Goldie's Early Years
After asking Hiatt family members to submit questions, Rachel and Joshua Rassen interviewed Goldie Rassen in September 2000 at her home in San Francisco. In the next chapters, Goldie takes us from her life in a Lithuanian shtetl through her own story of survival to, finally, a new life in the United States with Jacob.
Question: Tell us what you remember about your early family life.
Goldie: Actually, I really don't know too much, but I'll start with the family that I do know. My father had a mother, two sisters, and a brother who lived in Rakishok, a distance of twenty miles from Abel, where I grew up. My grandmother Mariasha, my father's mother, was already very old, and she was sick, so I didn't have too much contact with them. She lived with one of my father's sisters. I don't know what were their occupations; they were established, and everybody had an occupation. And there were already relatives in the United States, so they used to get some financial help.
Question: Did they need help?
Goldie: Everyone was in this condition. Our home was considered a rich home. They used to call our house in Abel the haifa fentster, the high windows. My father, Yehoshua, was a Chasid, a yeshiva bocher. His name in the Lithuanian language was Ovsejus Chaitovicius. He was a
Talmud chacham, a Hebrew scholar. He knew languages like Lithuanian and Russian to perfection. I remember about him in particular that he had beautiful handwriting, and he was like a lawyer to the farmers. Everybody that needed something to be answered or written used to come to our house, and my father used to help them with anything that had to be legal.
Girls grew up mostly without education. So my mother actually did not have an education, but she was brilliant and had a lot of common sense. She was very capable and able to lead such a big family. She helped in the store, helped Father with the business, and taking care of the children. The store was a hardware store. The boys were sent to schools, mostly to yeshiva, to get a Talmudic education, with the hope to become a rabbi or teacher in life.
The town was small, one street length, where there lived a hundred and twenty families. My family had four sisters and three brothers with their families. From the whole family that remained in Abel, I am the only survivor. My name was Goldie Chaitoviciute, now Goldie Chiatovitz, or Hiatt, Rassen. My brother Jack Hiatt survives. He left Lithuania in 1938 and lives in the United States, in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Question: What did Abel look like?
Goldie: It was just one street. It would be in distance about two or three miles, and the Jews lived in that section. There was the temple and everything in that section.
Question: Did the street have a name?
Goldie: There was no name. It was the street that was the main street. Everybody who had a store, he lived in the same building, and the store was part of the house. I remember when my sister Chaya was married, and they had a house. They opened up a hardware store.
Question: The stores were spread out along the street, then? Who bought things at the stores? Did non-Jewish people buy?
Question: What were people growing in that area?
Goldie: That's an agricultural area. They grew everything-potatoes and corn, and they raised chickens and geese. At the market, they used to bring their merchandise. [Laughs] I remember my father came once with a chicken, and they used to see if the chicken had a lot of schmaltz; they should be fat. He was laughing, and he told me not to tell Mother how much he paid. He told her it was a bargain. They had a rabbi and a shoichet in the shtetl, and a cheder.
Question: Was the street paved or was it dirt?
Goldie: It was paved-paved and also a sidewalk. And around the corner was one street; there was a big church. And also a cemetery, a nonJewish cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was about three miles out.
Question: Tell us more about your family.
Goldie: I remember that the brothers Al and Nathan already left home when I was born and went to the United States. Al was sixteen years old when he left. Al was the first one. He came to Des Moines, Iowa. My mother had an uncle here in the United States, and Al came to that uncle; I don't know his name. You needed a.certificate and someone to be responsible for your livelihood. The uncle in Des Moines sent Al the certificate.
Al came as a young man, not having any money, and the uncle was not very nice to him. Al started his work in the mines. The idea was that in America, you have to just bend down and pick up the gold, and everybody thought Al was very rich. Al used to send us money, a few dollars, whenever he had a chance, and that was a great help for the family. Nathan came later to join Al. Al sent Nathan the certificate. I never knew Nathan, but I think he was like Sidney, quiet. Aland Yisroel were a more ambitious type.
Question: What was family life like?
Goldie: We had a big store. The store and the house were in the same building. The market day was on Thursday, so the farmers would come to the shtetl in Abel to pick up their merchandise, whatever they needed. I remember there was coal and all kinds of iron equipment for the farmers. On market day, the whole family worked in the store. Everybody was helping. I was the youngest, so I was in between, not here and not there. My father was actually very anxious that we should get an education, so there was school. We went to school.
Question: Even the girls?
