six million Jews being killed during the Holocaust, I've always felt that there were

02:39 Many others who died after the Holocaust whose deaths were perhaps not as directly attributable to the Holocaust itself as the ones who died at Auschwitz or the other concentration camps.

02:58 But who's that's none the less were caused by the war.

03:05 And you thought that was the case with I feel that it's very important that her story be told While I'm Alive because once I die, there will be nobody who knows the story.

03:18 What do you know about Ellen's early life?

03:21 She was born in a small polish Town. It was polish then it's in Belarus today town of mileage, which of the town of about 1000 people which was about equally divided between Jews and non-jews and

03:44 Her parents were divorced. She spoke practically not at all of her father. I I could not give one fact about her father. She lived with her mother and her mother's father and together with various Aunts Uncles and cousins who seem to come and go as they got married and divorced.

04:11 And do you know anything about what it was like for her growing up? Was it a sugar going to shut all I guess and typical shtetl life where poverty and limited educational and social opportunity. She went to school until until the Germans came which in her case was not until the summer of 1941 because she was in the part of Poland which was occupied by the Russians at the beginning of World War II so that

04:56 Our town of Machu Picchu was occupied by the Russians and Russian was taught in the the public schools at home. She spoke Yiddish and

05:12 At school certainly. She was Todd polish. And then when the Russians came she was taught Russian.

05:19 So

05:21 Date when when the war started or at least when there was the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin if you could say what happened in an hour about a week before Germany attack Poland on the 1st of September 1939, Germany and Russia signed what was called the van Ripper?

05:45 Molotov and ribbentrop

05:49 Treaty of non-aggression pact was what it was that in fact Russia agreed not to go to war against Germany when Germany attack Poland France and Britain had said that they would go to war if Germany attack Poland Russia committed itself not to go to war against Germany and that gave Hitler a free hand to invade Poland it on the 1st of September 1939 the bombardments started and

06:28 All of the western part of Poland was very quickly overrun the police. I remember that the police Army was substantial but was in no way a match for the German army. So what did this mean for Helen? What where did her family go when it first at first then the family stayed in mileage just the way they had been their town was occupied by the Russians. And I remember that she said that one of the first things the Russians did when they occupied her town with the line up all of the people in the town and ask them one by one you have relatives in America.

07:14 And my understanding of that was first of all.

07:20 It was never revealed to Helen or do anyone that she knew about what use was made of the information of who had relatives in the States and who didn't but in addition there was a certain note of anti-Semitism about it because it was mostly the Jews who did have relatives in the states and Helen's family indeed had relatives in the states and I'm sure that it was revealed. But to the best of our knowledge no use was ever made of that. It was just a fact

07:58 We can maybe talk a little bit about her relatives in the United States if it bit later, but them.

08:07 So you so should listen unoccupied mileage for a while and then she went to a ghetto that right.

08:20 In 1941, and I forgot the exact date but in the summer of 1941 or spring of 1941 Germany attack, Russia.

08:31 And

08:33 I remember feeling at the time and I was 15 years old not quite 16 years old when this happened but I remember feeling at the time that it was a major tactical blunder that the Germany would never succeed in conquering Russia. Russia was simply too vast and Germany.

08:55 Which had been able to to conquer France and Belgium in the Netherlands Luxembourg Denmark and Norway with lightning speed but these were relatively small countries. So the communications and supplies were not a major element the way they were in Russia. And as a matter of fact, it turned out that it was indeed a major blunder for Germany to attack Russia. Germany would have done much better to attack Britain.

09:35 We stood alone at that point and America was not yet in the war. So they would probably have succeeded in over-running the British Isles. But Russia was simply too fast and they they couldn't but when this started at first the German Advance was very rapid and they occupied the rest of Poland and a good part of western Russia.

10:05 I'm done when the Germans occupied that area of Poland the Jews from smaller towns were rounded up and put in ghettos in larger cities small small cities, but larger than the town's the people came from so that Helen and her family were put in the ghetto at Rouge any which is a place that can still sometimes be found on a map. If the map is good enough where mileage unlikely Helen stayed in the ghetto with her family from

10:50 The summer of 1941 until sometime later. I never knew exactly at what date she managed to escape, but she was definitely out of the ghetto before January 28th of 1943 because at that point the ghetto was emptied and everybody from the ghetto intrusion was sent to Auschwitz and they were all killed.

11:18 I'm just I want to just make a car find out here to be said that you at the time we're in Memphis, Tennessee where you grew up and come to New York yet. I didn't really come to New York until January of 1920 1946 46th Avenue would not meet how long until after the war and when she can sew in in prison. Do you know anything about life in the ghetto there from Helen or did she talk about that much. I know something about life in the various polish ghettos that the conditions were very crowded many people were put together in a relatively small area. There were few accommodations and

12:11 It would have to be said that life in general was quite miserable. But Helen herself didn't didn't talk much about it. She did not talk much about it as she talked relatively little about her wartime experiences much of what I know about her wartime experiences comes from first from the movie Defiance, which is an exact picture of how she described her living conditions in the general conditions.

