Commencement Address, Fall 2009 - Erna Blitzer Gorman

Address of Erna Blitzer Gorman
Honorary doctorate degree in Education
Northern Michigan University
December 12, 2009

“One Person Can Make a Difference”

Thank you, Dr. Koch, for that wonderful introduction.

I wish to thank NMU President Dr. Les Wong and the Board Trustees for inviting me to be your commencement speaker and for the honorary doctorate degree in Education the university has bestowed upon me.  I am truly humbled and grateful for this honor and the opportunity to address this graduating class.

A special thanks to Dr. Helen Kahn for her nomination and to the Marquette Jewish community for their added recommendations.  Thanks also to my dear friends, Shel and Florence Dulberg, Barbara Kriegel, Jim and Anna Hicks, my husband, Herb, and our two sons Mark and Robert, his wife, Ruth, and our three grandchildren, Julia, Lily, and Sydney, and my many friends from the U.P.

Good morning Graduates, Proud Parents, and Friends.

I wish you all a life free of war, bigotry, and prejudice.

As Dr. Koch explained, as a child I survived the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.  Why, you may ask, do we still speak about the Holocaust almost 70 years later?

There are important lessons to be learned from it.  The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers.  It started with words.  Yes, with words.  With racial slurs, with anti-Semitic remarks, with scapegoating, and with hateful accusations.

It happened due to the restriction of  liberties such as the right to go to school, the right to work, the right to fraternize, and who you could marry.  These were known as the Nuremberg Laws which were passed in Nazi Germany in 1935 and quickly spread to other places within Nazi-occupied Europe.  There was also the burning of books and Kristallnacht.

It ended sadly with the planned systematic murder of millions of human beings.  Six million of these were Jewish, and a million and half of these, likely myself at the time, were mere children.

Yet, I survived this.  It’s almost impossible to relate to you what I endured in the few minutes I have here, but I’m going to give you a brief synopsis.

We, that is my mother, father, 12-year-old sister, and myself left my hometown of Metz, France to go to a family wedding in Poland in 1939 where my father was from.  The Nazi’s invaded Poland while we were there and we were trapped.

Some fifty members of father’s family were arrested, never to be seen again.  We managed to evade discovery and fled to the Ukraine where my mother’s family lived.  At the time, the Ukraine was under Russian control, an ally of the United States.

We lived with my grandparents in the Ukraine.  We were told to stay quiet and curtains were drawn.  I was made to understand that I should make myself invisible.The Nazi’s soon took over the Ukraine and where we lived became a ghetto.  I was not allowed to go outside as it was too dangerous and the restrictions on Jews were becoming increasingly severe.

The Germans and their sympathizers conducted “aktionen”  searching house to house for Jews to arrest.  On one such occasion, my father was taken away and we thought he had been shot.  But, he soon returned with his head shaven, telling us that he been forced to bury people in a mass grave and among the dead were most of my mother’s family.

My memories of the ghettos involve quiet, stillness, fear, and hunger.  As young as I was, I knew it was better not to be seen, and to remain as insignificant as possible.Sometime in early 1943 while were still in the ghetto and after 4 years of hiding, my father made contact with a Christian farmer who agreed to hide our family.   Why the farmer was willing to do this at the peril of his own life and that of his entire family, one can only speculate.   We had no money, no jewels, no items of value that the farmer could have wanted.  Perhaps he was just a good man who couldn’t stand to witness what was going on, without doing something.

The farmer made a conscious choice.  He saved our lives and he is proof that one person can make a difference.  The bravery of this man was incredible.

The night we arrived at the farm, the farmer and his young wife were waiting for us near a barn.  The barn was small, not much more than shack with a second-level haystack.  There was no livestock in the barn, just some pails, hay, and a makeshift ladder on the left side going up the loft.  My father and the farmer cleared a space in the hayloft for us to hide.  We climbed up into the loft and all sat down.  The farmer put two bales of hay against the entrance to the loft to camouflage the hiding place, locked the barn, and that was it.  We hid there for almost two years, never coming down during that entire time.  Our food was mostly potatoes and sometimes brown soup with break.  I was always hungry although I think the farmer did the best he would to provide us with those pitiful provisions.  The water was for drinking only.  There was none for washing. 

