Holocaust survivor talks about her teenage years
On the 66th anniversary of her liberation from Stutthof concentration camp by Soviet troops, Nesse Godin shared her story with Greencastle-Antrim High School students. The Human Rights Literature classes of Martina Fegan visited the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum March 10 to learn first-hand what they would also be studying spring semester.
The woman fondly known as Nesse, and one of 80 survivor volunteers at the museum, appeared on a day she was not normally scheduled. A Pennsylvania Learn and Serve America Grant which sponsored the students' field trip also allowed Fegan to arrange transportation for Nesse from her Silver Spring, Md. home. The two had met last fall and Fegan was anxious for her pupils to hear the account of the Lithuanian native, since she had survived German SS killing units.
A teenager's story
"I am a survivor of the Holocaust," began Nesse, 81, in the Helena Rubenstein Auditorium. "I am here for one reason only, to share memories and not to allow a holocaust to humanity ever again."
Experiencing a normal and happy childhood until she was 13, life as she knew it disappeared in June 1941, when Germans occupied her city four days after invading the USSR.
"Trouble for Jews began immediately," she said.
Mobile killing units, made up of volunteers, seized 1,000 men and boys from the Jewish population of 10,000, marched them into the forest and shot them. The citizens were moved into a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire, and hunger and fear became constant companions. "Selections" occurred frequently, in which groups of men, women and children were taken away, never to be seen again. Her father, at age 47, was one of them.
In 1944 the Germans left Lithuania and the Jews were sent to various camps. Nesse, then 16, was separated from her mother and brothers and sent to Stutthof. All that she had left was her name, but that was taken away as she became number 54015.
During one selection process, Nesse and other females stripped and entered a shower room.
"We bathed and walked out the other door, not realizing how lucky we were," she said. "Even the gas chambers had the same shower sign."
Nesse also lived in four labor camps and was part of a death march through Poland and Germany. Most of the 5,000 women walking that winter died of starvation and disease.
Nesse was 17 when she was rescued. She was reunited with her mother and siblings.
"What my eyes saw I have a hard time to share," she told the Greencastle students. She credited much of her strength to the Jewish women by her side those four years. "They asked me to promise that if I survived I would not let them be forgotten."
Nesse urged the students to be kind in small ways and large, that the actions would make a difference. She herself was involved in trying to help victims of the Darfur genocide in Africa.
"Every single day we can do something to help another person," she said.
The students also toured the museum, which has been the site of 15 trips for Fegan's classes through the years. What the students saw and heard made an impression.
"Her (Nesse’s) story was amazing. She had a positive attitude," said senior Devin Schaeffer, 18. "It was really interesting to hear from someone who was there, not just from teachers."
For junior Cody Young, 17, exhibit highlights included a railroad car used to ship prisoners, and piles of shoes that once belonged to Jewish people.
"And the pictures of bodies on bodies," he added. "It was sad."
One display narrated the use of propaganda by Adolf Hitler to sway public opinion to his opinion.
"That was interesting," said junior Shelby Smith, 17. "Not many people know how the Nazis rose to power."
The lesson learned was not to let such a thing happen again, said junior Bryce Donahue, 16.
Cody Hill, 16, sophomore, concurred. "No matter what race, religion or color you are, you're still a human being."
Fegan admitted her class was not easy to teach, since human rights was such a serious topic.
"But we need to honor life and the lives that were lost. If we forget we victimize them again."