12:48 In the the forest with the partisans, it must be said that it's sometime between the summer of 1941 and January of 1943. She escaped from the from the ghetto. Somebody saw a hole in the fence surrounding the ghetto and a few of them managed to get through before the Germans stopped it and they made their way to the partisans in the forest whether she was with the group that was led by the bielski brothers who are the ones who are depicted in the movie Defiance whether that was the group she was with or some other group. I don't know as well decide on say that Helen criticize me very often for collecting things that I

13:48 Held onto things and she was always eager to simplify things and get rid of his much as possible. But she did confess that at one point in getting rid of things she threw away the certificate she had the indicated that she had been with the partisans and no doubt. That would have told me what group of the partisan she was with when he was already gone by the time we got married, what would that certificate have been theirs? There's a certificate that

14:18 People who were with the partisans had to demonstrate their allegiance was given at the end of the war for people who had in fact been with the partisans rather than let say collaborating with the Germans in Poland. It's very interesting that in Poland.

14:46 A lot of the Polish population was perfectly satisfied to cooperate with the Germans and killing the Jews. They were no lovers of the Jews but there were others who really risked their lives to save Jews who managed to escape from the ghetto managed to get into a hiding place and there were a number of poles who were as good as others were bad. And I think that is human nature and not not peculiar to the poles. And anyway, so Helen was without her family and she escaped without her family from Fusion in into the forest. She never saw any member of her family again.

15:36 And after the war investigation showed that everybody had been killed.

15:45 Except her brother. She had one brother who is two years older than she was and he retreated with the Russian army when the Russians were treated in the summer of 1941. He retreated with the Russian army. Let's say she was 17 at that time. So he was probably 19. So he was at an age where he could really go off with the Russian army and

16:15 After the war was over she had word that he had married a Russian woman and was living in Siberia and she had under dress but she made attempts numerous attempts to communicate not by writing letters to him but by sending packages because there were agencies that send packages to Russia and she sent packages and always paid extra to get a signature from him that he did receive the packages and while the agency's always assured her that the packages have been delivered. She never got a signature so that she never really knew if he was still alive.

17:01 They might have any might not have done and the packages were delivered. But who knows to whom they were delivered since she didn't get the signature. She had no way of knowing that he had gotten them there.

17:16 How did Helen come to the United States or or are we at the end of that section 8 so she survived in the forest and then at the end of the war in 1944, the Russians were advancing rather rapidly against the Germans and her area was liberated by the Russians. And at first she went back to mileage thinking maybe somebody else of the family had survived, but nobody else had survived and in fact she overheard.

17:55 Neighbors saying look how many Jews are still alive?

18:00 They were surprised that there were as many as there were but presumably that wasn't that many not that many but even those few they were surprised that there were even that many still alive.

18:14 And set up once you decide to come to the United States. Well it it's a little bit more complicated than that. It should be said here than out of the Six Million Jews who are generally assumed to have been killed by the Nazis during the War 3 million of them were with Polish.

18:43 So that not a very high percentage of Polish Jews survived.

18:51 Then after the after the war was over remember that she was liberated in 1944. The war the war in Europe didn't and until early May of 1945. So we're talkin about a. Of close to a year that she so far as I know she lived in mileage.

19:16 In in the old house. She never said that. That's just what I imagined was the case. She lives somewhere anyway, and after the war there were agencies trying to deal with displaced people and because she had no family and she was still quite young she 21. I think that when the war actually ended

19:46 Because she had no no family and certainly did not want to stay on in mileage.

19:55 She was a was treated as a displaced person and eventually was taken to Berlin and where she stayed for some time and then later to Stuttgart which is in the American Zone and she stayed there I think until she came to America.

20:21 She had an uncle living in the Bronx and Uncle who is the brother of her mother and his name was sax, so that should mean that her mother's maiden name was but you could never tell what was going to happen to polish or in general Eastern European names at Ellis Island. And Sachs may have been a simplification or simply an invention of an immigration officer who had no way of knowing how to spell the name and she certainly didn't spell English didn't speak English and I'm sure the uncle didn't speak English when he came to this country. So

21:11 That may or may not have been her mother's maiden name. I have no way of knowing that.

21:21 So Helen was in the you are actually had this these relatives or none call. How did you meet her?

21:33 Helen stayed with the uncle and his family until she got a job.

