Death’s door -Teacher faces concentration camp that held his cousin |

Death’s door -Teacher faces concentration camp that held his cousin

For years, Henry Goodman viewed the atrocities of the Holocaust from a safe distance.

The descendant of Polish Jews, Goodman, 53, avoided returning to the country that claimed the lives of his family members in German-controlled concentration camps, even as he had chances to visit the former World War II killing fields as a young man.

Still, the Bear River High School history teacher paid tribute to family members by sharing their stories in the classroom, where he would often introduce his students to Gloria Rubin, a cousin of his who survived three years at the Birkenau concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, where more than 1.5 million prisoners were exterminated during the war.

Until recently, Goodman’s understanding of his relative’s pain and suffering came in short sound bites.

“We weren’t taught about it much in school,” said Goodman, adding that until she was much older, Rubin, now 75 and living in Seal Beach, didn’t want to talk about it, either.

It wasn’t until Goodman took a trip to Poland with a group of Bear River High School social science teachers this past July that he learned just how difficult his relative’s life was.

“For much of my life, I was very angry about this,” Goodman said. “I was anxious or dreading going there because I thought it would be too upsetting.”

Goodman’s grandfather, Ben Baker, told him once that five of Baker’s six brothers and sisters “burned in the ovens” at Birkenau and that Gloria couldn’t have children because of her experience at the camp, sometimes referred to as “Auschwitz II.”

Five times, Goodman had traveled to Europe, either as a tourist or as a member of the Merchant Marines. Never once did he step foot into Poland, in part because of the stories his cousin told him.

These stories came to life once educators Goodman, Terry McAteer, Terrill Korell, Jeff Carrow, Nate Homan, David Morehouse and their families met in Krakow for a trip to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, their trip funded by an anonymous benefactor who believed the teachers’ knowledge of history would be incomplete without a firsthand account of the atrocities of war.

In three days at the camps, the anecdotes told to Goodman came alive.

At Auschwitz, the teachers discovered buildings cloaked in Ivy League-style bricks, ovens lining the walls. Hooks tethered to the roof of each building, where Jews would be strung up and hung with wire. “Execution walls” speckled with bullet holes. Six-foot square cells, where doctors such as Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” removed the reproductive organs of prisoners and then re-implanted them, to see if they would live or die.

Stacks and stacks of shoes worn by prisoners filled one room. Piles of hair, spectacles and clothing stripped from prisoners littered another.

Ironically, parts of the prisons still displayed pictures of smiling, unsuspecting prisoners clutching their family albums as they arrived in the camps.

One of the most chilling photographs in a photo album kept by Korell shows the train tracks leading to the entrance gate at Birkenau. Unlike Auschwitz, a converted military base, Birkenau, with its low-slung buildings and faceless exterior, was designed specifically as a death camp, appearing to the teachers much as the camp did during its days when Germans used it during the reign of the Third Reich.

“It’s unfathomable, if you see it all,” said Carrow.

“In America, we would sterilize places like that,” McAteer said.

Korell, who has visited the Holocaust Museum in New York, cautiously took pictures of each camp.

“After a while, it was dizzying,” he said.

As he grew older, Goodman learned in rich detail of the suffering his cousin and her family endured while at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Gloria Rubin later recalled for Goodman how guards often asked her to stand in line, where they would randomly choose who would live or die that day.

While at the camp, guards asked her once to pick through the clothes of dead prisoners to search for valuables. One day, she discovered the clothes of her father and brothers.

This past summer, for the first time, Goodman was able to see what had been told to him, finally overcoming the trepidation of traveling to where members of his family perished.

“I was just paying attention the whole time,” he said.

It’s history that Goodman carries with him forever.

“I don’t think you can get through the grief,” he said. “What happened at Auschwitz is something I can’t get over.”

Goodman hopes to use his experiences at the camp to give his students a rich, vivid picture of history they won’t see in the textbooks.

“I try to take some positive action and try to teach young people what happened and to talk about the things we can do to prevent anything like that from ever happening in our lives.”

Birkenau’s tragic toll

Birkenau, located near present-day Krakow, Poland, was one of two camps operated by Nazi Germany during World War II that social science teachers from Bear River High School visited in July.

Birkenau was located just minutes from Auschwitz, a second camp just west of Krakow. While prisoners were generally housed at the former military base at Auschwitz, Birkenau was where they came to die.

About 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Soviet POWs and others from countries in occupied Europe were brought to Auschwitz and Birkenau between 1942 and 1945. The majority of them died in gas chambers.

Of the approximately 1.1 million who perished at Auschwitz and Birkenau, 140,000 of them were Polish Jews, including several relatives of Bear River teacher Henry Goodman.

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