By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
Once upon a time, there was a village in the middle of a forest. Houses lined a long street, each little plot opening into a field stretching back to the woods’ edge. There was no need for telephones — if you needed to talk to someone, you walked down the street and spoke to them. On Friday afternoons, the villagers rushed home to bathe and prepare for the Sabbath, and the aroma of cholent and challah mingled with pine and meadow. On Shabbat, they awoke to birdsong, prayed, ate, took naps and went for walks in the woods.
There was nothing to be afraid of.
“It was a fairytale,” said Betty Gold. “It was one big happy family, the whole town.”
This was Trochenbrod, a place whose fabled existence is as hard to believe as its disappearance.
Betty Gold is one of 33 remaining survivors of Trochenbrod, an entirely Jewish village in eastern Poland of 5,000 before the Nazis literally wiped it off the map in 1942. For decades the town, now nothing more than a fallow field with a row of trees marking the central road since it was plowed it under after the war, was all but forgotten.
Gold was at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island June 29 to tell her story in conjunction with a screening of “Lost Town,” a documentary following Avrom Bendavid-Val, whose father also survived by moving to Palestine before the war.
In the late 1990s-early 2000s, interest grew in locating the lost village. Bendavid-Val’s investigation into his father’s past shares some remarkably similar plotlines with Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” the fictionalized account of a lost, mythical shtetl called “Trachimbrod” based on Trachenbrod. Both in Foer’s novel and in Bendavid-Val’s real-life experience, no one even knew where Trachenbrod was anymore.
In his quest to better understand his father, Bendavid-Val became obsessed with Trochenbrod and ended up writing a book, “The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod.” Gold is featured prominently in the beautiful film, and in addition to dedicating her later years to telling her story around the country, she is the author of “Beyond Trochenbrod: The Betty Gold Story.”
Gold was 12 when the Germans marched into the Soviet Union and surrounded the town. She survived with her parents and brother by hiding behind a false wall in their shed before moving into the woods, where her father had dug out two bunkers — just in case the rumors about Jewish deaths coming from the cities were true.
“Our folks were in complete denial,” said Gold. “They thought they would never find our town.”
Gold was with her grandmother when the Nazis escorted the villagers out of their homes. Sensing that this was going to end badly, Gold managed to scamper back through the throngs to her house undetected, where she found her family and several others hiding behind the false wall. In hiding, the first act of horror Gold witnessed occurred, when a cousin resorted to suffocating her crying baby. In the distance, they heard gunshots as the entire village was gunned down in a mass grave the villagers were forced to dig themselves. For days the ground moved as the dying tried to claw their way out of their fate.
That was just the beginning.
Even after wiping out the Jewish villages in the region and cleaning out the houses for gold before burning them to the ground, the Nazis continued to hunt down the remaining Jews in hiding. On several occasions, Gold and her family, hiding in the woods with 13 others, narrowly avoided being massacred — often, another band of hidden Jews were the victims instead.
A year passed, but they had no sense of time. In late summer, Gold’s father’s friend, a Christian, came to let them know Yom Kippur was approaching. Grateful, they made plans to return to one of the remaining houses in the village. When they got there, they encountered some 90 other villagers who had come out of hiding — they had all had the same idea.
So did the Nazis.
“In the morning we started to pray, and we looked out the window,” she said. “You know, the Nazis were so brilliant.”
They knew the Jews as well as they knew themselves, and they planned for this day.
“They decided to join us. Of course, not in prayer. They started shooting into the windows, into the house.”
Knowing that hidden Jews were not just killed, but tortured, Gold’s father ordered everyone to run.
“It was raining bullets,” Gold remembers. “I saw such horrible, horrible sights. I managed to run and I wasn’t hit.”
Gold, her parents and brother were reunited in the woods, but they had lost half their company. Hearing that the Nazis were coming next to search the woods, Gold’s father proposed their next move.
“My father said, ‘not to worry, I happen to know there’s a very huge swamp deep in the forest. I don’t think the Nazis will muddy their beautiful designer uniforms…looking for a few filthy Jews,’” she recalled. “And he was right.”
Living on a deck they built over the swamp, Gold remembers being so covered with mud that they no longer recognized one another. Their clothes were shreds. And Gold, whose job it was to forage for food, had to slog through the swamp to salvage whatever she could find from gardens, barns, and garbage bins.
“The worst part of trying to survive was the hunger,” she said. “You can’t imagine the pain that is created by being hungry for days. I gave birth to three and had surgeries. I’ve never suffered like this.”
Gold and her family eventually encountered Russian soldiers, who rescued them. She ended up in a displaced persons camp in Austria, where the American soldiers gave her Hershey’s chocolate bars — an addiction she never kicked. They made contact with relatives in Ohio and began their journey to America.
“We came to America, and we were just blessed,” Gold recalled with a smile. “We never felt free until we came to the New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty.”
By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound