Erna (Blitzer) Gorman learned how to be a survivor early in life after she lived through one of the worst genocides in human history.
Gorman, a Holocaust survivor, shared her story with all 7th-graders at Oxford Middle School last Tuesday morning during a 90-minute presentation in the OMS commons area.
Gorman is the author of “While Other Children Played: A Hidden Child Remembers the Holocaust,” a book which recounts her experiences.
The younger of two sisters, Gorman was born in Metz, France, in 1935.
Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland; her mother had been brought up in the Ukraine in an Orthodox home.
In 1939, just before World War II started, Gorman and her family traveled to Wisnice, Poland to attend her aunt’s wedding.
When the war broke out in September 1939, they were not allowed to go back to France. In order to escape from the Nazis, Gorman’s family fled to the Ukraine to live with her grandparents.
Eventually, the Nazis came for all of her Polish relatives, including her grandfather– whom she described lovingly as her “pudgy grandfather.”
Each of those relatives went missing over the next year, according to Gorman, bringing her face-to-face with her own mortality.
“I was 8 years old and I began to understand at that point that because I was a Jewish child, I had to die,” said Gorman.
But just as they did in Poland, the Nazis came for Gorman’s family following their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Leading them was a German commander who harbored an intense hatred for the Jews.
“He was extremely cruel. He had no problem murdering a child in its mother’s arms. He was a human being who carried hatred in (his) soul and loved to murder,” said Gorman.
One day, the Nazis came and forced her father to help bury in mass graves other Jews who had been killed.
“I remember my father taking my mom in his arms and telling her the news that he had buried her family and they were reciting the prayer of the dead,” said Gorman. “Today, if you go to these forests where these mass graves are, they’re beautiful. There are wildflowers and you wouldn’t think that if you dug deep enough you might find the remains of my pudgy grandfather.”
During this time, the Germans started to establish a ghetto and to send Jews to concentration camps. Gorman’s family was forced to live in various ghettos.
“In each ghetto, we were trying to find a hiding place,” Gorman said.
In order to escape deportation from the ghettos, Gorman’s father dug a cavity underneath the planks of one of the homes for her family to hide in.
When the Nazis came, her family would hide under the floor, trembling in fear as they listened to the pounding sounds of German boots.
Gorman, her mother, father, and sister eventually managed to escape the ghettos and were taken in by a kind farmer and allowed to stay in a small corner of his barn loft.
Each night, the farmer would provide a small amount of food and water—whatever he could afford.
“He was a special angel,” said Gorman.
Gorman’s family could not leave the barn and, in order to keep themselves hidden, they were forced to whisper all the time—leading to the eventual loss of Gorman’s voice.
There were no windows, only a crack in the roof which provided them with daylight. Gorman and her family were not able to wash themselves and, after a while, they were all covered with lice and vermin.
Her family stayed in the barn for at nearly two years, becoming increasingly sick and lethargic during that time.
Gorman’s body degenerated due to the lack of food, fresh air and movement.
“You’re just flesh and bones because you don’t move, you don’t eat properly. You become totally empty. You just don’t feel and you don’t care whether you live or die. It’s just emptiness,” said Gorman.
In the winter of 1944, as the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived in the Ukraine, the farmer told Gorman and her family to go join the soldiers.
Because their muscles had atrophied from lack of use, the farmer carried Gorman and her family out of the barn, one by one.
From there, Gorman and her family crawled through the snow towards the sounds of the Russian Army.
When they reached the Red Army, a fight broke out between the army and the Germans. When a bomb went off near the family, Gorman’s mother was severely wounded from the impact.
The Russians took her mother to a Russian infirmary where she was bandaged, but fell victim to her injuries soon after.
Gorman recalled her family standing around her mother as she died, wrapping her in a blanket and then burying her in a shallow grave.
“The amount of hatred I felt in my body that day… she deserved better,” said Gorman.
Gorman, her father, and sister were taken to a Russian field hospital, where she said the Russians had taken very good care of them. They stayed there until the end of the war.
After the war, they returned to Metz, where they stayed with Gorman’s uncle.
Gorman returned to a public school with younger children, since she had never learned to read or write, and quickly became the victim of discrimination.
Following her experiences, and to help support herself and her father, Gorman did not return to school and instead went to work at a sweat shop.
Gorman and her father immigrated to the United States in 1953, where she eventually married and gave birth to two sons.
Gorman has taught her children and her grandchildren, to be tolerant people who love and accept others.
Today, she said she hopes to share the same message with young people all over the country.
“I hope that you, your children, your grandchildren will never know this type of trauma. I hope you listen to the news. I hope you read the paper every once in a while. It’s so important because the world is challenging right now,” said Gorman. “And, if you see kids being bullied stand up for them… Hate and prejudice are the worst things that control our world.”
Following the event, students lined up to exchange hugs with Gorman and thanked her for sharing her story.