Holocaust survivor tells his story to SJU students

Holocaust survivor Bernard Gotfryd spoke to a group of students and faculty last Thursday, sharing his intimate tales of loss and suffering.

St. John’s College and The Department of Literature and Languages hosted the lecture, entitled “Images from the Holocaust.”

Gotfryd was born in Poland, and soon after WWII broke out, he became an apprentice at a photography studio because Jews were no longer able to attend school. Their citizenship was taken away, as well. “I was trapped in every sense of the word,” he said. He risked his life by smuggling pictures of Nazi atrocities to the Polish resistance.

In 1943, he was sent to a concentration camp at Majdanek, Poland. By the time the war was over, Gotfryd had survived six different concentration camps, he said.

Gotfryd immigrated to the United States in 1947, and in 1957 he began working as a photographer for Newsweek, where he worked for over 30 years.

One of the stories Gotfryd shared was when he was transferred from a concentration camp in Poland to one in Austria. “They packed over 100 of us into cattle cars, and there were no seats,” he explained. “I’ll never forget the act of generosity performed by one man. He gave the last few drops of water he had to revive another man, who ultimately died.”

Gotfryd also shared his harrowing experiences of being in the concentration camp. “People entered the showers, but never came back,” he said. “I imagined that this is what Hell looked liked. What little faith I still had began to crumble.”

“During the winter of 1944, conditions were brutal,” he added. “Every morning, we had to go outside to be counted, to see how many had died over night. Every day was the same.”

Students and faculty agreed that hearing Godfryd’s stories made the events of the Holocaust much more tangible.
“The things he talks about are very moving. It’s amazing that survivors can function after such a traumatic experience,” said professor Jack Godler, who met Godfryd while they both worked for Newsweek.

“I was touched,” said junior Elina Ilizavov. “I’ve read books about the Holocaust, but listening to a first-hand account made it much clearer.”

“It was so brave of him to open up,” said junior Innessa Avezbaki.

Freshman Yelena Gurgova found Godfryd to be both inspirational and emotional. “It made me realize how harsh things really were,” she said.

Dr. Ninah Beliavsky, an associate professor of Languages and Literature, introduced Godfryd to the audience.

“He was a witness to unthinkable horrors, crimes, and atrocities, and he is here to share his precious memories,” she said. “This is a gift that deserves our warmest gratitude.”

Dr. Beliavksy first met Godfryd after reading some of his work.
“I had his book for a while and I decided to read the stories to my students,” she explained. “I chose to read The Violin because music is in my family, and I felt an immediate connection when I read it. I decided to call him, and it was such a pleasure speaking to him, especially because we have similar family backgrounds.”

Gotfryd answered student questions after the lecture, and his collection of short stories, Anton the Dove Fancier and Other Tales of the Holocaust, was available for purchase.

Although Gotfryd experienced immense pain and suffering, he was able to overcome his pain and share his story of survival with others.

“Something inside you keeps you going. I was resolved to see an end to such a gross injustice,” he said. “One thing you can still do is dream. Without hope you wouldn’t stand a chance. Dreams keep a spark of hope alive.”