21:41 She's very quickly set about learning very interesting occupation that I think doesn't exist anymore. She was a bilingual English and Yiddish stenographer and she work for one of the Yiddish language newspapers that were several of them in New York at that time and she worked for that dog and

22:10 She learned the stenography both Yiddish and English from an older woman named Anna Newman who was a very nice person and it should be said that all of Helen's friends in New York at the time. We met were at least a generation older than we were.

22:37 Helen was 15 months older than me, but all of her friends were at least a generation. They were people who were the age of her parents or possibly even if her grandparents they were without exception. They were very nice people and people that I became quite friendly with at the time we met and we met because as soon as hell and got the job with their dog and I had had some money of her own she moved out of her uncle's house and took a room with someone that I knew already a mrs. Eisenberg, who is the mother of

23:21 A friend of mine Eve Eisenberg was a music lover and

23:31 We have been friendly for a gyro, maybe two years at the time that eve took her pick herself up and went off to your group supposedly for a year, but she ended up marrying an American and staying in Europe and Helen rented a room from her mother who?

23:58 Who is not elderly by any means at that point and Helen and mrs. Eisenberg got along very well very friendly and I was frequently invited for dinner and frequently invited Helen to go to concerts with me and things like that has eyes and birds was the one who arranged for us to meet. She thought the Helen and I might make a good pair because Helen by this time and taken up the flute and was a great music lover. And of course mrs. Eisenberg you that I was a musician so that there was something to to base a friendship not a relationship on

24:48 And you said that that Helen had a special appreciation for the Arts?

24:54 Helen was really remarkable in that.

25:00 Why would she grew up in the state of Ohio in eastern Poland where there were certainly no museums or live concerts of any sort she had the greatest natural appreciation for an understanding of the Arts of Music painting and literature of anyone I've ever known.

25:24 What did she like to play on the flute?

25:28 It's interesting would at the time we met she she already played the flute quite well, I mean not on a professional level but as a very good amateur flutist and by that time she was playing the ball B minor flute suite and a B-flat Sonata for flute and keyboard of oball, but after we met what you really like to play on her flute was the Schubert songs where she would play the vocal line on the flute and I would play the accompaniments on the piano. And this was something they could frequently overcome.

26:11 Our darkest moods, but only temporarily because something that hasn't been mentioned so far. Was that the night I mentioned Helen she spoke about going to Israel.

26:28 And I asked her but what will you do? If you don't like it in this role? She was not just making a trip to Israel but going there to live and I asked her what what will you do? If you don't like it in Israel? She said I'll walk into the Mediterranean.

26:45 And I always felt that that was a warning of things to come.

26:52 And indeed it it was a warning because

26:58 Helen was

27:03 Should I say Helen was suicidal apparently from before the time we met and to me this this posed a challenge.

27:17 I have to say that I loved Helen for herself and her many abilities and her sensitivity and her high intelligence and her courage in surviving through the war in Coming to America and really

27:37 Moving up in the world to the extent that she had done.

27:43 But at the same time there was this dark side of her personality that that posed a challenge and I've often thought that I had perhaps seen too many Hollywood movies where the the difficult problems were solved by the love of somebody who would support and help and Antoine and could overcome the the problems and I I think I know at this point that it was simply impossible. I did everything I could do. I think I did more than most people in my position would have done or would even have tried to do when

28:33 When I reached the limit of what I can do and it was obviously not successful. My my parents took over and did what they could do.

28:46 Will tell me a bit about she had she made attempts at suicide right never said directly. I will kill myself.

28:57 I'm going to commit suicide. She never said that she would always say I'm going away and you won't know about it because I'll I'll be far away and you won't know.

29:09 And my efforts in my appeals didn't didn't stop the this talk. So the first thing we were married in February of 1952 in the spring of 53 Helen did in fact make a trip to Israel and it was understood from from the time. The trip was planned that if she really liked it in Israel. She was absolutely free to stay and then it would be my decision whether I would also go to live in Israel or whether we would simply separate.

29:50 So

29:52 She went to Israel. She knew an older woman of Doctor Who had been in the partisans with her and that she had maintained contact with and she went to see this doctor in Israel and stayed on the kibbutz with her but eventually went into Tel Aviv and

30:13 At first she decided she would stay and then she decided she wouldn't stay so I immediately started making plans to meet her

30:26 To meet her in in Europe, and I went to Naples and met her in July of 1953. And eventually we returned New York At first she wasn't happy about the idea of returning to New York, but

30:47 We had a week or ten days of a really very good time in Paris where she was in better spirits than that. I can remember it anytime before or after.

31:02 And she got back to New York and started again with being unhappy.

31:07 We eventually moved into a much nicer apartment. We were just in my small apartment with at the time. We got married, but

31:18 In 1955 we moved into a very nice apartment on Riverside Drive, and she said just when things get good I have to go away and I said hello you.

