DWU student Gottlob leads charge in impactful Holocaust history lesson
Dakota Wesleyan student Gottlob organizes virtual visit from Polish native
MITCHELL — Rae Goldfarb is a survivor.
She has survived an invasion of her home country of Poland by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She survived hiding for over a week in a cramped space behind a house wall. She survived times spent inside the infamous Jewish ghettos. She survived an infection of typhus.
Those incidents are all a part of her experiences of being a Holocaust survivor. She is now a volunteer with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Tuesday evening she appeared virtually at the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University School of Business, Innovation and Leadership to tell her story and answer questions about one of the darkest periods in world history.
Not everyone from her family survived. Her brother and her grandfather were just two of her kin who were murdered in the Holocaust, the systematic, state-sponsored, persecution and murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945 across Europe and North Africa.
Goldfarb’s frightening tales of pursuit and persecution were brought to life at Dakota Wesleyan through the efforts of Natalie Gottlob, a student studying athletic training who has a penchant for brushing up on World War II history in her spare time.
“(Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans are) out there, and they have stories to tell,” Gottlob told the Mitchell Republic. “There are a lot of biographies and stories about them written, but then there are some people that have never written a book. So how are we supposed to learn from them?”
Taking advantage of the resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its volunteer speakers is one such way, she said.
Gottlob, also a member of the Dakota Wesleyan History Club, first became interested in World War II, and history in general, in sixth grade. It was there a teacher told her the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who in the late 1930s bent the rules to issue thousands of transit visas to Jews fleeing the country in hopes of eventually reaching the United States. For his efforts, Sugihara earned the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Israel in 1984.
The story struck a nerve with her, and after a scheduling conflict in 2019 forced her to miss a presentation by a Holocaust survivor, she looked to hold a similar event if she could.
“In my free time I love to engross myself in everything with World War II and Holocaust history. I had taken a World War II class when it fit in with my schedule, and I had a curiosity as to whether or not I could ever meet a survivor,” Gottlob said. “(My research led me) to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and I sent a message to one of the members there. And they answered me.”
She reached out to the museum, and after some exchanges, managed to arrange a presentation by Goldfarb via video conference. Over the course of that presentation Tuesday, Goldfarb recounted several tales of her escape from near-certain death in occupied Europe.
Goldfarb was born in 1930 in Doksyzyce, Poland, which is now a part of Belarus. The town, located 3 miles from the border with the Soviet Union, was home to about 6,000 people, half of whom were Jewish, she said. Her father Beryl was a businessman who bought cattle and farm products to export to Germany, and her mother, Dina, owned a fabric store. Her brother, Shlomo, was three years younger than she was.
Her father died of an infection in 1937, two years before the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in September of 1939.
“We woke up one morning with tanks in the streets and Russian soldiers with red flags with the hammer and sickle,” Goldfarb said. “Businesses were closed and taken over by the Soviets. They evicted people from their houses for the management they had brought in. The school I went to, which was a private school, was closed because it was semi-religious, and I had to go to public school.”
Businesses were nationalized and indoctrination into the communist philosophy began. The Soviets confiscated personal items. It was a bad time, but when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they took over the former Soviet Union holdings and life got even worse.
Some remembered the German army from World War I, and memories indicated that they would be more progressive than their Soviet occupiers. But a German soldier who entered the village happened to remember her grandfather from his past duty in Poland, and gave him a warning.
“He came later to my grandparents house and told my grandfather this isn’t the same army that occupied your area during the first World War. This is a very bad army. So we kind of became aware of what was to come,” Goldfarb said.
The arrival of the Nazis set her life on a truly terrifying path. Being Jewish, her family was forced to sew a yellow star of David to their clothes for easy identification. They were forced to live in ghettos — areas cordoned off from the rest of the village — where they could be counted, monitored and used for forced labor. Schooling was abolished, but she was lucky enough to take lessons from a private tutor.
She recalled when three men escaped the ghetto. The Germans searched for the escapees, but when they couldn’t find them, they demanded a sacrifice at a ratio of 10 to 1. Thirty men of similar age to the escapees were executed in front of the ghetto as punishment.
“Needless to say, nobody wanted to be responsible for so many deaths. Escapes sort of stopped after that,” Goldfarb said.
