By Susan Woodland, Senior Manager of Collections
In 1989, Samuel Gottesman recorded his oral history testimony with the Center for Holocaust Studies (CHS); CHS merged with the Museum of Jewish Heritage the following year, transferring responsibility to the museum for maintaining the CHS testimonies and making them accessible.
One of our ongoing projects is to briefly summarize testimonies that do not yet have complete transcripts. We use these summaries for research and to include parts of these tales of survival in exhibits, programs, educational materials and in social media. This project, like so many others in the Collections & Exhibitions Department, would not be possible without our dedicated volunteers.
Debbi Portnoy is the volunteer who has been listening to the testimony of Samuel Gottesman, and she is working on the summary. When Debbi and I spoke last week, she told me she was deep into her family’s planning for Passover when she came upon Mr. Gottesman’s mention of Passover in his testimony. The following is extracted from Debbi’s summary:
Samuel Gottesman was born in Irsava, Czechoslovakia, on October 20, 1923. He remembered that before the war Irsava had a total population of approximately 5,000 people, 1500 of whom were Jewish. The Jews lived and owned stores along the main streets and the Christian community lived in the farming area on the outskirts of town. The town had three synagogues and one Jewish cemetery.
Samuel’s father was born near Irsava; his mother was born in Irsava, too, one of nine siblings. Samuel had seven siblings. Their parents were Orthodox and attended synagogue. The family owned a hardware store and a glass-glazing business. He remembers speaking Yiddish at home.
In 1939, after the Munich pact and the German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, his town was incorporated into Hungary. He was required to start learning Hungarian and all legal paper work was conducted in Hungarian, but at the beginning he did not feel any repercussions as a Jew in his small town. Eventually the Jewish businesses were turned over to non-Jews, heads of families were sent to labor camps, food became scarce. Deportations began.
By March 1944, the Germans marched into Hungary and took over the government.
Samuel recalls that the first time he saw a German soldier was Pesach evening during synagogue. Prayer service ended quickly and everyone returned home. The holiday of Pesach was destroyed.
By May 1944 the Jews were sent to the Munkacz ghetto. Samuel’s mother spent the night before their deportation baking bread and making rucksacks to carry supplies to the ghetto.
Samuel was sent to the Munkacz ghetto, and eventually to Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated in April 1945.
He was sponsored by a relative and secured a place on the SS Marine Perch in April 1947. Samuel settled in Pittsburgh, married in 1954, and he and his wife raised a son.
As we all prepare this week for Passover and the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, as well as the beginning of spring, it is a good time to remember our own stories as well as new stories of exodus, migration, survival, and renewal in new lands.