31:34 You don't have to go away stay.

31:38 No, she went away. She went to enter Mexico. She knew nobody in Mexico. She went to Mexico. She stayed a few days in Mexico and went from there to Denver in Denver. She managed to get herself a job and she stayed for several months. And eventually we corresponded there were no emails for cell phones at that time. So she she the next word. I had was a phone call from Chicago come and get me and she made a suicide attempt and I did in fact fly to Chicago immediately and brought her back to New York and threw a friend she was

32:29 Placed at the psychiatric Institute, which is part of Columbia Presbyterian hospital and she was there for two years.

32:40 And when she came out she it was arranged that she would live separate from me. But in the immediate area where I could still help her and look out and do for her. She lived with one of the other young women from the the hospital and she stayed there for over a year and then she went to Baltimore and made a second attempt and this one was much closer to being successful and

33:15 Eventually came out and when she returned to New York that time my parents invited her to come to Memphis to live and she had never particularly gotten along with my parents particularly my mother she got along much better with my father and when they issued the invitation, I told her hell and I can't do anymore. You really better accept that invitation. At least it's a temporary solution until you can find out what so she went to Memphis stayed there for four years saw a psychiatrist during that time.

33:56 And started college at Memphis State University now the University of Memphis and in the summer of 1963. She decided she would go on a vacation which made me very uneasy. She went to Maine and just at that time my grandmother died. So I went to Memphis. She wasn't there should already left for Maine and a few days after my grandmother died. We got word that Helen had been found in a hotel room dead.

34:35 In Portland, Maine

34:38 I know we have to wrap up in a few minutes, but can you tell me about the last time you heard from her or spoke with her?

34:46 The last time I heard from her was a letter that she wrote the night that she committed suicide and it started out.

35:01 Poor dear long-suffering, David

35:14 It was

35:17 It was painful. I still have the letter of course and

35:22 I look at it and I can break down crying Even Now 46 years later.

35:34 The

35:37 The pain of losing her for one thing and the failure of my efforts to save her combined to make it really the most painful experience of my life.

35:55 What are you what do you think about when you think about how I'm now? How do you feel?

36:01 I am so sorry that she did not live to see the the good times that I have had and that she could have had if she were still alive that.

36:20 I've had a lot of

36:24 Success and

36:28 I am

36:30 I am certainly much more secure now than I was during the time that she was alive. I always have felt maybe I didn't feel it so much while she was alive, but I've always felt in the years since she died that Helen really should have married a man 20 years older than herself and somebody who is already not necessarily rich, but secure financially somebody who had a solid job and made a living.

37:03 So that she could have derived some security from that which she probably did not derive from me because I was mostly starting out a career which had not achieved the level of success that I eventually did achieve.

37:28 And I'm I'm so sorry. I very often cited by self.

37:35 Helen if you were still alive today, it would be so much better.

37:41 To dream about her do you dream about her?

37:44 Occasionally not not very often. No, but occasionally, yes.

37:51 Is there anything you'd like people to know about? Yes, I

37:58 But it it has to do with the this figure of 6 million. I've said many times there weren't 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust there was six million and one because I feel that Helen's death was as much caused by the Holocaust as the ones who died at Auschwitz.

38:24 In fact, it's not six million and one there probably thousands of other cases similar to Helen of people who survived the war.

38:36 And then could not survive having survived.

38:41 Either the loneliness or the guilt or the combination.

38:48 Being transplanted to another country having to learn new languages and what have you all of these things combined so that some people simply could not make the grade afterward. I've often thought that if Helen had survived in mileage where where she grew up she would she would have had a typical schedule existence. She would have married probably an arranged marriage which was very common at that time and she would have had children and dog.

39:28 The the usual problems of the statue existence, but it wouldn't have been the upheaval that she experienced.

39:41 You mentioned earlier that she didn't really.

39:45 Talk about the war at all. Why do you think that was why didn't she tell her story to you?

39:54 I think first of all it was too painful, although she said the time she spent with the partisans was one of the happiest times of her life that she she really felt very free with the partisans. I advise anybody who is interested in the subject to see the movie Defiance to get an idea because that movie was so much like the things that she the few things that she did say about her experiences with the partisans that it was just amazing. It was like hearing Helen tell the story over again.

40:37 Imagine men, of course. I never nude Helen, but I imagine she'll be thankful for you telling her so you saw the picture of her yes and

40:47 She was quite beautiful and

40:51 A wonderfully bright sensitive person with a very good sense of humor in spite of the darkness in her life. She had a very good sense of humor and like to laugh.

41:05 Well, thanks for telling me about it David.

41:08 Thank you for asking.