“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all ages and has done it with his hands tied behind him … All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” — Mark Twain
The story of the late Bluma and Felix Goldberg is a love story. It is a story that winds through small, quaint towns in Poland to the embers of Nazi labor and concentration camps and perilously close to the horrific death that 6 million Jews suffered during the Holocaust. Love bore them through beatings, starvation, and horrible illness. Love saved them from Adolph Hitler. Then, love lured them to sunny Columbia, South Carolina, where they were blessed with three children and a long, happy life together.
Bluma and Felix were both born in Poland. “They had really good lives there, with large families,” says Esther Greenberg, Bluma and Felix’s youngest child. “When war came, it was devastating.” Bluma’s family lived on the town square in Pińczów, a town with a sizable Jewish population. Bluma had both Jewish and non-Jewish friends.
Felix was born in Kalicz, the youngest of five children. Jews made up a quarter of the town’s population and boasted abundant Jewish culture. Their life was not always peaceful, however. “Jews learned not to go to school the day after Easter,” says Henry Goldberg, Bluma and Felix’s oldest son. “On Easter, Christian churches preached that Jews killed Jesus, so the following Monday Christian boys would beat up Jewish ones.” The problem became worse in 1936, when gangs beat up Jews and authorities did nothing.
Around 1937, Bluma heard rumors swirling in Pińczów about Adolph Hitler. According to the rumors, he wanted to kill all the Jews, but no one believed it. In 1938, Felix was drafted into the Polish army, and on Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler started World War II by invading Poland. Nazis rolled into Pińczów when Bluma was 13 and her sister, Cela, was 15. Jews were given curfews and made to wear the Jewish badge on their clothing. In 1942, Germans started burning Jewish homes and rounding up Jewish people. “Mom was devastated that they were burning her beautiful town,” says Karl Goldberg, Bluma and Felix’s second son.
“My grandmother gave Cela money and jewelry and told her, ‘Take Bluma and run into woods. Hopefully we’ll see each other again,’” says Henry. “How would a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl handle that? How do you survive that?” Bluma’s mother and other sisters were sent to the crematorium, while her father and brother escaped and joined the Jewish Partisans, a resistance militia. In the woods, Bluma and Cela found an uncle and a cousin, and the four lived there for two months before traveling 30 kilometers to Chmielnik.
Meanwhile, Felix’s unit was swiftly overrun by the Germans. He and his fellow soldiers were taken to Stalag IIA in Germany, where they worked while enduring terrible conditions. The end of 1940 saw all Polish soldiers loaded onto cattle trains and taken to Lublin, where Felix worked in a rock quarry and was beaten daily. After only a short time, the order came to transfer the men to the Warsaw ghetto and they were again loaded onto trains. Felix knew his parents were not in Warsaw, so he jumped off the train. He was soon arrested by the Waffen-SS, beaten, and put on another train to Warsaw.
Again he jumped off and made his way to his grandparents’ home in Tuliszków, where his parents and sisters were staying, in October 1941. He lived there about a year, digging ditches for the Germans in exchange for a loaf of bread a day. Then, the Germans ordered the young men of the town to a Poznań war camp, where they dug new riverbeds, redirecting water to Germany. Meals consisted of a little bread and potato peel soup. After a year or so, the 250 men dwindled to 75 to 80 due to illness and executions. Anyone caught trying to beg food was executed; hangings occurred every Sunday. At the end of 1942, the men were loaded onto trains going to a place called Auschwitz.
As Felix was headed to Auschwitz, Bluma and Cela reached Chmielnik, where they stayed with another uncle. After only five days, someone told the SS that Bluma and Cela were there. The girls hid while the SS came by twice, and they knew they had to leave. Meanwhile, a law came out saying that young people aged 15 to 25 could work in labor camps. Bluma exaggerated her age and the girls reported to the trucks. They were taken to Kielce, where they made ammunition seven hours a day, every day.
Bluma’s job was to feed material into machines to make bullets. Many years later, she still had holes in her hands caused by burns from the machines’ oils. Still, Bluma and Cela were able to stay together. They had running water, and the food was not too bad. In early 1944, the girls were moved to another ammunition camp in Częstochowa. Once, Bluma was so tired that she closed her eyes during work. After her supervisor slapped her viciously across the face, she did not make the mistake again.
Felix arrived at Auschwitz at midnight. The men were told that anyone who could not work should go on the trucks. Felix always chose work. Those who chose to go on the trucks were taken to the crematorium. The next morning, Felix had a number tattooed on his arm and was assigned to a block where he lived with 300 to 400 other men. At Auschwitz, Felix met David Miller, and the two helped each other survive the remainder of the Holocaust. Prisoners in the camp did not know the smoking chimney they saw was from burning people.
