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History Lives On as MCCC Professor Emerita Vera Goodkin Recounts Her Harrowing Holocaust Journey

11/30/18


MCCC Professor Emerita Vera Goodkin, front, with students following her presentation at the Mercer County Holocaust Center, which is located on the college's West Windsor Campus. The center's co-director, Professor of History Craig Coenen, is pictured far right.

Sharing her story with MCCC students has become a priority for Goodkin.

West Windsor, N.J. – “I will tell my story as long as I am able,” vows Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Professor Emerita Vera Goodkin, a World War II Holocaust survivor who taught French and World Literature at the college from 1964 to 1998.

In a quiet but determined voice, Goodkin did just that at the Survivors Luncheon on Nov. 13 before a group of mesmerized students. The event was held at the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center on the West Windsor Campus, where Goodkin is an active member of the Advisory Commission.

“Students have told me they learned about the Holocaust, but it doesn’t sink in until they hear about it from someone like me,” Goodkin said, adding that she is keenly aware of the dwindling number of survivors still able to share their first-hand accounts. (Over the years, numerous Holocaust survivors have visited the college to speak to students.)

Goodkin's story is one of remarkable courage and not a small amount of luck. Her family’s journey included many near-death moments. Yet, both she and her parents, all of whom were separated at many points, managed to survive and reunite at the end of the war.

Just 12-years-old at the time, Vera and her parents left Bohemia, the westernmost region of Czechoslovakia, for Hungary in 1939. Their first stop was a farmhouse, where they hid for days under the care of sympathetic resisters. In Budapest, they ended up in an actual medieval fortress that was being used as a holding prison for “Alien Jews.” Some of those packed into the prison’s central courtyard were sent by cattle car to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but her family was moved on to a second prison.

Goodkin notes that Sweden was neutral in World War II and was a true champion for freedom. “That neutrality enabled them to intervene on behalf of victims,” Goodkin explained. “The Germans and Hungarians allowed some of the children to be released to the Swedes, whom they called ‘free men.’ My mother made the difficult decision to let me go. She said, ‘If you are going to survive to be able to tell the story, I have no right to hold you back.’”

Intent on saving as many innocent victims as possible, especially children, a Swedish diplomat took Vera and other children to a Swedish Red Cross home. There, she developed Scarlet Fever and was transported to a hospital. During her hospital stay, the rest of the children in the home were killed. Following her recovery, Goodkin was taken to an orphanage.

Meanwhile, her parents were in survival struggles of their own. Her father, a physician, had been put to work in a prison near the Austrian border. By a stroke of luck, Vera's mother was in a cattle car headed to that very prison. Also as luck would have it, a woman on the train was married to a Hungarian VIP. All the prisoners were ordered off the train so the woman could be located.

That was when Goodkin’s mother and father saw each other. He was able to pass her a vial of liquid that caused her pass out and she was sent to the prison infirmary. All but Vera’s mother and three others on that transport were shot and killed.

“By then, the Germans were doing badly in the war,” Goodkin recalled. “In the chaos, my parents managed to escape and spent weeks in the woods, foraging for food and taking shelter in burned out farm houses.

For those who know Holocaust history, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is a figure who looms large. Vera says she owes her life to him. “His goal was to save as many Budapest Jews as possible.”

When Goodkin’s father was finally able to make his way to the Swedish Embassy, he met Wallenberg. “We have your little girl,” Wallenberg told her father. “And he brought me to them. I thought it was a mirage. I wouldn’t let them go,” she remembered.

Their arduous fight for survival was still not over. They spent ten weeks in the basement of a house before the Russian soldiers arrived. “We were freed. There was no public transportation so we actually walked back to Czechoslovakia,” she said.

Eventually the family emigrated to the United States, where Vera found herself in high school in Mt. Vernon, New York, unable to speak English. Several teachers took her under their wing and she began to immerse herself in learning the English language.
She exceled academically, earning a full scholarship to New York University (NYU). During her freshman year she met her future husband, Jerry, but then she moved with her parents to Syracuse, where her father set up a medical practice. She continued her studies at Syracuse University.

Goodkin said she told almost no one about her tale of tragedy and miracles, but she did tell her husband-to-be. “I wanted him to know where I came from and where I was coming from,” she said. She and Jerry were married in 1952 after both graduated with their respective baccalaureate degrees.

The couple moved to New Jersey with their baby daughter in 1958 and Jerry completed his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from NYU. They soon had a second daughters and, while Goodkin was fully immersed in parenting, she remained committed to her education. A true pioneer for working women, Goodkin was passionate about writing and its use as a learning tool in every subject area, even receiving a NEH grant to research writing across the disciplines. She earned her master’s degree from NYU in 1954 (and her doctorate from Rutgers University in 1982).

Goodkin’s 34-year teaching career at MCCC began in 1963, when the college was still known as Trenton Junior College, prior to the opening of the campus in West Windsor.

Goodkin considers her career at MCCC to be a highlight of her life. “It was very fulfilling to watch students learn to think critically and improve their writing skills,” she said. Goodkin was selected for MCCC’s Distinguished Teaching Award in the early 1990s.

Also in the 1990s, there was a dawning recognition in New Jersey that a formal Holocaust education curriculum was needed, starting at the elementary school level.  With the establishment of the New Jersey Holocaust Commission, the task at hand was creating age-appropriate classroom materials. Dr. Ronald Kopcho, then Mercer's dean of Liberal Arts, asked Goodkin to attend a commission meeting, where she was introduced to the commission’s executive director, Paul Winkler.

“Dean Kopcho wanted me to get hooked and I did. I started to conduct outreach workshops from that time forward for both educators and students,” Goodkin said.

At her current stage of her life, Goodkin considers it a priority to share her Holocaust story with students. “Now I do as many of these talks as I can. If it was a matter of 70-year-old history, maybe not. But there is not a day that goes by that you don’t hear about ethnic cleansing somewhere. Perhaps it’s different victims, but the evil is the same.”

The Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center is located next to the college bookstore on the second floor of the Student Center. Co-chaired by MCCC Professor of History Craig Coenen and community member Edie Sarafin, the center’s Advisory Commission establishes programming throughout the year that is free and open to the public, including an annual educators conference in the spring.  Their mission is to promote dignity and social justice to students and the community through Holocaust, genocide and human rights education. More about the center’s programs can be found at

Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center

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