Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin delivered a touching speech inside a crowded Baker University Center Theatre on Tuesday night as part of Ohio University's Holocaust Memorial Program.
The event began with the playing of a traditional Jewish song by two Hillel students. The song, "Eli Eli," was written by Hannah Szenes, a Jewish artist killed during the Holocaust. The song commemorates the Holocaust and set the tone for Godin's speech.
Godin was introduced by Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, executive director of Hillel. Leshaw put the Holocaust into perspective for event attendees.
"Not only Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Eleven million people lost their lives and in addition to Jews, this number included the mentally and physically handicapped, blacks, gays and lesbians as well as gypsies," said Leshaw.
Godin herself urged the audience members to widen their perspective. "Jews are white, black, blonde, brunette," said Leshaw. "It is not how we look, it is how we pray."
Godin started her speech by saying "I am not a teacher or a lecturer. I am a survivor of the Holocaust and I'm here to share memories."
A native of Shauliai, Lithuania, Godin lived there with her parents and two brothers. The city was home to a substantial Jewish community of almost 10,000 people and her parents owned a store that sold dairy products. However, all of this changed during the German occupation, which lasted from 1940 to 1944.
During the German occupation many laws were passed. These laws took property away from Jewish citizens, prevented Jewish children from attending school and even mandated that pregnant Jewish woman have abortions. After having their home and store confiscated by the government, Godin and her family were forced to live in a ghetto.
"In the ghetto we lived in constant hunger and fear," said Godin, who was a prisoner from the ages of 13 to 17.
During her time in the ghetto, she witnessed many "selections," during which men, women and children were taken to their deaths, including her father.
In 1944 as the Soviet army approached, the remaining Jews in her town were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp where she was given the number "54015."
"Everything was taken from me, my family, my possessions and now my name," said Godin.
From Stutthof, Godin was moved to several camps where she and other women had to dig ditches. She was sent on a death march in January 1945. In March of that year, she was liberated by Soviet troops and was eventually reunited with her mother.
During much of her ordeal, Godin was separated from her family and relied on the kindness of strangers for guidance, comfort and protection.
"I think that I survived the Holocaust by the grace of the Lord above and by the kindness of Jewish women that gave me a bite of bread, wrapped my body in straw to keep me warm, held me up when I was hurt by the guards and gave me hope," said Godin. "These women asked me to promise them that if I survived, I would not let them be forgotten. They asked me to tell the world what hatred can do."
In 1950, after spending five years in displaced persons camps, she and her husband, Jack, also a survivor, along with their two children came to America and settled in a suburb of Washington D.C.
For more than 40 years, Godin has kept the promise she made to the Jewish women in the concentration camp. She has told her story to domestic and international audiences and is active in several Holocaust Survivor groups.
In addition to telling her story, Godin implored people to take action.
"The Holocaust was allowed to happen by some who acted and by many more who were passive bystanders, who did nothing to stop it," said Godin. "It is not enough to march around saying 'never again.' When we see a wrong, we must act."
In addition to telling the tragic story of her childhood, Godin is active in raising awareness and funds to stop genocides going on in the world today. For instance, she is active in helping children in Darfur. At one of her speeches to a middle school, she made students understand that they were fortunate to have a school to go to, food to eat and clothes and shoes to wear. Her speech was so touching that the next day the students donated 400 pairs of shoes to Darfur.
Godin ended Tuesday's speech by saying "My physical wounds healed a long time ago, but I will carry my mental wounds for the rest of my life."
She instructed the audience to see the world in a new light, and she told them to "teach the world not to hate. Do not see people as a race or a religion; see them as a person created by God."