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A Struggle of Life and Death

Holocaust survivor relates her experiences to Madison High School juniors.

In 1945, when 17-year-old Nesse Godin was dying in a concentration camp, she prayed to God to let her die. The women around Godin who heard her admonished her to stop praying that; instead, they charged her with living so that she could tell others what had happened to her and to them.

Years later, Godin took that charge and made it her mission in life. She continues to talk to organizations and schools to tell the story of her life as a Jewish teenager who survived the Holocaust. By relating what happened 60 years ago, the Silver Spring resident and Holocaust Museum volunteer hopes that her audiences will never witness or take part in another wide-scale atrocity. Her message last Friday to the juniors of James Madison High School of Vienna was to live life without prejudice.

"What my eyes saw when I was your age, I have a hard time to share," Godin told the captive and subdued students. "Promise me that today, that when you look at each other, you won't see a race, you won't see a religion, you'll see a human being."

Friday marked the 20th time that Godin has spoken at Madison. She returns to Madison annually to relate to the junior class her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. In 1997, the school gave her an honorary diploma, and in 2004, it gave her a certificate and a check for the Holocaust Museum.

Yet each time Godin comes back, her message remains the same, although the telling might be different: Treat everyone equally and respectfully, and be responsible for the safety and well-being of others as a global citizen.

"I'm here with you young people for one reason only: to share memories. I do so, so you would understand," Godin said.

GODIN SET the scene for the Holocaust by describing what her life was like in Shauliai, Lithuania, before World War II. Although Jewish, Godin said she didn't encounter much overt prejudice.

"The Holocaust started with calling people names, and signs of hatred. Don't ever think you're better than anyone else," Godin said.

It was when the German Nazis arrived in June 1941 that her life began to change. When she was 13, her family started hiding in the basement with stashes of water and food, thinking that bombs would fall. The scenario was not unlike recently, when the U.S. government advised citizens to buy duct tape and create safe places, Godin added.

Although no bombs fell in Shauliai, atrocities still swept through the land. A farmer told Godin's mother about the mass murder he had witnessed several nights before. The Germans had gathered thousands of men, put them in jails and promised them they would be relocated. Instead, the men one night were sent to a field and commanded to dig deep holes. After they were forced to undress themselves, they were shot, naked, and then covered up with earth.

"The Nazis didn't even bother to check if the ones they buried were alive or dead," Godin said.

Around the same time, the Jewish children were no longer permitted to go to school. They were forced to wear markers on their clothing identifying them as Jewish. Godin had to wear the Star of David, because she wanted to live. She added that her neighbors or other acquaintances might have known about her Jewish heritage, so it was not safe to not wear the Star.

"A tragedy like the Holocaust doesn't happen. It's allowed to happen," said Godin, referring to the bystanders and informants in Lithuania who did nothing to prevent the Holocaust.

In Shauliai, the town's Jewish council met and decided to ask the local priests if Jews could find refuge in the churches. While individual priests had helped the Jews, the community of priests as a whole said they were afraid to get involved.

"That's why we cherish those who took courage to help another human being," Godin said.

The council then approached the Germans and said they could help them as workers, by making boots or other supplies. The Germans agreed, making a Jewish ghetto for the town.

TO LIVE in the ghetto, a person needed a certificate. While Godin's parents and her two brothers got certificates, she did not get one because of her age. Godin's mother negotiated with a young, female, Lithuanian secretary, and Godin got a certificate.

Godin credited the secretary with saving her life, because the 3,500 who were not given certificates were later herded into the synagogue for "relocation," then into the forest, where they were killed.

"Every one of you can make a difference in someone's life," said Godin, to her student audience.

Inside the ghetto, Godin was always hungry, and grateful for an extra bite of bread. Her parents paid for her to have a job, so she would be useful. Now, age 15 1/2, Godin worked outside, enjoying the outdoors and being with people.

Deportation trucks would come and go from the ghetto, taking Jews to the concentration camps. Godin's mother, fearing they would be separated, would make Godin wear extra layers of clothing and would ensure Godin had bread in her pocket. Although Godin missed the first trucks that came and went, other members of her family were not as lucky. Coming back to the ghetto one day, she and the other workers found out all the children had been deported. Among those who had been deported was her father, whom she never saw again.

In 1944, Godin and her mother and two brothers were trucked off to a concentration camp. She went to the Stutthof concentration camp; the Nazis sent her mother and brothers to a different destination.

Alone at 16, Godin and the group she was with were ordered to disrobe. Then the Nazis started beating them and ordered them to go to the room where the door was marked "Shower Room." Luckily for them, the shower room was what it said it was — a place to take a shower and not a gas chamber. After the shower, the Nazis gave them medical examinations, made them stand outside naked, and gave them shoes and a dress to wear at the camp.

The women at the camp advised Godin to get into the labor camp, since that would improve her likelihood of living. Godin took their advice, sneaking into a lineup, standing on her tiptoes and pinching her cheeks so she would get picked. She was chosen and was forced to dig holes for enemy tanks to fall into.

"That was the most horrible year of my life," said Godin, recalling her ill health throughout that period.

WITH THE NAZIS losing the war, the Germans were intent on destroying evidence of their acts. In January 1945, as part of the German retreat, Godin began a death march, in which she and the other prisoners walked many miles in the cold and the snow. A month later, they set up camp, and 50 women were forced to dig two holes. One would serve as a bathroom, and the other would serve as a grave.

At that time, the 17-year-old Godin could not bear to see the skeletons that were piled on top of each other carelessly. Racked with typhoid and dysentery, she prayed that God would let her die. But the women around her told her that if she prayed for death, she would be giving the enemy what it wanted. If she prayed for death, she would no longer be able to see the blue sky.

On March 10, 1945, the Russian Army liberated the camp. The Russians took Godin, who by then weighed 65 pounds, to the hospital. When she was discharged, she was given a foster mother, because she was still a minor. Godin and the woman hitchhiked to a shelter, and Godin eventually reunited with her real mother.

Godin's mother remembered the address of her sister, who lived in Washington, D.C. In 1950, Godin and her mother received their U.S. visas to emigrate to America.

One of Godin's brothers was taken to Dachau. He is still alive and lives in Israel. The other brother wound up in the part of Lithuania that became Communist, but he now lives in Baltimore, Md. Godin herself returned to Europe in 1998 to visit the places where she was interned.

WHILE GODIN'S wartime experience was painful, the experiences afterward were not necessarily less unusual. In response to a student's question, Godin related the story of how she and her husband got together. At the shelter in Russia, Godin and her mother decided that having a male in the family would improve their chances of living. After her mother had pointed out three men in the room, Godin told her mother that the third man was suitable. Godin's mother went up to the man and asked him if he would consider marrying her daughter. The man agreed. Since then, Godin and her husband have been married for 58 years, and they have three children and seven grandchildren.

After her talk, Godin was presented with a certificate from Madison thanking her for the 20 years she has spoken at the school. Godin also received a check for the Holocaust Museum.

"I thought it was really amazing to hear a personal perspective," said Anna Thorn, a Madison junior. "I love her message that the Holocaust started with just slurs."

The young women who surrounded Godin afterward to look at pictures of Godin's family agreed.

"[I got] the message that something horrific like that should never happen again. We have control to never let it happen," said Lisa Hughes.

"You feel for the survivors, like they're someone you knew," said Rimy Wilson.