Boldness, beauty, luck: A Holocaust survivor's story

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English lecturer Hilton Obenzinger holds a 1938 family photo that includes Zosia Goldberg, top left, whose tale is told via Obenzinger in a new book, Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust.

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[T]he Germans came, rounding up people every day. One day they said, "Everyone who is a redhead will go." Then the next day, "Everyone who is freckled." Another day, those with kinky hair; another, those with the Jewish nose; another, those who look like Gentiles; another, those who look beautiful. Then, those who are ugly, those with bow legs. Too old. All pregnant women. All women with little children. All men. Every day there was something else.

-- From Running Through Fire by Zosia Goldberg, as told to Hilton Obenzinger

As a Jewish woman living in the Warsaw Ghetto during the early 1940s, Zosia Goldberg feared that her days were numbered. Yet she knew she had several things going for her. Her father had been an important figure in the Polish nationalist movement. She'd been educated in predominantly Catholic schools. She was young and beautiful, and she spoke Polish, not Yiddish. Friends called her débrouillarde -- a French word meaning someone who is resourceful, who can run through fire without getting burned.

In a new book, Running Through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust (Mercury House, 2004), Stanford English lecturer Hilton Obenzinger shares his aunt's gripping story, a first-person account replete with a narrow escape through the sewers of Warsaw, work for the Polish resistance, betrayal by fellow Jews and help from unlikely sources, including several Nazis. A dramatic reading from the text, sponsored by Continuing Studies, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20, in Cubberley Auditorium.

Obenzinger, a poet and novelist who also advises Stanford students on their honors theses in his role as associate director of undergraduate research programs, grew up hearing fragments of his aunt's story around the family dinner table. But it wasn't until he interviewed Goldberg in 1979 -- taping her as they strolled together on the sidewalks of New York -- that he began to understand the full horror of her ordeal. "She's an incredible, vigorous storyteller," Obenzinger explains, sitting in his office on the fourth floor of Sweet Hall. "She remembers the names of people and places in incredible detail."

Obenzinger used some of his aunt's story in his 1980 book, This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, and presented bound copies of the interviews to family members. Then the project gathered dust for years, until his friend Paul Auster, a writer whose works include the novel Leviathan and the screenplay for Smoke, happened to read the manuscript and began championing it. Eventually it was picked up by Mercury House for a nonprofit heritage and preservation series funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Auster wrote the book's introduction.

In many ways, Goldberg's tale of survival is similar to that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the celebrated Polish musician whose story was retold in the Academy Award-winning film The Pianist. In fact, Goldberg worked as a waitress in one of the Warsaw cafes where Szpilman regularly performed. Like the pianist, Goldberg survived the Holocaust through a combination of extraordinary luck and assistance from friends, coworkers and acquaintances, both Polish and German. She was also bold and extremely shrewd -- traits that served her well as she faced repeated brushes with death.

At one point in Running Through Fire, for example, Goldberg describes an incident in a ghetto factory where she and her mother were given work making brushes for the Gestapo. "On one particularly terrible day, [the German SS] said whoever is over forty will go. My [late] father had prepared Polish passports for us, just in case. So I falsified the passport, making out that my mother was 33 years old. ... Then I painted her face, braided her hair around her head. When I think how she looked, like an idiot, not young but grotesque, the way I fixed her up. And I combed my hair in this à la Gretchen style, a German hairstyle."

Despite the guise, "a big fat man, a German from the SS with a leather stick ... hit my mother to be selected for death. I ran out from the line without saying one word. I grabbed her by the coat and I kicked her into the crowd of people for life, for work. Then I stood straight like a soldier. Let them decide what they wanted. They were paralyzed. They had never seen anything like it, the chutzpa to take someone out from the death line and push her back to life!"

With narrative like that, Obenzinger felt it was natural that excerpts from the book be read aloud onstage. Working closely with Kay Kostopoulos, a lecturer in the Department of Drama, Obenzinger auditioned several young Stanford drama students to read the part of his aunt. The honor went to Audrey Hannah, a graduating senior whose maternal grandmother survived the Holocaust by fleeing Germany to El Salvador in 1933.

"I played an anti-Semite in Carl Weber's production of Isaac Babel's Maria this winter at Stanford, so I was glad to have an opportunity to repay my Jewish ancestors for my blasphemy with this project," notes Hannah, who is heading to New York after graduation to pursue an acting career. "Kay and I have done our share of crying while rehearsing, as well as smiling and shaking our heads at [Goldberg's] chutzpa and her charm."

Hannah will be joined onstage at Cubberley Auditorium by Kostopoulos, with whom she will alternate readings, and Obenzinger, who will serve as narrator. The free public dramatic reading also will feature backdrop slides from the Warsaw Ghetto and audio recordings of Goldberg's own voice.

Next month, Hannah and Obenzinger will repeat the performance at two venues in New York City -- this time with Goldberg herself in attendance. Now 85, she's "a little nervous" about all the attention, Obenzinger says. Nevertheless, she understands the value of telling her story of survival.

"My aunt and I have been able to present this to people -- and it's up to people to do with it what they will," Obenzinger explains. "Her story is one testimony, one piece of evidence, and we hope the deductions people draw will lead them toward life and peace."