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Perseverance, Strength, Hope, and Faith: The Survival of George & Julia Nelson and Ethel Greengold

Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur 2014

It is my great honor to have been invited to share the story of my parents, George and Julia Nelson, and my grandmother, Ethel Greengold, all of whom survived the Shoah. As you will hear, lives that began in ways that were quite conventional during the first third of the 20th century in Europe became remarkable sagas of perseverance, strength, hope, faith and survival.

The wedding photograph of my parents, George and Julia Nelson.

Let me begin with my father. My father, George Nelson, was born in Yugoslavia in 1912, the youngest of three children, with two older sisters. His father, Louis, was a cabinetmaker who made furniture. He must have been excellent at his work, since some of the furniture he built was made for the Hungarian Palace. As you have probably guessed, my father’s surname was not originally Nelson; it was Nuszbaum, and his given name was Georg. He was raised in a traditional Jewish home, and at the age of thirteen, he had his Bar Mitzvah at the famous Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, which still stands today. 

Georg was educated in public schools in Budapest, and after high school he received a degree in architecture and design. He then was hired at a textile concern, and went to work in Győr, Hungary, in 1940. 

It is in Győr that my parents’ lives came together—so let me turn to the early years of my mother’s life. My mother was born Juliana Gruengold on February 23, 1921 in Bonyretalap, Hungary, the daughter of Adolf and Ethel Gruengold. She had a brother, Samuel, six years older than her, whose name I am honored to carry as my middle name. He was tragically killed during the war doing forced labor under the Nazis in the Soviet Union, shot while trying to secure some food for the group of forced laborers, of which he was a part. What made his death more tragic was that he was a Zionist and wanted to emigrate to Palestine, a move which he was prevented from making by his parents. It is not surprising that my grandmother carried an unrelenting feeling of guilt for his death. 

At the age of one, Juliana’s family moved to Győr, Hungary, a town of 50,000 people. Her father owned a shoe store. Juliana went to a Yeshiva for her elementary school education, and did so well that she received a scholarship to the gymnasium, the equivalent of high school in the United States. Her parents were quite strict, and her father insisted that she excel in her studies, in particular languages and music. He also instilled in her a great sense of loyalty. As you will hear, languages and loyalty came to be very important to her life. 

ln 1940, Juliana Gruengold met Georg Nuszbaum at a regatta club on the Danube River. She confided to friends soon thereafter that she intended to marry Georg. Anyone who knew my mother and her determination could have told him at that point that he was a destined to become her husband. Not surprisingly, two years later, on December 31, 1942, they were married in Budapest in a civil ceremony, followed by a Jewish wedding on January 3, 1943. 

Juliana and Georg lived as newlyweds in Győr. They both worked: Georg as a textile engineer and Juliana as the office manager for a prominent architect. The normality of their lives came to an abrupt end when the German army occupied Hungary. On the morning of March 19, 1944, my mother woke up, looked out the window of their apartment, and was startled to see German tanks in the town square below. German tanks and artillery in the center of the city were clear evidence of a new reality. All Jews in Győr were required to wear clothing emblazoned with yellow Stars of David to clearly identify them as Jews.

Soon after the Nazi occupation, my father was ordered to go to the textile mill where he worked and forced to remain there because keeping the mill running was viewed as critical. At about this same time, the Jewish residents of Győr were ordered by the German authorities to abandon their homes and move to the outskirts of the city. Instead of going directly from her home to the edge of town, my mother took a great risk in order to say goodbye to Georg. Hiding her yellow Star of David, she got a bicycle and rode to the textile mill. There, they said goodbye to one another, not knowing whether they would ever see each other again. 

My father continued to work at the mill for some period of time. It was ultimately shut down, at which time he was put into other forced labor jobs. At one point, he was part of a group harvesting corn; later, he worked in a quarry smashing rocks. During this time, he was part of an escape attempt— which was foiled when the Hungarian guard whom they had paid to help them escape turned them in.

Meanwhile, my mother and her parents were ordered—with all the other Jews in Győr—to board a cattle car train, she in one car and her parents in another. Two and a half to three days later, the train arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The cars were unloaded, and she was reunited with her parents.

My maternal grandmother, Ethel Greengold, in the New Jersey home of my parents circa 1960’s/70’s.

