- Politics and Social Issues
The last survivor of Trochenbrod
By LESLIE A. PANFIL
When Gold was born in 1930 in the small town of Trochenbrod in the former Ukraine, the rural town had a population of about 5,000. Everyone was Jewish with the exception of the postmaster, his wife and their young son. "We were a happy and religious community," explained Gold.
Trochenbrod was founded in the early 1800s as a kind of homesteaders' town when Tzar Alexander I expelled the Jews from rural areas in Russia but made an exception for those willing to settle unused land. The swampy area came to be known as Trochenbrod and remained entirely Jewish until the Nazi regime wiped it from the map.
"We heard of strange things happening in other cities. We thought the Nazis wouldn't be interested in a small city like ours. We were in denial," she said. Just in case the rumors were true, Gold's father built a hiding place within the walls of their home and a bunker in the forest.
The Nazis occupied their town for several months with no incidents until Aug. 9, 1942, when they demanded all the families pack one bag and move to the center of town. Betty, age 12, marched there with her grandmother but, realizing the rest of her family was not with them, ran back to find her parents. Not knowing where the hidden wall was, she called out to her family who, fearing a Nazi trap, were afraid to answer.
"Then I saw my brother's hand reach out for me," said Gold.
Inside the hidden space was her mother, father, two brothers and 11 other villagers. "There were holes in the plywood that I could see out of. I watched as the Nazis gunned down my father's mother. We had to be completely silent."
Gold tells of a mother of an infant and two young boys who were hiding with them. The baby began to cry and when the mother's attempts to calm the baby failed, the mother suffocated the child. "That is something that will never leave me," she said.
Gold's maternal grandmother was among the 4,200 that went to the town square that day. They were taken to the forest, forced to dig their own graves and shot, creating one massive grave.
That night the Gold family and the 11 others made their way from the hidden wall space to the bunker in the forest. Gold describes the space as being not high enough to stand erect and packed tight with people. "If one of us turned in our sleep, we all had to turn."
They stayed in the bunker by day and rummaged for food by night. "I was the smallest and fastest, so I was the one sent out the most often for food. My mother made a shawl that was tied to my waist that I would put the food in that I would steal from area farmhouses," she said.
The Golds had a Christian friend who brought them news of the movements of the Nazis. He risked his life to bring them news and food. "His name is on the wall in Jerusalem with all the other Righteous Christians," Gold said.
Then the Golds heard that many of the remaining Jews were turning themselves over to the slave labor camps. They felt the conditions may be better than their meager existence in the forest and decided to turn themselves over.
"You must understand, we lived in this tiny town our whole lives and yet that night we could not find our way to the area where we were to turn ourselves in. We were so tired from walking that we decided we would take refuge in a ditch," she said. That night, the 600 Jews that had turned themselves in to the slave labor camp were shot.
The Golds returned to their bunker. They had been in hiding since August and now it was the cold of winter. "We suffered from lice. We stuck our heads in the snow, but it didn't get rid of them. My father cut our hair with a dull knife. We were so hungry. Hunger is a terrible thing. We began to consider suicide," she said.
They now knew that the rumors were true, the Nazis would not just shoot them, but torture and mutilate them. "We promised our father that if we were ever caught, we would run. It was better to be shot in the back than tortured."
Then the news came from their Christian friend that they had been found out. That night the Golds went to where they knew several other Jews were in hiding.
"Their bunker was much smaller than ours. They had to lie down like sardines." The Golds resigned themselves to their fate and returned to their own bunker. Their Christian friend returned to tell them that it was the 11 Jews in the other bunker, not them, who had been discovered. "If there had been room in that bunker for us, we would have been shot, too," she said.
Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is one of the holiest days of the year for the Jewish people. As it approached, their Christian friend relayed to them that the 60 remaining survivors were going to meet and pray together at the few remaining houses.
The Nazis surrounded the buildings and opened fire. "We ran. I stepped over the bodies of my dead cousin, the mother who had suffocated her baby, and her two boys," Gold said. Of the 60 who gathered that night, only eight survived, the Golds and four others.
They retreated to a remote swampy area and built a platform to keep them above the water. "The swamp was incredibly dark and it was difficult for me to find my way around. My family would make noises for me to follow," she said.
Living deep in the swamp, the Golds lost contact with outside world. With no news they were unaware if the war was continuing to be fought.
"Eventually my father told us it was time to go on a field trip. We ventured out into the countryside," she said.
The Golds were then snatched up by the Russian underground. Betty and her younger brother stayed with their mother, who became a part of the Partizan Group and worked on a collective farm. "We picked potatoes for 12 hours a day, but we felt safe." Her father went to work in a Russian leather factory. And, her older brother went to the Russian front, where he was killed two months shy of the war ending.
At the conclusion of the war, the family reunited and spent time in a displaced persons camp. They secured a visa through relatives in Cleveland. Betty came to America not able to speak a word of English.
"I was teased quite a bit. But I was determined to make something of myself." She went on to complete nursing school, married and had four sons. She is now retired and serves as a docent at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood.
Betty Gold (Bashia Potash Gold) is the last living survivor of Trochenbrod. But, the survivors of Trochenbrod live on in the hearts and minds of their 185 descendents.
"If I could make something of my life, so can you," she said.
The story of Trochenbrod is now a book, "The Heavens are Empty, Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod," by Avrom Bendavid-Val, and is available through Amazon.com.
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