Her mother Hilde’s story of wartime resistance prompted Rita Goldberg to pen a book, she tells Francine Wolfisz
Hilde Jacobsthal’s wartime story is one of survival in a time when many other loved ones perished. A story of resistance, liberation and ultimately triumph over extreme adversity. For American author Rita Goldberg it is also a story that has “haunted” her entire life – even though it pertains not to herself, but to her mother.
Nearly 75 years after the outbreak of the Second World War and after decades of research, Goldberg has put pen to paper to explore Hilde’s experiences in more detail with her recently-published book, Motherland: Growing Up With The Holocaust. “I wrote this book because I wanted to understand my mother’s story, which had become a kind of family myth,” says Goldberg, adding Hilde “survived the Holocaust not by the skin of her teeth, but heroically.”
Hilde was born in Germany and brought up in Amsterdam, where she and her family became close with the Franks. It was a friendship that would endure the tragedies of war, with Anne Frank’s father Otto later becoming godfather to Goldberg, Hilde’s first daughter. Aged just 15 when the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Hilde saw her parents Betty and Walter arrested in 1943, before being deported to Nazi concentration camps. She never saw them again.
Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, recalls: “My mother didn’t mind talking to me or my younger sister, because we were her daughters. She told her story over and over, and yet when she spoke of her parents, I always felt that was the moment her personality changed. “Sometimes she was tearful, sometimes she was matter-of-fact. Eventually she would stop and pay with nightmares later that night. “Eighteen is a terrible time to lose your parents. It’s an age when they are still very much needed for guidance and love – and my mother realised where they were bound for was bad.”
Uncertain about the fate of her parents, Hilde fled to Belgium where she went into hiding and became involved with the resistance movement. Under cover of night, she carried out her duties as an interpreter and courier, transporting false papers to the fallen pilots and other fugitives hidden in the landscape of the Ardennes.
It was perilous work, yet Hilde seemed unaware of the dangers. In her book, Goldberg recalls her mother saying to her: “I felt that my life was worth very little. I had no one, I had no idea what has happened to my parents, and I had to pretend to be someone else all the time. I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I could afford to be reckless.”
Her brave actions in the face of extreme danger impacted greatly on Goldberg as a young child and “reinforced the image of my mother as a heroine”. She adds: “I had no idea how I could ever live up to that. My sister and I often questioned our courage and it’s probably why I spent a lot of time being active in political causes – I just felt that I had to be involved and standing up for what is right.”
In 1944, the Allied forces liberated Belgium and Hilde went on to become a volunteer with the British Red Cross. Her first job was to assist at the newly- liberated Bergen-Belsen, where she witnessed horrific scenes. Goldberg, who lives with her British-born husband Oliver Hart, in Massachusetts, writes: “Hilde turned bodies over, trying to recognise familiar features. Each time, she wondered whether she would discover her parents.
“The faces of these thousands of strangers were so distorted by fleshlessness and pain that at times she couldn’t reconstruct a human personality from them, and, almost more than finding her parents there, she feared that she wouldn’t be able to recognise them if she did.” Yet ironically it was at Belsen, the place her mother describes as the “horror camp”, where Hilde first met a Swiss doctor named Max Goldberg and a romance would later blossom.
Following their marriage in 1945, the young couple moved to Palestine, where they both volunteered during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before eventually settling in the US. As a young child, Goldberg recalls many other German-speaking survivors coming to the family home. Among them was her godfather, Otto Frank, whom she describes as “incredibly sweet” and her “favourite uncle”.
She adds: “He loved young people and tended to befriend them in a parental way. “He was always incredibly affectionate towards us and would talk to us about our future and what we wanted to do. “He didn’t emphasise the sadness of his own life but, as he became more involved in the Anne Frank project – which brought him to the US more frequently – we also saw him suffer, all the time. He cried very easily and comfortably. He was really a huge part of our lives.” And although she never met or knew Anne, Goldberg acknowledges that the young diarist had “a clear influence” on her to subsequently become a writer.
Now with the publication of Motherland, Goldberg feels satisfied she has managed to tell her mother’s incredible story, as well as her own. “What I did not want – and what I did not get – was a catharsis,” she adds. “I really wanted to tell my parents’ story and mine in a way I could be satisfied with.”
• Motherland: Growing Up With The Holocaust by Rita Goldberg, Halban Publishers, priced £13.95, is available now