As they entered the camp, men and women were separated. She saw her father turn toward where she was standing and blow her a kiss as he walked off, never to see him again. Juliana and her mother were in a line together when they came face-to-face with a man who directed my grandmother to go one way and my mother in another direction. At that moment, my mother drew upon her knowledge of German to say, “Aber das ist meine mutter (but that is my mother).” The man motioned that my grandmother and mother could stay together—this saved my grandmother from being gassed. lt was only later that my mother came to learn that the man to whom she spoke those words was Josef Mengele, the German SS officer who was notorious for his role in selecting victims to be gassed and the deadly, horrific experiments he performed on people at Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz, my mother and her mother reversed roles, with my 23-year-old mother having to take control of my grandmother’s life and survival. Approximately six weeks after they arrived at Auschwitz, it was announced that 500 women would be needed to go to a work camp. Volunteers were solicited and my mother, realizing that remaining at Auschwitz meant almost certain death, volunteered herself and her mother. They were selected, and two days later they found themselves on a train—again in a cattle car—bound for Lippstadt, Germany. 

The camp at Lippstadt was a subcamp of Buchenwald and held women—predominantly Hungarian Jews— who had been deported from Auschwitz when the sub-camp opened in the summer of 1944. The women were forced to work in the armaments industry at Westfälische Metall-Industrie AG as part of the SS Kommando Lippstadt I. Working 12-hour shifts, they machined and assembled bomb parts, engaging in sabotage by purposely machining some parts out of the tolerances that were required to successfully assemble the bombs. 

When Yom Kippur came in 1944 at Lippstadt, the Jewish workers fasted, despite being fed very little. My mother and others heard a German military officer say in German: “[We will] never be able to kill the damned Jews. Look, they get almost nothing to eat, and yet they fast on their My maternal grandmother, Ethel Greengold, in the New Jersey home of my parents circa 1960’s/70’s holy day.” My mother told us that this proved to be a very uplifting moment for her and the other Jewish workers.

At Lippstadt, my Grandmother Ethel became very ill. Her weight dropped to 75 pounds; her skin turned black and shriveled. At one point, my mother learned from someone who worked in the office at the factory that her mother was on a list to be transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she would certainly be killed. With the help of a sympathetic civilian foreman, my mother hid her mother in an overgrown field behind the barracks attached to the factory. The German guards did come looking for my grandmother, referring to her as “the black one”, but gave up looking when they could not find her. The train for Bergen-Belsen left without her on board. 

Ultimately, Lippstadt became a target for Allied bombing. As Allied ground forces approached, the 830 women who worked in the factory were ordered on a forced march directed by the Germans. At one point, the group of women got to a brook and the German guards told the prisoners that they needed, without any assistance, to jump the brook without getting wet. The German guards said that anyone who got wet would be shot. My mother, knowing that this would be at best a difficult task for my grandmother, told her, “For God’s sake, take off your wooden shoes and jump over the brook.” My grandmother made it. At that moment, she told her daughter that she felt as if she had crossed the Red Sea and would be free. 

Shortly after crossing this brook, the 830 women were told that they could sit and rest in a clearing near the village of Kanitz, Germany. As my mother looked around, she noticed that white sheets were hanging from the windows of nearby houses. Then she noticed that the German guards were gone. A group of Russians approached and told them to look around because “Amerikansky” tanks were approaching from behind. 

The 830 women ran towards the tanks. The hatches of the tanks opened, and American GIs popped out, throwing food rations, soap and toothpaste to the women. Liberation Day was April 1, 1945, the day that the U.S. 2nd Armored Division made contact with the 3rd Armored Division at Lippstadt, seizing it with only scattered resistance. April 1, 1945, their liberation day, was also the 18th day of Nisan, 5705, the fourth day of Pesach. 

Occupying a house in Kanitz, my mother nursed my grandmother back to health. My mother’s knowledge of languages made her an invaluable part of the staff of UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), at a displaced persons camp in the city of Ulm. In 1946, she began to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was instrumental in providing assistance to Holocaust survivors.

Meanwhile, my father continued to be part of a forced labor group that had been marched into Austria. One day, as this group was being force-marched, they suddenly noticed that all of the personnel guarding them had disappeared. As in the case of my mother and grandmother, the approach of Allied ground forces caused their captors to flee. 

