Stanley A. Goldman is a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the founding director of the Loyola Center for the Study of Law and Genocide. He co-anchored a national program on CBS Network Radio during the months of the O. J. Simpson trial and has spent over two years as a regular contributor on CNBC. The following is adapted from his book, Left to the Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Bargain That Broke Adolf Hitler and Saved My Mother (December 2018).
The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Written: Unraveling the Story of My Mother’s Holocaust Survival
Like many survivors, my mother almost never spoke of the specifics of how she had outlived a war to give birth to me in Los Angeles. She remembered the suffering all too well, but she never learned that her life had actually been saved by a bizarrely improbable and little-known bargain struck between a single German Jew with a Swedish passport and the worst mass murderer of the Third Reich.
My own discovery process began seven years after her death when I traveled to Israel during summer break to visit the woman who had been my mother’s best friend during the war and with whom she had survived. The woman’s eldest daughter, Dvora, happened to show me a pamphlet published in Hebrew, which she had acquired from the Israeli Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem nearly two decades before. It was a report made to the World Jewish Congress documenting the author’s late war efforts to negotiate with Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi interior minister and SS head, for the release of a group of Polish Jewish women from the death camp at Ravensbrück.
Dvora had always wondered whether the circumstances reported, which sounded much like the general description we had heard from our mothers as to where and when they had been freed, might have actually been about them. As I flipped through the twenty-something page booklet, I noticed a grainy photograph of a large group of the freed women taken in Sweden just after the war. Though the figures in the picture were tiny, at the farthest left of the very last row I noticed two seemingly familiar faces.
It was a picture of our mothers as young women. We had stumbled across the first thread needed to unravel the mystery of how they had been saved. It would take years before I finally put together the entirety of the events, and once I had, it was a story so harrowing and remarkable that it needed to be told.
I had been gathering information and writing in my spare time for about three years when Dvora urged me to include my mother’s postwar experiences, and therefore, by necessity, my life with her. It was a subject I had consciously avoided, yet I hesitantly took her advice. It was going to be the hardest thing I had ever written, and it not only significantly slowed the completion of the book, I believe it also added the first, if long overdue, grey hairs to my head.
There are hazards when the children of survivors not only document their parents harrowing experiences but also include their own postwar lives. The danger of displaying not only self-pity but, even worse, self-aggrandizement by interposing into the survivors narrative in appearing to shroud ourselves with the in which our ancestors are remembered. I write, aware of the dangers lurking in the penumbra of any such memoir, but in the conviction that the telling is worth the risk.
View an exclusive interview with the author and his mother Malka here.