This was originally published on SILive.com.
Shira Stoll, a Multimedia Specialist for the Advance/SILive.com, is the filmmaker behind the “Where Life Leads You” documentary and the Staten Island Holocaust Survivor series.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- When I first arrived at Shirley Gottesman’s home to interview her, she greeted me at the door with a question.
“Can you help me figure out what to wear?”
There were various outfits perfectly laid out on top of her bed. She was still in the process of pulling out shirts from her closet, and asked me which I liked better -- those in her hand or those on her bed. I wanted her to feel comfortable, so we settled on one of her favorite multicolored shirts and a black skirt.
Then I set up the cameras.
Growing up in Záluz, Czechoslovakia, Shirley Gottesman lived on a farm with her family, including: parents Laizer Berger and Blima Weinberg Gottesman; four siblings, Moshe Lieb (Martin), Fiaga, Ester and Rifka; grandparents Malka and Zalman Berger; two aunts, Helen and Pepe Burger, and Uncle Leib Berger.
With a constant supply of potatoes, beans, vegetables and fruit, her father was a farmer. Cows, chickens and geese roamed the fields. Shirley’s mother was a seamstress.
But in April 1944, everything changed.
Shirley’s family was forced to pack up and move to the ghetto.
She vividly remembers looking out from the horse and wagon and thinking to herself: “Will I ever see it again, or that’s it?”
At that moment, she never thought that her life would lead her to Auschwitz, where she lost everyone in her family, except for her brother Martin, a few aunts, and an uncle.
Shirley’s riveting book, “A Red Polka-Dotted Dress: A Memoir of Kanada II,” details her experiences in Auschwitz and Kanada II.
Kanada was a warehouse in Auschwitz that collected the belongings of those who were killed, according to ushmm.org. Auschwitz prisoners who worked in Kanada had to sort through the valuables and ship them back to Germany. Because Shirley worked there, she had access to extra clothes, shoes and food.
Each of the barracks in which the prisoners lived had a leader, known as the blockova. Shirley’s aunt was bullied by her blockova and asked Shirley if she would bring her a red polka dotted dress from Kanada so that she could give the blockava something to make her leave her alone.
Shirley wanted to help her aunt, so she agreed.
She found the dress and put it on underneath her grey prison dress. As she started to walk toward her aunt’s barrack, the guards announced they would be doing a random search and all prisoners had to take off their clothes.
Shirley froze. She didn’t know what to do.
“If I throw down the dress, they’re going to ask who brought it. I could tell them I did it and they would kill me, or if I don’t tell, they would punish everybody,” she recalled.
Shirley quickly took off the dresses and wrapped the red one inside the grey one, so that the red color wouldn’t show. She draped the carefully folded dresses over her arm with her shoes on top of them, and walked through without being stopped.
“For some reason, I don’t know, thank God they didn’t see it,” she said.
She was able to give her aunt the dress, but she recalled that it was a very foolish thing to do because, while she wanted to help her aunt, she hadn’t thought about the consequences if she were caught.
“It [would’ve been] very severe. A bullet was the best way, but first you would probably get 25 lashes,” she explained.
The nearly two-hour interview with Shirley ended with a powerful quote. “Life Leads you. You are put places that you have a chance to survive. Is it good or bad? God knows.”
A SPECIAL PROJECT
This quote is not only her philosophy on how the Holocaust occurred, but it has become a major theme in every film and the inspiration for the documentary project’s name, “Where Life Leads You: Stories of Staten Island’s Holocaust survivors," because it asks the question, “Where does your life lead you, and why?”
The documentary film and series began in June 2017, when I first met the survivors at Café Europa at the Joan & Alan Bernikow JCC on Staten Island. The 24-minute documentary, featuring 10 Staten Island residents who are Holocaust survivors, premiered on April 11, 2018, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
All of these survivors started in Europe and their lives led them to Staten Island. While the journey wasn’t easy, they were able to rebuild a new life with children, grandchildren and great-children -- in a place that welcomed them.
Their life led them right here: To our community.