For five years, from the age of 11 to 15 years old, Henry Golde spent time in the worst prisons World War II had to offer. During that span he spent time in nine concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Golde shared his survival story with Clintonville Middle School students, Wednesday, Dec. 18. The presentation was sponsored by the Clintonville Historical Society and the Family of Gladys and Marlin Boyer.
Early in the presentation, Golde told the students that when he was 11 years old he “became an adult, and five years later became an old man.”
He was born in Plock, Poland. He said of the 3,000 Jews in his community, only 50 survived.
“War became hell,” Golde said of what life was like after the Germans came to his community.
He said Jews lost all their rights overnight.
Originally the Germans issued an order to relocate the Jews in his community to a different part of Poland, he said. That order was changed, and everyone was taken to a concentration camp.
“The sanitation in that camp was just horrible,” Golde said.
After one week, Golde said the women and men were placed in one group, while the elderly and children were placed in another group. The women and men were sent to a work camp, while the elderly and children were sent to an extermination camp.
A German soldier originally told Golde to join the elderly and children group, but a different soldier told him to go with the women and men.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but the soldier who told him to join the women and men saved Golde’s life.
Golde described another time when he came near death. Those in the camps weren’t allowed out of the buildings during blackouts. A guard caught Golde outside going to the bathroom and was going to shoot him, Golde said. Another guard came to the area and the two guards argued about whether to shoot Golde or not. The second guard won the argument and Golde’s life was spared once again.
He also described how those in the camp were allowed to shower only once a month and they had to walk five miles each way to shower.
A lot of Jews contracted typhoid fever in the camps, which was 99 percent fatal when not treated, Golde said.
He eventually contracted typhoid fever and was taken to the camp hospital.
“When I got there I knew I wouldn’t last long,” Golde said.
Of the 70-75 people in the room in the hospital when he arrived, he said he was the only one who survived.
He eventually recovered and was sent to what was called, Camp C. Here Golde was picked by the Germans to work, while the others were shot.
At one of the camps Golde was at, his name was called to get on a train. Golde said having your name called to get on a train usually meant you were being sent to your death.
He didn’t get on the train. He found his way to the hospital barracks. Behind the barracks, Golde said they would pile the dead bodies. He went to and laid on the pile of dead bodies for a day to hide from getting on the train. When he returned, half the village was gone.
He eventually ended up in a concentration camp in Germany. When he got to the camp, he said he saw a huge chimney with a sign on it that read, “The only way to get out of here is through this chimney.” Golde did get out of that concentration camp when he was picked to work in a different part of Germany.
He was forced to work in munitions factories in Germany.
He said nobody thought for a moment that they would survive the war. He talked about being close to where Allied forces were dropping bombs on Germany. He said he and the others would rather die from Allied bombs than by German hands.
Shortly before the end of the war, those in the camp were forced to march to Czechoslovakia. The march lasted two weeks, with only a couple hundred of the 3,000 people who left the camp surviving.
The Russians finally liberated him and the other Jews on May 1, 1945. He spent 2-3 months with the Russians before going to England, where he lived until 1952. In 1952 he came to the United States and landed in New York. He moved to Wisconsin in the 1980s.
Golde has written a book about his experience. It is called “Ragdolls.”
During the question and answer session, a student asked Golde what the scariest part of his experience was. Golde had a one-word answer, “Everything.”
He said he has told his story so often that it is like second nature now. He also said he doesn’t share his story because he wants people to feel sorry for him or his people. He shares his story with others because he wants to show what one individual can overcome.
He received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his presentation.