Surviving the Holocaust: a Vancouver family’s story comes vividly to life in Joe Gold's Two Pieces of Cloth
Vancouver businessman and musician Joe Gold says that his father, David Goldberger, often told him that if he must make a decision to go right or left, always go right.
It left Gold feeling baffled, but his father, also a Vancouver businessman, was insistent about this.
“He said, ‘Don’t even think about it. Go right,’ ” Gold recalled in a phone interview with the Straight.
It was only when Gold wrote his new book, Two Pieces of Cloth: One Family’s Story of the Holocaust, that he realized what his father meant.
When Goldberger entered the Auschwitz concentration camp on April 17, 1944, he encountered SS physician Dr. Josef Mengele. He was called the Angel of Death for performing gruesome medical experiments and for choosing which inmates would die in the gas chambers.
Goldberger was selected to go right, which meant that he avoided the fate of millions of European Jews and instead, became a slave labourer.
“Every time somebody went right, it meant life,” Gold said. “I imagine that’s why he said that to me.”
The book tells the stunning story of his parents, who both survived the Holocaust, and some of their relatives who didn’t. In addition, it's chock full of historical information not only about Mengele, but also how the Nazis charged Slovaks to deport Jews and how quickly Hungary's Jewish community was packed off to concentration camps.
Each chapter is told in the voice of either Gold, his father, or his mother, Aurelia, ending when they came to Canada in 1948. Gold attributes his father’s survival skills to his keen intelligence, resilience, ability to read people, and a great deal of luck.
“What I learned from my father’s experiences is that you can always start up again and be successful through hard work, determination, and faith in yourself but also faith in humanity,” Gold declared.
Family's business was seized
Goldberger married Aurelia in the Slovakian spa town of Piestany in 1941. They lived together in a Jewish neighbourhood in Bratislava, just as it was being “Aryanized”.
That resulted in a German businessman taking majority control of the family textile business, keeping Goldberger on as a general manager even as local authorities ramped up anti-Jewish measures. The couple decided to escape to Hungary via train in 1942—a perilous journey because at any point they could have been arrested. They made it to Budapest thanks to a kindly Jewish passenger, who took them to a hotel.
After they were taken to a police station for questioning in May 1943, Aurelia went to live at a hospital, pretending to be Christian for the rest of the Second World War. Their first son, Andrew, was born that year, when all Jewish males of working age were forced to join labour batallions, resulting in Goldberger being sent to eastern Hungary.
He was able to return to his family months later. But Goldberger’s problems intensified after German troops occupied Hungary in March of 1944. He was required to register, along with all other Jews, and that’s how he ended up in a putrid cattle car headed to Auschwitz, in Poland. What happened to him over the next 14 months was utterly horrific. He was then transferred deep into Germany, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as the Allies closed in on Hitler.
When troops liberated his camp, Goldberger weighed a skeletal 65 pounds. Rather than risk typhus, he left the camp instead of waiting for the Slovakian guard to arrive. He was given two pieces of cloth when he arrived in nearby Hanover. Goldberger eventually made his way to Prague, where he received a telegram informing him that his wife and son were alive in Budapest.
“He told me many times that if he didn’t have a wife and a child, he doubts that he would have made it,” Gold said. “He had that drive to see them again and to help them, not to leave them alone if they survived.”
His mother also narrowly avoided death. It came one day when she was approaching a bridge. She saw a friend, they stopped to chat, and while they were speaking the structure was blown up.
Gold said that his mother never wanted to talk to him about those war years. But when she was older, she opened up to his daughter when she was doing a Grade 10 school project about the Holocaust.
"She told my daughter quite a few stories that are in the book."
One of those tales involved his older brother Andrew, who had to dress up like a girl to avoid detection. That's because this matched the identity that his mother adopted to avoid being identified as Jewish.
"She found it too difficult to speak to me about it," Gold said.
Book benefits Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre
The executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Nina Krieger, told the Straight by phone that her organization has developed a plan to mail copies of Two Pieces of Cloth to its members, accompanied by an invitation to donate to the VHEC in support of its annual campaign.
She expressed deep admiration to Gold, his wife, Karyn, and their friends and family members for agreeing to match every donation up to $30,000. In addition, Gold has offered to contribute 50 percent of the proceeds from the first two weeks of online book sales to the VHEC.
“We’re really grateful for their generosity,” Krieger said.
After the family arrived in Canada, Goldberger demonstrated his resilience once again, creating a long-lasting fabric store in the South Granville neighbourhood. According to Gold, his father also pushed hard for reparations for what he endured, even though his wife wasn't overly interested in pursuing this.
"My father told me many times that in Bratislava, one of the thngs he had to do was to take a life insurance policy that my grandfather had and leave it...at the bank," Gold recalled.
In the 1990s. they read a newspaper article reporting that reparations were now being considered for insurance policies to those who were murdered in the Holocaust. The funds that the family recovered were donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, which they cofounded in 1994.
Other reparations were available for being a slave labourer and for the loss of property in Slovakia.
"It was a total of about 10 years of effort to receive some funding for those losses," Gold said.
Gold revealed that writing Two Pieces of Cloth affected him deeply, making him feel sad, numb, and helpless.
At nights, he would sit with his wife with a box of tissues and tears would be wiped away as he read the pages.
He found a way to express his feelings through music, playing the piano every day. This led to him writing a score, Theme for Two Pieces of Cloth, which is available on the book's website. The music, more than anything else, reflects his feelings during the writing process and when he thinks of his parents today.
“It was very difficult, and you become a witness to the story,” Gold stated. “And my feeling is that anybody who reads the book also becomes a witness to the atrocities that were done.”