Goldie: The girls, we already started school. Winter was very cold, so we would sit around the table, and I remember that he was always reading to us the stories of Sholem Aleichem. The evenings we always spent together. He was very learned; he was a Chasid. Every morning, I remember sitting and listening to him reading the Torah, b'chol ram, out loud, singing. Besides, he was educated and was considered as one of rhe-in Russian, they say the chernei ivreh, the learned Jew [akenen Iv-ree]. He was considered the learned Jew in the shtetl.
Question: What language did you speak in the house?
Goldie: Yiddish. Yiddish was the language.
Question: What languages did your father speak?
Goldie: Lithuanian, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. As I mentioned, we were the richest, so we had a big piece ofland with a garden. Everything was planted-potatoes and all kinds of vegetables.
Question: Who planted them?
Goldie: We used to hire people to do the work.
Question: Did you have servants?
Goldie: We had one servant in the house, a woman servant. We had two cows, horses, and geese, like a little farm. In the wintertime, there was a lot of snow, so we used to go on rides on the horse, with the bells ringing. I was the youngest, and somehow they schlepped me along. My sister Henneleh, especially-wherever she went, she took my hand. I went with her even when she was already engaged to Hesheleh. I always was with them.
Question: Would you talk about the children in the family?
Goldie: There were twelve children in the family. The oldest was Yisroel. His profession was import-export. He worked for somebody else, but in importing. Then came four brothers who died in infancy. Next were Nathan, Al, and Sidney. My mother didn't have any daughters and was very anxious to have a daughter. So finally, the oldest sister, Chaya, was born. And then after that, they had children that were mostly girls; so after Chaya, there was Chana. Next was Jack. And then was my sister Henneleh and myself Henne went to the gymnasia in Kovno-at that time, she lived with Yisroel in Kovno.
Question: How much older is Jack than you?
Goldie: Five or six years.
Question: Please describe the wedding picture.
Goldie: Hesheleh fell in love with my sister Henneleh. Henne was beautiful; Rachel looks a lot like her. Heshel also lived in Abel. He was a friend ofJack's and was Jack's age. He was an outstanding young person. So this is the wedding night. You see in the picture Henneleh with her veil. This is the table, with the wine on the table. This picture was in our home. On the left is my sister Chaya, her husband, and their child, Beryl. Next is Yisroel and his wife, Tsileh-she was a very nice person from a very nice family; Wolpert was the name-and they settled in Kovno. After the wedding couple is my mother, Leah, and my father, Yehoshua, then myself and my sister Chana. I was a little taller than Chana. The door in the rear on the right is the door to the hardware store.
Question: Do you remember the wedding itself?
Goldie: It was in our home.
Question: Not in the synagogue?
Goldie: No, it was not. Usually, the wedding used to be dose to the synagogue, with the chuppah, and everybody was walking to celebrate the wedding. It was outdoors, and then they came to the house. The dancing and the festivities were in the house. Maybe this was taken just to have a special picture to take. When I came here, Jack had the picture. So they probably had this specially taken. Jack gave me this picture, because I didn't have any pictures of the family. So you have an idea of how the family looked?
Question: Do you know anything about your mother's parents?
Goldie: No, I don't. She grew up in Abel, and my father grew up in Rakishok. It was an arranged shidduch.
Question: How did that happen?
Goldie: I don't know any details. I never asked.
Question: Tell us about Tante Jacobson.
Goldie: Tante Jacobson was the sister of my father. My father was so educated, and my Tante Jacobson did not know how to read. When I came to this country, I used to read for her the letters; she had family in Israel. I used to correspond for her, because she didn't have an education. But the common sense that she had-she was very intelligent, a lot of common sense. She was head of the family despite the fact that she did not know how to read and write.
Question: How did she leave Europe?
Goldie: Her husband also, probably. I think he was a butcher, her husband. That's before my time, but I was told.... The men used to go ahead and then bring the family over. Tante was with the family in
Rakishok; that was close to Abel. So when I came here, she knew I was the daughter of her brother.
Question: Was there other family in other parts of the world?
Goldie: There were some other brothers. One was in South Africa, a brother of my father, but I did not know him. They never had connections, so I wouldn't know anything about it.
Question: How large was your father's family?
Goldie: Two sisters, another brother or two brothers, I'm not sure. I don't know.
Question: Your mother's family?
Goldie: My mother's family was my mother; a brother, Nathan; and another brother, who was in Des Moines and sent the certificate to Al. Nathan was in the United States, but he came back to Lithuania, and he opened a clothing store and was like an American businessman. If a farmer couldn't pay, he took the merchandise back. When the Russians came into Lithuania, he hanged himself.