A little under a year after the Nazis arrived, they liquidated the ghetto. Its occupants were slated for execution, but Goldfarb and a few members of her family managed to escape by hiding in their home, which had a shared wall with another building and a space where they could hide. They spent eight days hiding out, but eventually had to reveal themselves.
“Everybody hid. Everybody had some kind of hiding place,” Goldfarb said.
Her grandfather, who left the hiding place to take stock of the situation, never returned. But Dina, Rae and Shlomo bolted for the countryside, seeking refuge with any acquaintance that would have them. Rae and her brother were split up with different families. Later, Rae learned that the Nazis had found her brother and killed him.
But the running continued. Eventually, Goldfarb and her mother connected with a group of partisans, Jewish escapees who organized a guerilla resistance against the Nazis and who accepted them after Dina showed them a German Luger pistol she had acquired from a farmer friend. Impressed, they let her join their fold.
“Men were accepted, but women were not accepted unless for a certain reason. Mother had a gun, a German Luger, which was a big thing in the partisans,” Goldfarb said. “Men were fighters, and women were a burden, especially a woman with a child. But they thought this was a brave woman — she had a gun. She became a cook and I became her helper, and we stayed with the partisans.”
She later contracted typhus and nearly died, and what seemed like endless running and relocating and even more imprisonment followed. Then in the late summer of 1944, Rae and Dina marched with the partisans to the Soviet lines, where they were liberated. Dina became a worker on the rail lines helping repair water towers that the Germans had destroyed during their retreat, and the two lived together in a boxcar traveling from station to station.
They still faced persecution in their homeland, so they left Poland for Italy where they stayed in Santa Cearea and Bari. In 1947 they immigrated to the United States with sponsorship from a family member. Rae later married Harvy Goldfarb, another Holocaust survivor and Korean War veteran, and they had two children.
Today, she spends some of her time doing what she did Tuesday evening — recounting her story as a mission of outreach.
History can guide the future
Those in attendance sat silently for Goldfarb, taking in every word. An occasional gasp or rumbling occasionally rose from the crowd, spurred by shock at some of her revelations.
But they also reacted warmly to stories of the kindness she encountered. The story of the Russian Orthodox priest who showed her kindness when she searched for food. The stories of the farmers who had worked with her father and were brave enough to hide his children in their homes, or smuggle a pistol hidden in a basket of eggs to her mother. The story of her first physical education class in the United States, when she thought a baseball bat was a rolling pin.
Her stories were an open window into a life few today know, said Sean Flynn, a professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University on hand to assist Gottlob with the presentation.
“I think any firsthand account of an event is more meaningful and impactful than reading about it in a book. Rae’s experiences, her survival story, was riveting to hear her say in person as opposed to just reading about in a secondary source or general way,” he said. “I think it provided us with an opportunity to see the experience through her eyes and live through this experience through her.”
He lauded Gottlob for her efforts in bringing the presentation to campus.
“She put a lot of work into this, and it was truly voluntary. From start to finish, she organized this,” Flynn said.
Ally Jamison, president of the Dakota Wesleyan History Club, praised Goldfarb for her presentation and Gottlob for making it happen.
“During our meetings Natalie brought up this idea to me and I said absolutely, that’s a wonderful idea. And she hunkered down and got it all done,” Jamison said.
Gottlob was glad the event came together and she plans to continue pursuing her love of history as she looks forward to continuing her education. She enjoys books and other materials on history, but there is nothing quite like hearing history from someone who experienced it first hand.
“There is so much to learn about. I think it’s important to share these stories to honor these people who lost their lives for truly no reason at all,” Gottlob said. “To be able to share those stories and carry on their legacy, the hope is to learn so that this never happens again.”
Goldfarb echoed that sentiment in her closing remarks. Like Gottlob, she has a love of history and its study. And like Gottlob, it is an interest born in the classroom, where a teacher once shared history lessons and discussion with her.
Like Gottlob, that love of history is why she was there Tuesday night.
“My history teacher was someone that I particularly developed a relationship with. We would talk history. I got a lot of lessons from him, enough to pass an examination in history. And I still love to study history and read history,” Goldfarb said. “From history I learned what comes around goes around. It happens again. In order to avoid or repeat the same things happening again, you really have to study them. The past is an important lesson for the future.”