Several years ago, while addressing a gathering of activists intent on preventing genocide in Sudan, Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin said she stood “shoulder to shoulder” with those trying to stop the killing of innocent men, women and children. Godin’s support for peace in that region has been unabated through the years, though, she admits, it comes from a unique perspective.
Several years ago, while addressing a gathering of activists intent on preventing genocide in Sudan, Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin said she stood “shoulder to shoulder” with those trying to stop the killing of innocent men, women and children.
Godin’s support for peace in that region has been unabated through the years, though, she admits, it comes from a unique perspective.
“Yes, I have a right to speak for (the people of Sudan),” insists Godin, now 81, in a telephone interview from her Silver Springs, Md., home. “I’m involved because nobody would speak up for me.
“I know how they feel. I was hungry, starved.”
Godin, who will speak at MacMurray College in Jacksonville on Thursday in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 21), has lived in the United States since 1950. But she spent her early teenage years as a prisoner of the Nazi regime — first in a ghetto in her hometown of Siauliai, Lithuania, and then in a series of concentration camps.
A “death march” in the middle of winter through Poland and into Germany left Godin weighing 69 pounds and, she says, without her will to live.
Housed in a barn where she nearly died of exposure and starvation, Godin says older women around her aided her physically and emotionally and eventually gave her the impetus to speak out.
“They would say, ‘Stop, little girl. It’s Hitler and the Nazis who want you dead. Try to live and if you live, teach the world what happened (to us),’” Godin recalls. “I promised them that and I’m keeping my promise.”
Godin has been an indefatigable speaker on the Holocaust internationally and domestically. She has funneled much of her energy for the last decade and a half into volunteer efforts at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A frequent lecturer at college campuses across the country, Godin acknowledges anti-Semitism has been creeping into discussions on campuses, particularly surrounding Israel’s skirmishes with Palestinian forces and other Middle Eastern states.
Recently, at the University of California at Irvine, a Holocaust memorial was destroyed and rocks were hurled at a Jewish student. A U.S. Department of Education civil rights office later issued a report finding “insufficient evidence” that students were harassed based on their national origins.
Though she supports open discussion, Godin is leery of people who mask hate with freedom of speech.
“Hitler started free speech, too,” in Germany, Godin points out. “There is the right to speak up, but not with the intent of (harming) someone.”
Growing up in a religiously observant Jewish family, Godin saw the walls of her hometown of Siauliai literally close in when the Nazis occupied the area days after the invasion of Russia. The city was fenced off, with armed escorts. The Nazis soon began “selections” of certain individuals —Godin’s father among them — who were taken to their deaths.
In 1944, Godin, just 16, was deported to the Stutthof concentration camp near the Polish shipping port of Gdansk.
At Chinow, Godin and others were forced to dig long trenches.
“We thought that they were going to shoot us, but it turned out they didn’t have to because so many people died of diseases like dysentery,” she recalls.
There “what my eyes saw was indescribable. Mountains of naked skeletons, some I knew as friends, some distant relatives.”
More than six decades and thousands of speeches later, Godin says it still isn’t easy to talk about her experiences.
“Many a night I dream about it,” she admits.
Godin still bears physical scars of her interment, but she says her activism and volunteering at the Holocaust Museum are helping dissipate that misery.
“How can I forget it?” she says. “To cry is not enough.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at email@example.com or at (217) 622-1788.
March 28, 1928: Born in Siauliai, Lithuania
June 6, 1941: German forces occupy Siauliai
August 1941: Godin’s family is forced to live in a ghetto in Siauliai.
June 1944: Godin is deported to the Stutthof concentration camp in northern Poland.
January 1945: Evacuation of Stutthof begins. Godin lives in a series of four labor camps.
Mid-February 1945: Godin and others begin “Death March,” ending in Chinow, Poland, about 50 miles southeast of Warsaw.
March 10, 1945: Chinow liberated by Soviet forces.
May 9, 1945: Stutthof liberated by Soviet forces.
1945-50: Godin lives in a displaced persons camp in Feldafing, Germany.
1950: Godin and her family, including husband, Jack, and mother, Sara — also Holocaust survivors — immigrate to Silver Springs, Md.
Nov. 15, 1998: Godin receives the Eli Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Medal.
If you go
The MacMurray College Speaker Series presents “Surviving the Holocaust” by Nesse Godin
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bailey Auditorium, Julian Hall of Chemistry on the MacMurray College campus in Jacksonville
How much: Free
Contact: www.mac.edu or call (217) 479-7027