Standing outside her orphanage as German prisoners of war went by, Evy Woods remembers how she decided to be the person she wanted to be.
When other Jewish children encouraged throwing rocks as Russian troops escorted the men, she heard her peers say, “These are the Germans who killed our families.”
“It was my first awareness that I was a human being, and I knew it had to be a better definition than, ‘These are the ones who killed our families.’” she said. “I couldn’t throw the stones, because I knew they couldn’t be the very same people.
“Your individualism comes out, and at some point you become cognizant, so I must have been 7, 8. That’s when your conscious life begins. You know who you are, and nothing can dislodge that.”
Now 83, these are among the vivid memories Woods shares when asked yet again to retell her stories as a child survivor of the Holocaust.
She’s done so many times, recently for her Touchmark South Hill neighbors and for the FEZ Berlin’s Alice Museum for Children, which is using Woods’ accounts and her 1940s childhood photos in an exhibit this month through Dec. 18.
Born Evelyn Goldstein in June 1938 to Jewish parents, they had to go into hiding by February 1943 in Berlin. Their secret place only lasted about six weeks, but they managed to escape when discovered. Knowing that authorities were searching for a family of three, the couple sent their blonde-haired kindergartner off to a group of underground rescuers.
Evy became one of “the hidden children,” documented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many of her rescuers were college-aged women in a network directed by university professor Dr. Elisabeth Abegg, who lost her job for anti-Nazi views.
Woods was told to go with “auntie so-and-so,” shuffled around among caregivers. Eventually, a rescuer took her by train to East Prussia to live with families, and she was later reunited with her mother. Her father, caught in 1943, was killed at Auschwitz.
“It broke up my family when we went underground in 1943,” Woods said. Her parents, Ernst and Herta Goldstein, got married in 1937, and she is their only child.
A former cigar distributor, Ernst Goldstein had to do forced labor, cleaning debris from bombed out buildings. Woods remembers Jewish people were allowed to shop for a limited time each day, and food was severely rationed. At one shop, her father met Hilde Kniess, the grocer’s niece, who gave him a card to contact her in case of an emergency. She eventually became one of Woods’ rescuers, working with Abegg.
“I was 4½, and we knew that the last working Jews were going to be deported out of Berlin. Everything was programmed, bringing people together from the small cities from all over Germany into the big cities, so that you could control them. You’ve got to imagine a state where everything is controlled, which is not so easy for people here to imagine. That whole thing against the Jews in Germany started right after Hitler took office, so this was all in the making.”
She remembers living in a large apartment building, marked outside with the Jewish star. “But remember, all of this was with the forethought of grabbing people and sticking them on trains to annihilation. But we were too stupid to know that; nobody knew that except for the people who worked directly with this information. And in that country, a word was always taken more seriously.”
The family heard about other Jewish people being hauled away. Her aunt, a nurse in Berlin at a Jewish hospital, got the news that the facility was being “liquidated,” Woods said.
“Being liquidated meant everybody gets deported,” she said.
“This was a whole new vocabulary – deportation, annihilation – it was always talking around something without being specific. People were referred to as almost like the word, “items,” “so many items have been liquidated in Auschwitz today.” It was a whole way of talking so even secretaries didn’t always know for sure what they were writing in these reports, unless they could piece it together or knew people who had been deported.”
After increasing deportations, the Goldstein family decided to hide with an elderly Jewish couple, previously owners of the apartment building who had had a secret two-room attic space built. The Goldsteins stayed in one room, and the couple in the other.
“Once we got into the attic up there, I had a terrible cold. I remember that they wouldn’t let me stay in the attic with them for fear my coughing would arouse the (superintendent), as he made his rounds,” so she stayed in another attic area to sleep.
The older couple had asked them to stay. “They said to us, you better get up here,’ and we did. I still remember being pushed through their closet because they were on the upper floor.”
Woods said it was the building superintendent who did give them away, after noticing newer plaster. The Gestapo broke in, but about three men went immediately into the couple’s room with no exit, Woods said. Her father shut the door behind them and locked it, and the three Goldsteins escaped. By the time they reached the street, the family could see truckloads of Jewish people, Woods said. She remembers her father’s fear.
“My father said, “Walk slowly,’ to my mother. I remember them walking toward the opening that usually the postal cars would drive in and out.
“There were trucks out on the street with people to the gills they’d rounded up. My father was in terror, ‘I hope they don’t recognize us.’ But nobody called out. Nobody recognized us, or they were preoccupied with their own dilemma.”
In January 1945, German forces were retreating, and the war front was approaching nearby Koenigsberg, where mother and daughter had to leave an estate harboring them and hide with a poor family. As the area deteriorated, they were held in camps until they could escape to Lithuania.
“I was 6; We were marched always from here to there,” Woods said. “There were some historically important places that we got to where they claimed the Russians had killed all the village people, and the Russians said the Germans did it. Right now they’re saying the same things. Hey, I’ve heard it all. We had to escape from a couple of their enclosures because typhoid would break out.”
Their hardships continued. Toward the end of the war after Russian troops descended on where they lived, Woods was kept at an orphanage with other Jewish children, because of her mother’s work and residency with a Jewish judge .
Kniess later reunited with her when Woods was 10 and had returned with her mother to Berlin. The group of rescuers helped them after the war, and with their eventual arrival in the U.S. Mother and daughter lived in San Francisco, where Woods went to high school, her first formal education. Kniess continued their friendship over the years until her death at age 83.
On April 27, Woods shared parts of her story at Touchmark.
Woods said she was asked by a Touchmark resident, ”What caused that hatred against Jews?” Woods attributes some of it to years of built-up envy and fear of competition, as Germans watched Jewish people run successful trades and businesses. They spoke many languages, she said. “My mother taught languages at home before forced labor came in. She taught English, Italian and French.”
She believes another reason was a culture of obedience among German people at the time, including herself at age 5. That’s why she never questioned her parents to go with the college-aged women.
“I had no clue what’s going on, but if you were a German child, Jewish or otherwise, your job was to shut your mouth and be highly obedient. That is how that was possible in that country, because of that extreme obedience factor that the public was held to. There were even boys in the Hitler Youth who would rat on their parents, because the loyalty to Hitler and your country was greater than your love for your family.
“How do you think people stood around in those places in the East of Europe and shot down 30,000 people in Babi Yar?”
That massacre was at a ravine called Babyn Yar, sometimes “Babi Yar” in English, located outside the city of Kyiv. A special detachment under SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel shot victims in small groups. A total of 33,771 Jews were massacred during a two-day period.
Sharing such stories brings out Woods’ toughness, a fierceness. But now, Woods said she’s likely done telling them. She’s tired. And, she said, she’s tired of people like Vladimir Putin and the Russian war in Ukraine. She doesn’t think that war will stop there.
“You know, they’re going to come after all those countries, and the Germans are going to be sitting there shivering without their oil and air conditioning,” she said. And Russia likely will continue, she believes.
It’s not really history repeating itself, she said, or people in the world would know better. “But it is a forerunner of what entices people – power.”
Woods said she’s never had an interest in power or fame. “I don’t care. The best people got murdered off, and those of us who didn’t escaped mainly due to luck. Just luck. There is such a thing. It was the good people who helped us.”
Woods still sends out a message of gratitude for her rescuers. “They risked their lives for me and impacted me with their kindness. They were the best of humanity in the midst of the worst.”
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