My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story, tells the tale of my in-laws, Sam and Esther Goldberg, as they survived the Holocaust and my odyssey of writing the book.
Almost all the 870,000 who arrived at Treblinka, a Nazi death camp, were dead within 90 minutes. Sam Goldberg was one of 77 to make it out of Treblinka alive and one of the lucky few to survive the prisoner uprising. After being captured by the Nazis in June of 1942 and taken by truck to build Treblinka, he remained there for 13 months, one of two prisoners who survived from the Camp’s inception. After the Treblinka prisoner uprising on August 2, 1943, Sam ran, squeezing out of a hole blown through the barbed wire. He threw himself into the Bug River, though he did not know how to swim. He shook off the water and kept running. He ran to the forest where he met Esther. She had been hiding for a year and was bedraggled and covered with lice. Esther led Sam to the home of her angel, Helena Stys, and convinced her to allow Sam to hide in her barn. The Nazis, determined to recapture all the Treblinka escapees, scoured the area for three days. After the acute danger subsided, Sam decided to stay and hide with Esther and her teenage “roommate” Chaim Kwiatek. Together they dug a pit in the forest and called it home. With the help of the Stys family, these three Jews hid for a year until liberation.
In June of 2016, I visited Poland with my husband and children. In an unexpected coup, I was given letters found in Sam’s apartment after his death. Through the letters, I located the three surviving children of the Stys family. On my visit, I sat with my husband, Shlomo Goldberg, and our four children, in the Stys’ living room. We were surrounded by three generations of their family. We sang a song of thanks; the words are from Psalms 30 and are engraved on Sam’s tombstone and the music was composed by Shlomo. As we sat with the Stys family, we asked question after question, talking until we were exhausted. Walking outside, we entered the barns where Sam and Esther hid when the mercury dropped below freezing. The corner of the barn where Stanislaw Stys built a false haystack, four by four meters, was measured. Sam, Esther and Chaim lived inside this haystack during the coldest months. Shlomo and I lay down on the hay to see how it felt. Breaking out in one of my deep throated laughs, I announced that it was a bit scratchy, but not too bad.
“I used to take them food,” Eugenuisz Stys described. “I was nine and I pretended to play in the forest. The Nazis did not bother me.” Now in his 80’s, standing straight-backed, he led us to the pit that Sam, Esther and Chaim dug in the summer of 1943. He explained that to conceal the pit, boards were attached to a pulley system. Once inside, they pulled the boards over the hole. Then, using different ropes, they pulled prickly forest brush over the boards as camouflage. They lived in this pit, when it was not freezing, over the course of a year. Shlomo descended into the pit. I could not bring myself to join him. It was holy ground.
Visiting the site of the Treblinka death camp was an uninspiring event. Traces of what happened there some 76 years ago are gone, save memorial stones for whole communities whose Jews found their death here. I was shivering, though it was 80 degrees. It was my ring – it came from this place. Sam was the supervisor of the laundry at Treblinka. As he worked, he found jewelry and money sewn into victims’ clothing. He buried some of these treasures and dug them up just before his escape. I inherited this simple white gold band when Esther died twenty years ago. I have worn it ever since. And now, the ring was back, where the original owner found her death in the gas chamber. I do not know who she was, but her ring has a story to tell.
After our Treblinka visit, we followed Sam’s escape route. Like Sam, we threw ourselves into the murky, orange-brown waters of the Bug River, though we had been warned that it was dangerous. We all went in holding hands and singing the slave spiritual “Wade in the Water.” My journey of the ten kilometers from the Bug River to the forest where Esther and Sam met was not on foot, but in a tourist van. I did, however, walk through the forest. I felt the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet, heard the birds singing and saw mushrooms growing. My eldest daughter commented that the stick-like trees look just like all the Holocaust movies. I assured her that this was no movie.
We also visited the tiny farming village of Bagatele, home to the Goldberg family for generations. All that is left is a tree. We danced around the tree singing the song Shlomo composed for the Stys family. We also stopped in Stoczek, home to Esther’s family. It no longer resembles the Shtetl it was.
The book is split into two parts. Part I is Sam and Esther’s story from their pre-war childhood to their arrival in New York Harbor in 1949. It tells the story of the beginning of the war for both families and their tragic murders. Part II tells of my amazing experiences, from locating the Stys family to finding Goldberg cousins that we never knew existed. Both parts will take you through lives of people you never knew, but by the end, you will have laughed and cried and will feel close to all of them.
 Most histories of Treblinka indicate that Jews from surrounding towns were brought to Treblinka to build the camp, but that all those who built the camp were killed. One history of Treblinka, by Chris Webb and Michal Chocholaty state that one prisoner, Wolf (Velvel) Schneidman who helped build the camp, survand survived.