Vida ‘Sister’ Goldman Prince knows that only a Holocaust survivor can fully comprehend what happened in those terrible years. A volunteer at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC), she has made it her lifelong commitment to record the extraordinary lives of these survivors and their horrifying stories to ensure they are never forgotten.
Born in 1933 and nicknamed at birth by her older brother, the moniker stuck and Prince has been ‘Sister’ to friends and family ever since. After graduating from John Burroughs School and a junior college in New Jersey, she moved on to train for two years at the Tobe-Coburn School for Fashion Careers in New York City. “Those were the days I wore a hat and gloves everywhere I went,” she recalls. Prince has been married since 1954 to husband Ronald, and the couple has two living children and eight grandchildren. The Holocaust survivors are her extended family.
Prince first became involved with the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies (renamed the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center), after reading an article in 1979 about the newly established center. Having a strong interest in World War II and a deep connection to Israel (she visited there in 1954), Prince felt strongly that the world must continue to document the story of the systematic statewide murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. Like other American Jews, she was “horrified, angry and anguished by the Holocaust.”
After extensive training, her first assignment was to drive two survivors to speak at a local high school. “When I heard them tell their stories and watched them interact with the students, I knew I had found something I wanted to do for as long as I was able.”
Prince relayed her feelings to fellow members of the Holocaust Commission, and the Oral History Project was born. She now spends four to five hours, several days a week as chair of the project, a position she has held since 1981. Much to her efforts, the HMLC, now located in West St. Louis County, has more than 250 audio and video interviews, and a collection of 2,500 –plus photographs.
In addition, Prince has taught oral history, conducted interviews and completed research for the Missouri Historical Society. She is the author of the recently published book, That’s The Way It Was: Stories of Struggle, Survival and Self-respect in 20th Century Black St. Louis. She also helped develop the Oral History Project at the Naples Holocaust Museum in Florida. For all her volunteerism efforts to preserve the testimonies of the Holocaust survivors, Prince was named a Woman of Achievement in May.
The emotional stories Prince hears and documents about life in the ghettos and concentration camps are heartbreaking.
A survivor told Prince her life in the ghetto was like that of a mouse: She would sit and hide every day and night. When she and her husband became ill, they came out of hiding and were sent to Auschwitz—along with 100 others—in a dirty cattle car, without air or water. “Then the Nazis added 1,500 more people to the train, one on top of another. They would shove them in like trash. More than half of those people died in those cars on the train.”
A Polish survivor talked about Liberation Day on April 15, 1945. “We had no strength to be happy or jubilant. Even though we were free, it was very somber. I was not able to stand, only able to crawl because I had not eaten or drunk anything for weeks” Another told how Polish citizens were granted three pounds of sugar if they handed in a Jew.
A survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp told Prince of the inhumane treatment in the camp. “They kicked innocent people for no reason. If you walked too slowly, if you were going too fast, or if you smiled at something, you were kicked. You never knew.”
The HMLC Oral History Project illustrates Prince’s ongoing commitment to preserving Holocaust memory for the betterment of humankind. She feels deeply that “when we learn about other people and their cultures, we recognize something new about ourselves. These interactions make us think in ways we may never have anticipated. We remember, understand and smile…and possibly shed a tear.”
When she first began interviewing survivors, she was told: You will get to know them, learn to love them and then go to their funerals. Prince says that although this is true, the survivors have given so much back to her. These remarkable people have added to her quality of life and have become close family to her. “I feel truly blessed and grateful to the people I have interviewed for wanting to tell me their stories. And now we need to make sure their stories are preserved for eternity.”