With all of the confusion in the aftermath of the war, it took two years of searching for my parents to be reunited. At one time, they were both in the same city; unaware, they headed in opposite directions. After being reunited, at my mother’s insistence, they and her mother applied for visas to come to the United States. As time passed and the visa process dragged on, my mother came to inquire as to what was causing the delay. She learned that her immediate supervisor at the displaced persons camp where she worked had been holding the visa application because of the excellence of her work. She had some choice words for her supervisor; soon thereafter, the visas were issued. The three of them—my father, my mother and her mother—came to the United States aboard a U.S. Army transport, the U.S.S. General W. G. Hahn, arriving in Boston on April 19, 1949.

My parents at the 90th birthday celebration for my father, George, in 2002.

Settling initially in Paterson, NJ, my mother and grandmother got work at a shoe factory where my mother inked the soles of shoes and my grandmother sewed. My father quickly got a job in New York with a textile firm, Jeri Silk Manufacturing, where he worked as a textile engineer and designer until he retired as vice president of the company 41 years later. He was known for solving both very difficult technical and design problems. Among his many professional accomplishments was the recognition he received from Vogue magazine; the work that he did with well-known fashion designers, including designing a fabric that was worn by Jacqueline Kennedy while she was the First Lady; and having one of his fabrics placed in the textile collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My parents saved and bought a home in Wayne, NJ, where my brother Rob and I were raised. My parents were one of 14 couples that founded the first synagogue in Wayne, Temple Beth Tikvah (House of Hope). My father, like his father, was a fine craftsman; to this day, the table that stands in the center of Temple Beth Tikvah’s bimah is one that he designed and built, dedicated to the memory of all of the members of his and my mother’s family who died in the Shoah.

My mother became a successful businesswoman, owning a business that designed and fabricated furnishings and accessories out of Lucite. When my father retired, they moved to My parents at the 90th birthday celebration for my father, George, in 2002. Florida, where they lived until his death in February 2012, nine months before what would have been his 100th birthday, and 10 months before what would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary.

My father’s death took a great emotional toll on my mom. She struggled physically for the last several months of her life. Although she said she was ready for death months before she died on November 8th, 2013, the spark that kept her going through great physical and emotional adversity during and after the Shoah would not let her pass easily.

My parents both completed interviews for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation established by Steven Spielberg, now archived at the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. During my father’s interview, the interviewer asked him how he survived the horror of the Shoah when many others did not. He said that there were two things that he thought were fundamental: a strong will and a strong sense of hope—that is, the will to want to survive; and a belief, or hope, that things would change and could be much better.

How did this translate into his life? First, these beliefs kept him alive—not just through the war, but alive and active for over 99 years. Well into his 90s, he was still going to the gym several times a week. Second, these views gave him a strong sense of optimism, which is best illustrated by what he said when we asked him to make a few remarks at his 90th birthday celebration. He stood up and recounted his life, describing only the positive experiences growing up: meeting and marrying our mother; coming to the United States; having two sons who married women that he loved and admired; having Remy and Micah, his grandchildren from my wife Jill and me, as part of his life; and having our mother, Julia, as his wife and best friend. The wartime experience was not how he chose to remember his life, indicative of his desire to think about the good, not to dwell on the bad.

What does my mother’s story say about her? First, that she was a woman of great strength and determination which propelled her through very difficult experiences. She was fundamental to my grandmother’s survival until my grandmother passed away in 1982 at the age of 85. My mother was able to fully appreciate and celebrate the many good things in her life: the birth of two sons; their marriages to exceptional women who became her daughters-in-law; and the birth and blossoming of Remy and Micah, who she loved with all her heart and soul. And she was able to remain the loving and loved wife of George for nearly 70 years.

I am most grateful to the rabbis and to Myriam Abramowicz for providing me the opportunity to share the story of my parents and my grandmother with you. Seventy years ago on this very day, the German officer at Lippstadt that I mentioned earlier was overheard saying that our people would survive. My brother, my children and I—and all the survivors of the Shoah and their descendents—are living proof of this survival.

Thank you, and G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

Written By Leslie Nelson

Leslie Nelson and his wife, Jill Hayman, have been BJ members since 1997.

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