After three or four weeks, winter started to set in, and it was very, very cold. A man named Dr. Mengele came and had the prisoners file by him. Lucky ones, like Felix and David, Dr. Mengele sent to the right. The unlucky were sent left to the crematorium. The next day, Felix and David were given new clothes and shoes and taken 30 kilometers to a coal mine. “Every day they walked two hours each way to the mine from their barracks,” says Karl. Felix operated the coal mine’s elevator.
Civilians living nearby also worked there, giving Felix opportunities to get food and other supplies. “He always had a way of achieving things no one else could,” Karl says. The worst part was carrying out prisoners who had died in the mines. At the end of 1944, they got news from prisoners coming in from the Warsaw ghetto that the end of the war was near. They came back to the barracks one night to find no camp was left because American forces had mistakenly bombed the camp.
In January 1945, Bluma and Cela were transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Here, they were stripped of their valuables. Their hair was cut off, they were given prison dress, shoes, and socks, and were housed 40 to a room. With no running water and a poor diet, disease spread quickly. Some prisoners died; others went crazy. The girls’ only job was to move piles of junk from one place to another and back again. They did not know it at the time, but another young girl in the camp named Anne Frank died there of typhus. “We cried and we didn’t want to live anymore,” Bluma said of her time at Bergen-Belsen.
She felt lucky to have Cela with whom to talk. A commission came and had them take off their clothes. As happened with Felix, the prisoners were sent to the right or to the left. Bluma and Cela went to the right, ending up in a new camp, Burgau, where they painted airplanes. Conditions were bad there, but they occasionally received gifts of fruit and bread. On April 2, 1945, Bluma and Cela were taken to Kaufering, their last camp. Bluma contracted typhus and was very ill. She was saved by Cela, who nursed her back to health. Then, Cela got typhus and was still sick on April 29, 1945, when the camp was liberated. A Red Cross worker asked Bluma how old she was and whether her mother was there. As she told him about her family and about Cela being very ill with typhus, tears ran down the man’s cheeks. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, we will take good care of you now,’” Bluma said. “I thought he was God.”
While Bluma and Cela battled typhus, Felix met his biggest challenge yet. He, David, and the rest of the camp, some 6,000 prisoners, began the famous Death March from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen. They marched for two weeks, night and day, during which the men devised a clever way to help each other stay alive. Five or six joined in a row, rotating positions periodically; those in the center could sleep while the others kept them upright.
Men walking alone were more likely to stop or fall, and they were shot immediately. During one stop in a small town, the exhausted prisoners dropped to the ground. David kept Felix from freezing to death by making sure he did not fall asleep. Along the march, a villager offered boiled potatoes to the prisoners. Guards threatened death to anyone who took more than one potato, but Felix got in line several times, vowing to have a full stomach if he was going to die.
Upon reaching Gross-Rosen, the survivors were given small pieces of bread. The next day they boarded trains to Buchenwald, arriving Feb. 10, 1945. At this camp they worked for a wooden script they traded for food. Nighttime was treacherous because Russian prisoners would strangle people for their script. A week before the camp was liberated, the SS took prisoners into the woods thousands at a time and executed them. Felix heard his number,142857, called several times. He hid under the barracks for three days without food or water. On Felix’s fourth day of hiding, April 11, 1945, Americans liberated Buchenwald. “The American soldiers were all crying like babies,” said Felix. “I met one, and he gave me a piece of chocolate. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Bluma and Cela were taken to Holzhausen hospital, where they were nursed back to health. “The nuns made Mom her first piece of clothing after the Holocaust, a white dress made from sheets,” says Esther. “They treated her like a human and fed her properly. So many died from overeating; she was well taken care of.” Esther later visited the hospital and met some of the nuns who took care of her mother.
On May 8, 1945, Bluma and Cela were taken to Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, full of Holocaust survivors aged 17 to 35. Schools were opened where survivors could learn trades. Felix and David also went to Landsberg. While there, Felix met with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. “He was so furious that he made the local townspeople bury the dead at Buchenwald,” Felix said.
In Landsberg, Felix quickly used the same ingenuity that helped him survive the Holocaust. He bartered goods and sought ways to make money. Felix had a camera and took Bluma’s picture. “When Dad delivered the photo, Mom offered to pay him, and he told her the price was a kiss,” says Karl. “My mother said no, but Dad kissed her on the cheek anyway, and she slapped him.” Esther nods at the familiar story. “He just smiled,” she says.
