The power of singing to create belonging

In remembrance of Yom Hashoah, the E-Bulletin met with a Holocaust survivor to hear her story of survival and thriving in our community. For Dora Goldman, it was through synagogue music that she found her place before and after the war.

Dora Goldman (nee Neumann) never felt like she belonged. She was born in 1933 in Mako, Hungry, a town with about 2,000 Jewish residents. Her family periodically attended the Neolog synagogue and because her family was not strictly observant, she attended the local public school rather than the Jewish school. 

She came to understand that she was different from a young age. Everyone at school knew she was Jewish, so she didn’t really fit in with her non-Jewish classmates but since her family was not observant, she didn’t connect with the local Jewish community either. 

Goldman did find one place where she was a perfect fit and that was in the synagogue choir. After her father, Janos, was conscripted into the Hungarian army, Goldman and her brother, Peter, would accompany their mother, Magda, to work in the nearby town of Hódmezõvásárhely. There she met Cantor Laszlo Gruber and began singing.

László Gruber (1909, Bodrogszerdahely - 1987, Szeged) was a cantor, high school teacher, and university professor.  He studied voice in Frankfurt-am-Main and was employed in Hódmezõvásárhely starting in 1934 on a trial basis but stayed nearly 50 years.  He was known for his patience with his students. Goldman loved to sing with him.

Goldman’s early life in Mako was not easy. At the time she was born there were already laws in place that Jews had to wear a yellow star on their clothes. She never knew life without institutional antisemitism. Janos was conscripted into military service in 1939 and died in a forced labour camp in 1942, but the family did not learn of his death until after the war. 

From 1939, Magda was the sole parent and earner for the family.  Goldman’s mother worked night and day to provide for the family. They were fortunate enough to have a housekeeper to help with the children, but in 1941 it became illegal for Jews to employ non-Jews. This led Goldman and her brother to accompany their mother to work when they were not in school.

Magda’s place of employment was next to the Hódmezõvásárhely synagogue, and Goldman would see the big Friday night services that took place. In those days many people worked Monday-Saturday, so the synagogue had their big service on Friday night, rather than Saturday morning. 

Her curiosity led her to investigate the services and there she connected with Cantor Gruber. Through music, she connected with other Jewish children as well and finally had some friends, had a channel for the complex emotions she was feeling, and she finally felt like she found her place. She began having solos and performances with the synagogue from the age of nine.

When Goldman was 11, in 1944, she, her mother, and her brother were deported by the Hungarian Gendarmerie. They traveled by cattle car to Szeged and were destined for Auschwitz, but the train tracks were bombed and the train was rerouted to the Strasshof concentration camp in Austria. Goldman and her family were forced to work in a suitcase factory, but survived the war and were liberated in April 1945 by the Russian Army.

Following liberation, they made their way back to Mako, Hungry by horse and buggy and on foot. The journey took over two months.

Upon their return they learned that almost half of the population of Mako had survived the war and returned to the town. Resettling the Jewish community in Mako was a long and emotional process. The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) or “The Joint” was very involved and supported many services to assist including creating schools and daycares, creating hospitals, giving out clothes and food, offering social events, and more. However, there was still antisemitism to contend with and there was the additional need to have memorials and services for all those who never returned. 

Goldman learned that miraculously Cantor Gruber had also survived and return to his synagogue. Goldman was able to continue singing! She was asked to sing at many of these memorials and she was honoured to be asked by the Cantor, but it was hard for her too. She remembers that she was frequently asked to sing Szol a kakas mar, a Hungarian folk song written by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Taub and it’s a song of longing and waiting for better things to come.

Goldman went on to become a physical education teacher, got married and had a son. Her brother emigrated to Canada and in 1968, Dora and her son joined him in Cape Bretton Island. (Unfortunately, Goldman and her husband had divorced when their son was quite young.) Ten years later Magda joined them in Cape Bretton Island. 

In 1993, after decades of working as a physical education teacher, having created and piloted the program for Nova Scotia, but having never connected with a synagogue or choir, Goldman retired. She desired to live closer to her son, who was in the diplomatic core and so she moved to Ottawa. Once in Ottawa, she was able to engage in her love of music with Cantor Danny Benlolo and now with Cantor Jason Green. 

She is still joyfully singing with Cantor Green in the Kol Beit Yisrael choir at KBI. 

Goldman and Cantor Green have been working on recordings of Goldman’s favourite synagogue and Hungarian music from her youth to create a record of the songs that touched her so deeply and provided a lifeline for her during the darkest moments of her life.

Hear some of Dora's songs here.