Nathan is Zmira's grandfather. Nathan had a daughter, Chaya [Chaikah], who was Zmira's mother. Yitzhak was her husband. He was from Romania; they met in Israel. She went back to Lithuania before the war, but they were already citizens in Palestine. When the war started, she and Yitzhak were able to return. She somehow knew that I survived. She wrote a letter to Jack telling him that I had survived. [Chaya died of cancer shortly thereafter.]
Goldie has a set of pictures that she received from Marcia Spiller, in Highland Park New jersey. Marcia Spiller also grew up in Abel and was a few years older than Goldie. She left before the war and is the only other known survivor from that community. Her rabbi went to Lithuania and took a series of photographs. Goldie commented on the photos.
That's the town house. I would call it the city hall. That was where my father used to work for the Lithuanians. He was the only one who knew the languages.
A street in Abel. You can see the church in the background.
The train station.
That's the memorial for the mass grave, the place the Jews were killed in Abel. They took the Jews about two miles behind the shtetl and killed them. I don't know if they buried them alive or shot them first. As they were sent to the grave, they were made to take off their clothes. The farmers stood behind and waited for a share of the clothes on their bodies.
This picture I got in Yad Vashem [in Jerusalem; it contains the world's largest repository of information on the Holocaust]. A boat with the young people. I knew all those young people; these were the young
people from Abel. I see Baruch Class [far right]. I don't know the names of the people. And this is Marcia Spiller [third from left]. Here you see the picture of the shtetl with the church; the church has twin towers.
Our house was close to the lake. We also had a bathhouse near the lake. We were running to take a dip in the lake after we'd had our hot bath. It was mostly women.
My father was coming to this bet knesset [synagogue] for prayer. This is the house of the Chasidim. There had been a storm and a flood. The Chasidim had their minyan at this bet knesset, and the Misnaged had their bet knesset somewhere else.
This was the main street-just one street in the shtetl. The main street was where the bathhouse was.
Your cousin Howard Hiatt sent this picture. This is Henneleh [far left]. Next is Al, who came to visit us; that's the way Al looked. Next is my mother, then myself. This [small child] is Bereleh. When the war started, he was about fourteen or fifteen years old. This is Chaya [far right].
Question: What year was this?
Goldie: Who knows years, and who knows time?
Question: When Al came to visit, how old were you?
Goldie: I don't know. I was very young, but I remember he brought everybody a little watch, a present from the United States. When he came, he looked like an American millionaire. So everybody came to him for donations. He gave a big donation to fix the roof of the bet knesset.
Question: How long did he visit?
Goldie: He was here about two weeks. Yisroel already lived in Kovno. Al traveled to the shtetl and to Rakishok to visit the rest of the family. Everybody looked up to him; such an important person. And he was very handsome. He was wonderful...he was wonderful.
Question: So mainly, you knew him before the war from the visit.
Goldie: Just from the visit. He visited only once. That was an occasion, that somebody came from the United States to visit the parents.
My brother Nathan was here in the United States in the war [World War I]. He was a war veteran, and he died in the United States, so I never had a chance to see him. But you see there are some trays around, on the wall in my kitchen. [There are two trays. One has pressed flowers with two butterflies and a woven handle. The other is a smaller version, with a pressed flower and a butterfly.] When he was in that place, wherever they kept the veterans, that's what they did. When I came here, they gave me things that belonged to the family. So when I came, they gave me the tray standing there, in the kitchen. But I personally never had a chance to see Nathan, or visit him.
I remember that they got the letter in Abel that Nathan died, and my father went to say kaddish after him. It was a big tragedy in the house, a big tragedy.
Question: Why was Al the first one to leave? Why not Yisroel, who was the oldest?
Goldie: Okay. There was a situation that the young people grow up, and they don't have a chance to do anything with themselves, how to start life. That uncle-my mother's brother in the United States, in Des Moines-so he sent Al a certificate. Yisroel was very active; because he was older, he started his business on his own. He was independent, started a little life, and moved away from Abel. But Al went to the United States, because he had the certificate, and he started his life here. And when Al was in the United States, he already was like the rich American, bringing everybody over to the United States. So he sent a
certificate to the brother Nathan. I don't know how Nathan happened to be in the army.
The next certificate came for Sidney, because the young people didn't know what to do with themselves. Everybody who had a chance to escape the shtetl, they did it. A yeshiva bocher didn't learn a trade. If he did not become a rabbi or a shoichet, he had nothing to do with himself.
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