Eva Gossman, former associate dean of the college, looks over some photographs taken in Slovakia, where she lived during World War II under the care of a woman who helped her family escape from the Nazis.
Gossman's remarkable story of survival is recounted in her new book, "Good Beyond Evil: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times," published by Vallentine Mitchell as part of a series called The Library of Holocaust Testimonies. Gossman began writing the book in 1997, shortly after her retirement from the University, where she worked for 19 years. She intended the book to be a tribute to the woman who defied the Nazis by sheltering Gossman, her brother and, later, Gossman's parents, sister and a cousin.
"I knew that I wanted to write this book for a very long time," Gossman said. "I wanted to repay a debt I owed to the woman who hid us during the war. I also wanted to write about acts of goodness in a world in which evil predominated."
Gossman describes how her "peaceful middle class existence" in Presov, Slovakia, was abruptly altered in 1939 by the war. Despite anti-Jewish measures, her family managed to remain in Presov, where Gossman's father, Salomon Reinitz, was a leader of the local Jewish community. In 1942, increasingly alarmed by the crackdowns, her father sent Gossman and her brother to Hungary for their safety. They were captured by the police after crossing the border and sent first to an orphanage and later to a camp for prisoners and Jewish refugees. Eventually they were released into the care of their aunt and uncle. In April 1944 Gossman, her brother and her Hungarian family were deported to a ghetto from which she and her brother soon escaped to be reunited with their parents. The other members of her father's family were not so fortunate: They were sent to Auschwitz.
Soon after the Slovak government ordered the deportation of all remaining Jews, and her family understood it had to go into hiding. Mária Krescanková, then 29, knew Gossman's father from her job as a cashier at the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. She agreed to help them.
In straightforward prose, Gossman describes how she and her brother, going by the Christian names Magda and Toni, lived in a one-room house with Krescanková -- whom the children called "Teta," or aunt -- and her daughter, Vlasta. Gossman recalls the day when she learned that the last Jews in Nitra, where her parents were living, were being rounded up:
"A neighbour came in and reported, quite gleefully, that all the Jews were to gather on the town square, each with one suitcase, ready for the train ride that would carry them to oblivion. I wanted to run, to scream, to bang my fists against the counter, but I remained mute. Instead, I picked up an onion from the vegetable basket and, as if in a trance, I started to slice it. Tears were now rolling down my cheeks, caused by the onion in my hand, and not the dread in my heart."
In the next few days, Gossman's parents, sister and cousin made it to Teta's house. Because they didn't possess any false iden-tification papers, they hid in the attic for the next six months.
There are many parts of her life during the war that Gossman cannot remember, but the episodes she does recall are vividly recounted. She describes the day when their landlady, responding to the rumors in town that Teta was harboring Jews, arrived at the house to conduct an inspection. Flinging open the doors and windows so that the neighbors could watch, the landlady searched under beds and in closets, pulled out drawers and rummaged through the pantry, "all the while proclaiming loudly that she would not tolerate the presence of Jews in her house. ... Teta joined her in her diatribe and egged her on."
Gossman was convinced that her family would be exposed, and was stunned when the landlady neglected to check the attic, where they were hiding. Only later did she learn that this less-than-thorough search was a bit of theater orchestrated by the landlady, who turned out to have been hiding Jews herself.
Gossman said she can only speculate about why Teta, who died in 1982, put herself and her young daughter at risk to help Gossman's family.
"You can only guess at the answer," said Gossman. "She didn't do it for money. She didn't do it to gain advantage, or out of religious conviction. She had her own moral code, and we fell under it. She had a great capacity for love."
Gossman asks herself in the book whether she would have had the courage to have rescued Jews, had her and Teta's roles been reversed. "You don't know how you would have acted, especially if you had a child (as Teta did)," Gossman said. Teta never thought of herself as a hero, and was never recognized as one in her lifetime, Gossman writes. "She had gone against the laws, against the norms, against her neighbors," Gossman said.
But Gossman has now ensured that Teta's bravery has been acknowledged. In 1997, Teta and Vlasta's names were inscribed on the "Wall of the Righteous" at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Gossman's advance from her publisher and any royalties from the book will go to Vlasta, who is 69 and still lives in Slovakia.
After the war, Gossman and her family lived in Czechoslovakia until 1948, when they immigrated to the United States. They lived in Washington, D.C., where Gossman worked as a secretary for six years, attending high school and college at night. She met her husband, Lionel Gossman, now the Taylor Pyne Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Emeritus, when she was completing her Ph.D. in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. She taught for 16 years, first at Sarah Lawrence College and then at Goucher College, and joined the Princeton staff in 1977 as the director of the board of advisers, responsible for freshman and sophomore academic advising.
Gossman returned to Slovakia for the first time in 1993. Visiting Vlasta made her acutely aware of how differently their lives had turned out, about which she writes eloquently in the book's epilogue.
"The lives of Teta and Vlasta were narrowly circumscribed, while my family and I were given a new beginning. Over the years, our paths became increasingly divergent. We continued to shape our futures and reap the benefits of living in a free and democratic society, but their horizons remained bounded and their opportunities limited. And yet, they remain rich in righteousness and moral virtue, and we remain their debtors. One can never repay adequately the gift of life, or sufficiently celebrate the courage to oppose evil and stand at the side of the oppressed. And so, after one has acknowledged the debt, in public and in private, the question still remains -- can one do more?
"One can keep the memory alive. In one's own life one can cling to the possibility that good is stronger than evil; one can continue to nourish the ties of love, respect and caring; and one can continue to tell the story of those who believed in good beyond evil."
Other recent works by and about members of the University community:
"Real Sound Synthesis for Interactive Applications" by Perry Cook, associate professor of computer science, AK Peters Press.
"Literary Paternity, Literary Friendship," essays in honor of Stanley Corngold, professor of Germanic languages and literatures and comparative literature, edited by Gerhard Richter, University of North Carolina Press.
"I'll Take You There" by Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities, Ecco Press.
"Southern History Across the Color Line" by Nell Painter, the Edwards Professor of American History, University of North Carolina Press.
"Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective" edited by Marta Tienda, the Maurice During Professor of Demographic Studies (with William Wilson), Cambridge University Press.
"When the Smoke Clears" by Barbara White, assistant professor of music, Composers Recordings Inc.
"Berlin: Aufstieg einer Kultur-metropole um 1810" by Theodore Ziolkowski, the Class of 1900 Professor of German and Comparative Literature Emeritus, Klett-Cotta.
Healy named director of public safety
Taylor to step down as dean of the faculty; search committee formed
New associate, assistant professors appointed to faculty
People, spotlight, retirements, briefs
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