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From Survival to Significance: Rebbetzin Sheina Golda Goldstein

Leah Gebber

She was only a teen when the Nazis overturned her word. Not only did she survive the horrors; the crucible of the death camps crystallized her determination to live a life of spiritual grandeur. She followed Hashem to the barren land of America, and there she and her husband sowed the seeds that would allow the next stop in galus to flourish. Snapshots from the life of a great woman.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On July 10, 1941, Sheina Golda Zilberberg crossed the Neris River along with her mother and sister. Their destination was Vilijampole, a place that, to the general populace, was primitive and scarcely populated. Yet, to Jews worldwide, it was known with awe and reverence as Slabodka.

In the fiery days of World War II, Slabodka Yeshiva was disbanded. In its place, 30,000 Jews were herded, crushed, and beaten into the space of a few streets, which were swiftly sealed with barbed wire and trigger-happy guards. It was to this ghetto that Golda and her mother arrived.

As always, her mother turned to Golda for encouragement and support. “Golda, how bad can things get?” she asked in anguish, working in the ghetto’s sweatshops, living on a diet of starvation and fear. “When will be the end of all this suffering?”

“HaKadosh Baruch Hu is going to help.”

“But when? When?”

“When it gets so bad that it can get no worse, Hashem will send a yeshuah,” Golda, a mere teenager, answered.

“And this is not bad enough?”

Golda shook her head. “It could be worse still.”

July 1944. The Russians were approaching. A ripple of fear spread through the ghetto. There were no media, no announcements. Despite the dearth of information, people somehow sensed that their lives hung in the balance, that any day would bring the end.

The 6,100 people remaining in the ghetto were the lucky ones: they had survived the Gehinnom of the ghetto; they had somehow been excluded from the deportations to labor and death camps; saved from joining the forced march into the Baltic Sea, where thousands were mowed down by gunfire in the water; from the infamous massacre at Fort Nine, where Rav Elchonon Wasserman and other tzaddikim had been martyred. They had survived the hunger, sickness, anguish, and fear that were their constant assailants.

Now would come the ultimate test, as Golda Zilberberg, her mother, and her sister found themselves in cattle trucks, transported through the Polish countryside. Destination: Stutthof.

Stutthof, the first concentration camp constructed outside of Germany, a camp to which over 110 000 people were deported. Over 85 000 of them perished. It was to this nightmarish place, containing a factory that produced human soap, that Golda, her mother, and sister were taken.

How preposterous it was that, in memory, the ghetto suddenly took on the feel of home. How could the deprivation experienced there be looked at with something akin to longing, nostalgia? Conditions in the camp were so brutal that even the misery of Kovno ghetto was eclipsed by the new reality. Typhus epidemics swept the camp and those whom the SS guards judged too weak or sick to work were gassed. Those who crawled up the steps of the camp infirmary were administered lethal injections.

This was Stutthof. This was Golda’s new home.

“When?” her mother would cry in anguish. “When is the yeshuah going to come?”

Golda would take her mother’s hand in her own and gently encourage her. “Hashem’s going to help,” she said. “It’s going to be better.”

“But when?”

“When it can get no worse, then there will be a yeshuah.”

Mrs. Zilberberg looked up, motioned with her arm around the freezing bunker, the starving inmates. “It can get worse than this?”

“Yes, Mama, it can get worse.”

Day upon unending day, they slaved in Stutthof, secluded from the wider world of troop movements, battles won and lost, D-day, the retreat of the Desert Fox, and the advance of the Russian troops. All they knew was backbreaking, unremitting labor and the terror of sudden gunshots, the dull thump as another soul escaped its earthly body.

And then came the day when they were ordered to line up, six abreast, and march. The rain stung them like needles, the wind howled, and they marched in their threadbare uniforms, without coats, without proper shoes. As they marched, many succumbed to exhaustion and hunger.

Marching beside her mother and sister, Golda would not be defeated. When the SS officers turned away, she ducked out of line, ran to nearby fields and gathered whatever she could find: berries, a turnip or two, a scoop of water from a puddle on the ground. She snuck back into line and gave the food to her mother, sister, and whoever else she could. And, as always, she encouraged them: “When it can get no worse, the yeshuah will come.”

The march continued. And then came the day when it could get no worse. Toward evening, they were herded into a barn. More people, hundreds and thousands more were thrust inside, piled one atop the other, in a huge human woodpile. Screams and gunshots filled the air, moans as people, squashed by the mass of humanity atop them, suffocated to death. In the blackness and the stench, Golda lay. Her hands reached out in the darkness, caught her mother’s fingers, brushed the side of her sister’s palm.

 “Can it really get worse?”

“No,” Golda whispered. “Now it can get no worse.”

How could the Earth be host to such human treachery? Why did it not quiver and freeze and be still? Why did the celestial beings not halt in their paths? Why were the birds not forever silenced? But no, the Earth slowly spun on its axis until the darkest night of all was over.

Come morning, silence reigned. A whisper rippled through the survivors. Where were the gunshots? Where was the barking of the dogs, the shouts of Raus! Raus!

One man managed to climb through a tiny window, and unlocked the doors of the barn. The Russians were coming. The Germans had fled. The darkest hour had passed. The yeshuah had come.


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