As fate would have it, David soon had an eye for Cela, and eventually Bluma and Felix were married in a double ceremony with Cela and David. After their wedding, Bluma and Felix lived with a German couple. “They were so nice to us,” said Bluma. Many years later, Henry and Gloria Goldberg, his wife, visited Landsberg and located the couple. They were invited into the house where Henry’s parents had lived. Henry couldn’t help but notice Nazi memorabilia above the couple’s fireplace. “I asked the man, ‘Why do you have that?’ and he said to me, ‘I was at the Russian Front. I don’t know anything about what happened,’ referring to the Holocaust. I looked at my wife and said, ‘It’s time for us to leave.’”
At Landsberg, everyone sought news of their loved ones. Too many times, the news was bad. Bluma learned the fate of her mother and sisters and that her father and brother had died just months before Germany’s defeat. Felix found his two brothers, Leon and Bernard, alive. Once, when Felix was buying a truckload of onions, he discovered the truck driver was one of Bluma’s cousins. While the Goldbergs planned to go to Israel, Cela and David planned to go to the United States.
Cela begged Bluma to come to America, too. She made Bluma go with her to Munich when she applied for her papers. Cela and David settled in Columbia and loved it so much that they persuaded Bluma and Felix, who now had little Henry, to join them. The three traveled on the U.S.S. General W.M. Black warship, arriving in New Orleans in September 1949. Then, they traveled to Columbia by train.
While they had tremendous support from Columbia’s Jewish community, Felix immediately set out to make his own way. He worked as a tile setter’s assistant, saved money, and bought out his employer after five years. For both Bluma and Felix, language was an issue. Finally, Felix learned English from Mrs. Julian Hennig. But because Bluma was at home raising children, it was harder for her.
“She would run when the doorbell rang because she knew she couldn’t communicate with whomever was at the door,” says Henry. Felix, as always, had the perfect solution. He had Bluma come to work at his business, the Tile Center. “She had a great eye for color and great style,” says Karl. Bluma attended Henry’s baseball games and became a fan of the sport, especially the Atlanta Braves. A demure woman, she always looked perfect, had her nails done, and loved to buy clothes.
Felix loved sports, especially the South Carolina Gamecocks. “He had a lot of life in him,” says Esther of her father. “He was scrappy, wise, and always had a twinkle in his eye.” That twinkle was a glimpse of Felix’s jolly nature and love of laughter. Yom Kippur is Judaism’s holiest day, when the faithful pray for atonement for their sins from the previous year. Henry recalls, “One year, there was a very solemn moment of prayer. When the prayer ended, Dad yelled, “Go Gamecocks!”
Bluma and Felix never hid their past. “They told their story to us a bit at a time so as not to scare us,” says Karl. Henry, Karl, and Esther all recall Felix having nightmares. “It was hard knowing what they’d been through,” says Esther. “We are proud of them for what they were able to accomplish.” Bluma and Felix embraced their new country and loved it, but the trauma suffered during the Holocaust was still present. When Henry was still a baby, they went to a drive-in movie and accidentally drove away with the speaker. Terrified of what authorities would do to them, they secretly buried it in Sesquicentennial Park.
On May 2, 2000, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Felix told his story. Despite the pain of reliving it, he spoke of the horrific things one group of humans did to another. When his speech ended, he handed his notes to family friend Frank W. Baker, saying, “Frankie, do something with this.” Frank developed the website StoriesofSurvival.org, an interactive site that tells Bluma and Felix’s story, including photographs, documents, maps, links, and even teaching guides for social studies teachers.
Frank also told the story in the form of a graphic novel, We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Story, just published Sept. 1. Telling the story in the form of pictures combined with narrative, it is designed to appeal to youth of all ages. “Studies show youth are largely uninformed about the Holocaust,” says Frank. “Our hope is to educate them so that they know what happened and so history doesn’t repeat itself.”
The story of Bluma and Felix Goldberg is a love story. Love made Bluma’s mother send Bluma and Cela to the safety of the woods. Sisterly love kept Bluma and Cela alive. Love caused Felix to jump moving trains to return to his family, arguably saving his life. Love helped Felix and David support each other through the worst imaginable times. Bluma and Felix’s love for each other helped them heal and begin life anew in Columbia, where they raised their children in an atmosphere full of love. Finally, love for their fellow man spurred the Goldbergs to repeatedly revisit their painful past, telling others about the Holocaust in hopes that nothing like it would happen again.