For decades, Morris Goldner didn't talk much about his Holocaust experiences. "It was too painful," says the Rogers Park resident, who grew up in the town of Straszecin, in southwestern Poland. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1947 Goldner settled in Chicago, where he worked in the garment district and helped his wife raise their three daughters. "I was too busy making a living for my family," he explains. "I didn't have no time to think about it."
That changed in 1996, when Stephen Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation asked him to tell his story on video. "At first I didn't want to," says Goldner. "But somebody encouraged me and said, 'Go ahead, your story is different.'"
Goldner told the interviewer that in the spring of 1941, when he was 15 or 16 (he's not sure what year he was born, and the records were destroyed in the war), his family was rounded up with other local Jews and taken to the town of Sedziszow. After being separated from his parents and twin sister in the town square, Goldner says, he saw his grandparents machine-gunned to death and infants stuffed into wooden barrels and suffocated. Small for his age, Goldner slipped to the perimeter of the crowd and then, miraculously, walked away. With the help of a neighbor, he survived in a forest for several months before meeting up again with his father, who'd also managed to escape. After subsisting in the woods for nearly a year, they went to the town of Grabiny and approached one of his father's old schoolmates for help. The man turned them over to the Nazis, then assisted in shooting and bayoneting them.
Left for dead, Goldner crawled out from under his father's body and made his way into some bushes. His escape, he says, was observed by a local bandit turned mercenary, who took him in, then arranged for him to be schooled in marksmanship, hand-to-hand combat, and German. Goldner says that for the next year and a half he undertook resistance missions at the command of his rescuer, including the destruction of trains, bridges, and German military vehicles. At the time Goldner understood little or nothing about the outcome or significance of his assignments. "What choice did I have?" he asks. "The man said, 'You have to do what I tell you, or I'll leave you here.' Nobody wants to die."
While doing some fabric-cutting work out of a studio in the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest in 1996, Goldner struck up an acquaintance with Loraine Stillman, who was making prints in an adjacent work space. Hearing Loraine refer to her husband, Larry, as a writer, Goldner gave her a copy of his videotaped interview.
"He said, 'I want your husband to write my story, show him this,'" says Larry Stillman, a retired advertising consultant and--since the University of Wisconsin Press published A Match Made in Hell: The Jewish Boy and the Polish Outlaw Who Defied the Nazis in September--an author. "After seeing it, I was interested in doing an article on this guy. But the more he talked, I realized it was a book."
Stillman spent two years interviewing Goldner and researching the historical background of his story. In 1997 he and Loraine visited Poland, where elderly residents attested to seeing the boy in the bandit's custody. They also met some of the bandit's children, who asked Stillman not to identify their father in print (he's referred to by a pseudonym, Jan Kopec, throughout the book).
Stillman wrote nearly a dozen drafts of the book before submitting it for publication. Part of the problem, he says, was his own inexperience. Early drafts written in the third person didn't seem to work. "I decided it was too distant, and realized I had to create a voice for him," says Stillman, who ultimately switched to the first person. (The author credit is "Larry Stillman, from the testimony of Morris Goldner.")
The story also continued to evolve after Stillman began writing. "There would come a point where I thought I was done and I'd write it and he'd call me and say he'd started having dreams again--nightmares--and say, 'I remember something else,' and then he'd tell me a little bit."
But Stillman felt certain he'd gotten it right when he showed Goldner his description of the scene in the Sedziszow town square. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't adding anything that didn't happen," he says. "I said, 'Did I get that pretty close to what was happening?' He said, 'Did I really say those words?'
I said, 'You said more or less that. I changed the words but the meaning is the same.' He said, 'You actually captured that time.' I'm not sure if that's good or bad."
Stillman, who's now working on a film treatment of A Match Made in Hell, wasn't able to corroborate everything Goldner told him, and he acknowledges that there have been childhood memoirs of the Holocaust--Jerzy Kozinski's The Painted Bird, Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood--that have failed to withstand historical scrutiny. But he has no doubts about his book's veracity. "People have asked me, 'How do you know he's not making it up?' I say, 'You have to meet him, talk to him. He can't make that stuff up. Not when the tears come up and he trembles when he talks about it. He lives it in his face and eyes and the way he talks about it."
The book sold out its original run of 2,500 copies and is now in its second printing. Stillman and Goldner are splitting the royalties. They've done a number of bookstore appearances together, and Goldner sometimes speaks about his experiences at local schools. "My objective is to get the story out," he says. "The average American doesn't know how good they have it. I hope they have it all their lives, but they should know what happened."
Goldner and Stillman will read from and sign copies of A Match Made in Hell on Sunday, December 14, at 3 at Borders Books & Music, 6103 N. Lincoln. For more information, call 773-267-4822.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.