One day late in 1944 or early 1945, the farmer came to us to say that the Russian soldiers were in the area and my family had to leave the barn at once and join them.  We could hear the gunfire.  The farmer carried us down the ladder one-by-one because we could not walk.  We had only the clothes that we wore when we went into hiding two years before.  We were forced into cold snow without any suitable clothing.  I remember crawling in the snow and ice.  The pain was intense.  When we got to the side of the road, there were many people there, probably other survivors eager to join with the Russian soldiers.  They were in the middle of fighting the Nazi’s and didn’t have time for us.  At one point my mother was hit during some artillery that was propelled.  I can still picture blood running down her side, so much blood.  Why didn’t I scream out?  Maybe because I was numb.  We just scattered in silence. 

After the raid was over, the Russian returned and took us to an infirmary in a nearby village.  The caregivers in this place spoke Ukranian, which I understood.  My mother was lying on a cot with her hip bandaged.  She was covered with lice.  She was separated from the other patients and I remember the caregivers standing around talking about my mother and referring to her as “jadova” which means Jewess in Ukranian.  She was refused treatment because she was a Jew.  I watched her die.  My father, sister, and I buried her in a shallow grave, wrapped in a blanket without a casket.  At the time of mother’s death, I was dead inside, so to expect that I would be emotional was unrealistic.  I felt anger at how she was treated, or accurately, not treated. 

After my mother’s death we eventually went back to my hometown of Metz, France where I attended a public school.  Because of the war and the years of hiding, I’d had no formal education.  I was 11 ½ by then and put into a first grade class.  I was taller than the other children and a real oddity.  I had boils all over my body and unflattering clothing.  The children sensed I was different and made fun of me.  I didn’t know any French at the  time but I still remember them laughing at me and taunting me.  They called me “salejuive” which in French means “dirty Jew”.  When I learned what this meant, I lost control of my bladder and I remember the other children pointing and laughing at me as urine ran down my legs.  But I didn’t cry just as I didn’t cry when we lived with my grandparents in the Ukraine, when we hid in the barn, and when my mother died. 

Now, I ask, where did these 5 and 6 year old children learn to say “salejuive”?  Mind you, this is after the war and France suffered terribly.  I should remind you that no child is born with hate.  Hate must be learned.  I am reminded of the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical, “South Pacific”.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six, seven, or eight.
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”.

After the incident in the school yard, I was shattered and traumatized, desperate for a word of friendship, a hug, a touch, or a small act of kindness.  It never came. 

I know how it feels to be singled out, or to be discriminated against.  I know only too well. 

Remember this whole tragic period of the Holocaust and World War II started with words.

After World War II, my sister stayed in France where she married and raised two children.  My father and I moved to America where he had a sister.  We settled in Detroit and I married and we raised two sons.  I suppressed what happened to me during the Holocaust until I saw a television interview with a Neo-Nazi “skinhead” in the 1980’s    There stood a brash young man in a German uniform, with a raised arm, declaring “I’m here to finish Hitler’s work”.  This stuck in my mind and petrified me.  It was as if he was saying that I, Erna Gorman, and my family had no right to live here in the United States, or at all, because we were Jews.  My wonderful sons were already in college and had no right to exist?  How could this be?  This is America, where everyone has the right to follow any religion they choose.   This interview sent me into a tailspin.  I began recalling and dwelling upon all the horrible things that had happened to me that I had for so many years effectively suppressed. It was a sad time for me and for my family as I worked through those suppressed memories of what happened to me during the Holocaust.  Eventually,  I felt compelled to tell my story.  And ever since, I have been speaking out.

You graduates are now our future.  Soon, you will settle down and you may have children of your own.  Don’t teach them to hate.  Teach them tolerance and to love!

And I implore you—Don’t be a silent and passive bystander.  Stand up to the wrongs that you see.  Yes, it takes courage.

We all have choices.  My Ukrainian Christian farmer made a choice.

We all, each and everyone one of us, by making the right choice, can make a different.  And thus, make this a better world.

Thank you.  

Erna Gorman