Vancouver resident recalls the hell that was Auschwitz

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

Diana Golden doesn't need Holocaust Remembrance Day on her calendar. Not when she has that number on her arm.

The 84-year-old woman rolls up the sleeves of her sweater and blouse to reveal it: A-24328.

It's still there, in blue ink, 62 years after it was stitched into Golden's arm by a woman with a tattoo needle.

"She did a neat job," Golden said.

Golden got the tattoo in 1944, when she entered a concentration camp complex near the Polish town of Oswiecim, a place known to history as Auschwitz.

And tattooed into Golden's memory are three words on the camp gate: "Arbeit macht frei," she recited. Work makes you free.

"I remember that so vividly," Golden said, then added with a smile, "Yet I'll go into a room now, and wonder what it was I came for."

Golden was in Auschwitz, and in nearby Birkenau, for about two months before she was shipped to a German factory as a slave laborer.

Golden said the support she and two sisters shared at Auschwitz was a big reason the three of them are still alive today.

"It was miraculous, a source of great emotional strength," Golden said.

But several relatives never made it out of Auschwitz, and a couple of them never made it that far. The names of 11 members of Golden's family are engraved on the wall of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial.

They were among 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Those victims were remembered this week during Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Golden and several family members attended a Monday memorial service at a Portland synagogue on the eve of Yom HaShoah.

A candle-lighting ceremony featured six Holocaust survivors, including one who'd lost 60 relatives not including his in-laws. Another candle-lighter had injured his hand trying to throw a grenade; he was 14 years old at the time.

On April 25, Portland observed Holocaust Remembrance Day at Pioneer Courthouse Square with a reading of the names of 3,000 victims.

Golden has been a frequent participant in the public observance, but she spent this year's remembrance day in a quiet corner of a senior-living facility near Beaverton, Ore., talking about her family.

One of six children of Rahamim and Lea Galante, she grew up on the Greek island of Rhodes. But Golden had to go back a few centuries to start the story.

"We spoke Spanish at home. The family had been ejected from Spain in the 1490s," she said.

Italy seized Rhodes from Turkey in 1912, which made Golden an Italian citizen when she was born in 1922.

"We had fears when Mussolini signed a pact with Hitler. By 1940, many well-to-do Jews had left," Golden said. "We couldn't go anyplace."

The German Army occupied Rhodes during World War II, and rounded up the Jewish community in 1944.

"They had all our names. Being on the list had been the only way we could get food," Golden said.

In mid-July, whip-swinging S.S. troops herded more than 1,800 people onto three small cargo ships.

"About 140 of us were left after the war," she said.

It was an eight-day voyage to a transit center, where the first family member died, Golden's maternal grandmother. In Athens, the family was locked into a boxcar for the trip to Auschwitz.

"There were 72 people in our car; we were fortunate to be at the front of the train," said Golden, who was 22 at the time. "At the back of the train, there was no more room, but they kept shoving people in."

Her father died of typhus as the train rolled through Yugoslavia. They reached Auschwitz on Aug. 16, 1944, and Golden said goodbye to more members of her family.

Golden helped her aunt, who was blind, out of the boxcar. An S.S. officer evaluating the prisoners signaled Golden and her sisters 20-year-old Felicia and Jeannette, 14 to go to the left. The German sent their mother and aunt to the right.

Golden said she snuck behind the officer's back and ran to her aunt's side.

"He was livid. He hit me on both sides," she said, demonstrating an open-palm slap followed by a quick backhand. "I fell to the ground."

In the camp, "There were barracks as far as the eye could see," she said.

Not even night brought solace. The three-level bunks were just slats, but that wasn't the only problem.

If the women above them lost control of their bladders during the night, "The ones on the bottom got wet," Golden said.

And the top bunk?

"It was hotter up there," she said.

"It was hell at night," Golden said, and then she reconsidered. "It was hell 24 hours a day."

Golden got a chance to leave Auschwitz late in October when she and her sisters were called up to fill for a labor requisition.

Each woman took off her dress and stood naked for evaluation.

"Those who were emaciated were put to death at the end of the day. They didn't want to give a piece of bread to a dying person. Â… We were not a person; we were a number."

Golden, her 20-year-old sister and a cousin were selected.

"Our sister was only 14, and she was rejected," Golden said. "We cried because it was the end of her life."

But another requisition came along later in the day, and 14-year-old Jeannette was selected for that group.

Golden was sent to a small factory in Germany.

"I made holes in a piece of stainless steel, maybe a machine gun part; 150 pieces a day, six holes: 1-2-3, 1-2-3 Â… ."

She was there from the beginning of November to the end of April, 1945, when they were liberated by the Soviets.

"Two days before, the women guarding us had taken their uniforms off and were wearing civilian dresses. We wondered why. It was so they could disappear into the crowd" after the Red Army rolled into town.

"If the Russians had seen them in uniform, they would have raped them, then beaten them to death."

The young woman moved to the United States in 1948, and eventually wound up in Seattle, where she met Kenneth Golden, a Portland resident. They were married in 1952.

The Goldens lived for 30 years in Vancouver, where they raised daughters Elaine and Estelle and owned a downtown business, American Music. Ken and Diana Golden moved to the senior-living facility a couple of years ago.

Golden said she didn't talk about her wartime experiences for almost 30 years.

"I started to speak in 1973," she said, when some authors started to write that "the Holocaust never happened."

Golden said she knows her role in history. She is a witness.

"I'm not a martyr. I did not achieve anything. I was just a product of that time, but I am not going to remain silent."