Erika remembered, Back to School Store and Opera Theatre

Volunteers Christine Doerhoff and Erich Topp help Oliver, 9, pick out new shoes at NCJW’s 2009 Back to School Store.

BY LOIS CAPLAN

A LONG TIME AGO, 1983 to be exact, I was asked to write a column about Rabbi Jay Goldburg, the recently arrived Chaplain at Jewish Hospital who had already won the hearts of several patients. After a delightful interview with the rabbi, I did just that. The column was all him. Three weeks later I was introduced to his wife Erika, who said to me, “So what am I, chopped liver?” She let me know in her feisty and humorous way that she was not to be ignored. We became instant friends, and over 27 years, she shared some incredible stories about life in Hungary where she was born in 1938.

Erika was truly a child of the Holocaust. She was a lovely curly haired redhead who should have enjoyed a comfortable life. That was not to be. She recalled her fourth birthday, April 20 (which she shared with Adolf Hitler) and the day her mother sewed the infamous, despised yellow star to her clothing with these words – “Darling, not all children are able to wear this bright and beautiful star. This star means that you are very special.” And so she was until her death from pancreatic cancer on June 1. Both bright and beautiful, Erika suffered from the cruelty and inhumanity of the Nazis and the Soviet Russians who occupied Hungary and were just almost as anti-Semitic as the Germans. When she graduated from high school she was not allowed to go to college and instead worked long hours in a chemical factory, traveling two hours from her home each way.

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It was during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that Erika prevailed on her mother to help her escape the stifling oppression of Communist domination. Her mother, the brave and beautiful Piri Schick, had already saved Erika’s life by securing a safe haven during World War II in one of the Swedish legation’s safe houses of Raoul Wallenberg. Rabbi Goldburg told me “In a gesture of supreme maternal selflessness, Piri surreptitiously arranged for Erika’s escape by taking her to a small Hungarian village, where for a handsome sum a guide was smuggling Hungarians to the Austrian border.” Piri, on a visit here from Budapest, explained that she tore the currency in two, gave half of it to the smuggler and told Erika to give him the other half when she was safely out of Hungary.

Much has been said about Erika’s love of opera and music. She also was nearly as passionate about cooking Hungarian dishes such as strawberry soup as well as traveling and playing bridge. Her manner of dealing the cards was strange – it looked as if she were dealing off the bottom of the deck, a genuine no-no at duplicate. She also loved to dance with Jay and once, on vacation at a resort in the Far East, she and her husband were the only couple on the dance floor. The audience, comprised exclusively of Japanese visitors, thought they were the floorshow and applauded them wildly.

Now, in retrospect, I, too, applaud Erika Goldburg wildly for her joie de vivre, her tenacity, her intelligence and her contribution to so many aspects of life in St. Louis.

THE BACK TO SCHOOL STORE, a major project of the St. Louis Section National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is hands-down the best one-day volunteer opportunity in our community. On Sunday, July 25th at Central Reform Congregation, NCJW plans to outfit 1,000 underserved children with tennis shoes, socks, winter coats, underwear, hats, gloves, backpacks, school supplies, personal care items and a book, all of the child’s choice. Needed are at least 300 volunteers throughout the day as personal shoppers to assist the kids one-on-one. Volunteers may select their three- hour shift, and there is an especially great need for men to help the boys who will be outfitted. Also needed are volunteers for setup week before July 25, to help stock and organize the store as well as volunteers on the Tuesday through Thursday following the event to help box up the extra items. Volunteers can register on line at www.ncjwbtss.org or by calling the NCJW office at 314-993-5181. Ellen Alper, the Section’s Executive Director, says it costs $150 to sponsor a child at the event. In addition to a wardrobe and school supplies, NCJW is enabling them to go back to school prepared to learn. CRC is located at 5020 Waterman Boulevard.

THE GOLDEN TICKET, which had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis June 13, is a two-act opera based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It is a charming and magical theatrical production which, sadly, has only two more performances – tonight, June 24 and Sunday evening, June 27. The production boasts glorious singers, spectacular effects and a nice score. If you are lucky you can buy tickets by calling 314-961-0644.