Nazi soldiers swarmed inside.
Their guns cocked at Hinda and her family, they commanded the Mondlaks to leave their rightful home.
A blustery day in March of 1940, the soldiers herded the family into the open-air bed of an army truck. Hinda, her parents, and two sisters were hauled, as if they were subhuman pariahs, to the Mlawa ghetto, where they were forced to live in squalor for one lone reason: They were Jews.
After almost three years of subsisting on a starvation diet and sleeping on a wooden floor in the ghetto, Hinda was imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp. When incarcerated there for an additional two and one-half years, Hinda endured rabid hunger, slave labor, and barbarous brutalities while clinging to her father’s promise—I know for certain that you will live, and you will tell. These twelve words—a powerful presage written by her father, Tatae, in a letter to Hinda mere hours before the Gestapo murdered him—fueled her will to persevere.
Incredibly, at the age of twenty-three, Hinda devised a daring plot to escape the exhaustively guarded gates of Auschwitz with her younger sister, Rachel. Hinda brilliantly executed the plan only to find the two of them running for their lives—from both Germans and Russians.
Two subplots, featuring pivotal characters Wolf Yoskowitz and Dr. Walter Zeilhofen, intertwine with Hinda’s life in surprising ways. Wolf, a strapping, young Jewish man, struggles to endure the horrors of Buchenwald concentration camp. Walter, a young German doctor, reluctantly works at Auschwitz under the thumb of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele.
According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, there are less than two hundred (200) documented, successful “prisoner escapes” from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of that number were men. Hinda and Rachel’s victorious escape was truly remarkable.
On May 5, 1985, my mother, Hinda Mondlak Goldman, who survived years of heinous abuse at the Auschwitz concentration camp, died in my arms. Coincidentally, on that same day, United States President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl appeared at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. In his speech*, President Reagan said:
“Chancellor Kohl and honored guest [sic], this painful walk into the past has done much more than remind us of the war that consumed the European Continent. What we have seen makes unforgettably clear that no one of the rest of us can fully understand the enormity of the feelings carried by the victims of these camps. The survivors carry a memory beyond anything that we can comprehend. The awful evil started by one man, an evil that victimized all the world with its destruction, was uniquely destructive of the millions forced into the grim abyss of these camps. Here lie people—Jews—whose death was inflicted for no reason other than their very existence… For year after year, until that man and his evil were destroyed, hell yawned forth its awful contents. People were brought here for no other purpose but to suffer and die—to go unfed when hungry, uncared for when sick, tortured when the whim struck, and left to have misery consume them when all there was around them was misery… And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and the suffering for all time, we can and must pledge: NEVER AGAIN.”
My mother’s last wish was for me, her son, Moises J. Goldman, to tell her horrific and triumphant story in a public way. She, too, was adamant that such horror should never again occur anywhere in the world, and she hoped her story would move people to support that aim.
In 1984, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Too weak to write and knowing that she did not have many months left to live, she recorded eleven tapes, forty-five minutes each, describing the war’s impact upon her life. In those tapes, she spoke of her father, who she called Tatae—a Yiddish form of the word Father—and how moments before being murdered by the Gestapo, he had written a note to her, leaving her with his blessing and a promise: You will live; you will tell. These six words rang in my mother’s ears and beat in her heart for the rest of her life. She wanted—with all her soul—to honor her father’s last behest.
You may ask, “How did she?” Painfully, I will tell you.
It has been over thirty-five years since my mother passed away, and while I had attempted to listen to the tapes many times, hearing her voice and story always turned into such a heart-wrenching experience for me that I would have to stop. I could not finish them. You see, my mother meant the absolute world to me. She was my biggest fan and my best friend in every sense of the word. I knew that someday, if I were to fulfill her final wish, I would have to overcome my grief and listen to the entirety of the tapes. But after trying time after time, I just couldn’t. Instead, I threw myself into my work as an aerospace scientist, entrepreneur, and businessman.
I do not know if destiny played a role, but after I moved to Austin, Texas in 2018, I met a couple, Sherry and Stephen Maysonave, whom my wife, Terry, and I befriended. Sherry is an accomplished author, and her husband, Stephen, an accomplished businessman. During our many visits and outings together, I told Sherry some of the stories my mom had told me about her Holocaust experiences. As she listened to them, Sherry expressed her abhorrence of what my mother had endured. I inquired about her interest in co-authoring a book with me. Sherry replied, “I feel the pulse of my soul in all this. I would be honored to write your mother’s story. It must be told. Such atrocities upon the Jews must never happen again.”
So now I was on the hook; no more excuses or reasons for not listening to, and transcribing, the tapes my mother had entrusted me with. How could I not go forward? Sherry has authored award-winning books, and her writing style is so detailed and marvelous. My decision was made. Yet, admittedly, it was personally traumatic and extremely painful for me to listen to, and transcribe, more than eight hours of my mother’s recorded material. The process proved complicated, too, as she had spoken in multiple languages, primarily Spanish and Yiddish, which I had to translate to English.
As I finished the initial few tapes, I got up from my office chair and went to my wife. I said, “Honey, I do not know if I can do it; this is going to kill me.”
My wife answered: “It better not; your mother lived long enough to tell her story, so you had better do the same.”
My grandfather’s promise to my mother then became my promise to her.
I have fulfilled that promise with this book, which tells my mother’s story of growing up in Poland, born ninth of eleven into a religious and devout family, to her experiencing cruel persecution and deep loss due to Hitler’s Nazi Regime, World War II, and its far-reaching aftereffects. The war stole my mother’s home, her family, and what should have been happy teenage years. Even still, she not only survived Auschwitz but at the age of twenty-three, she escaped. And she got her younger sister out with her.
I proudly say that my mother was extraordinarily bold and brave. I hope these pages of Tatae’s Promise will fill you with awe of her incredible spirit and triumph.
*Source for President Reagan’s Speech: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum Archives, Remarks at Commemorative Ceremony at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in the Federal Republic of Germany. Public Papers of the President. Portions of the speech were omitted as noted with ellipses.