Lolita Goldstein (1917-2016): A Woman of Valor

September 29, 2016

Born in Spain in a German-Jewish family in 1917, Lolita Eschborn Goldstein moved to Germany as a young child. After Hilter’s rise to power, at age sixteen, she encouraged her family to flee. They sought refuge in Lisbon, where Lolita helped support her family by tutoring in English, French and German. In 1940, Lolita was encouraged to apply for a position with the newly-opened JDC office. During her interview with Dr. Joseph Schwartz, soon to be head of JDC’s European Operations, Lolita admitted that she didn’t really know why she had come, claiming she didn’t really have any skills. Annoyed, Schwartz asked her current profession, and began to smile when he realized her fluency in the languages that the JDC needed in order to operate. Schwartz offered Lolita a job, and she worked as secretary, interpreter, and “jack-of-all trades.” In 1941, she married Melvin Goldstein, an American citizen who had come to Lisbon to work with the JDC, and who later became the assistant secretary of the JDC’s European Executive Council. In summer 1945, she boarded the train for Paris, where the JDC European Headquarters was relocating. Soon after arriving in Paris, however, Lolita stepped down from her position due to her husband’s increasing role in the organization. For the next four years, Lolita attended French civilization classes at the Sorbonne. Her evenings were spent among JDC employees, who ate together in Parisian cafés and discussed postwar reconstruction over whiskey.

I first met Lolita in Geneva in 2006, where I went to interview her for my doctoral research on the role of American Jewish organizations in French Jewish life after the Holocaust. Lolita’s observations on the JDC’s wartime head of European Operations Joseph Schwartz, on the atmosphere of the JDC offices in Lisbon and Paris, on the position of women at the JDC allowed me to imagine (and later reconstruct) the complicated place that JDC aid workers occupied in the aftermath of the Holocaust, as both witnesses to the destruction and actors of reconstruction.

Lolita Goldstein with her husband, Melvin Goldstein.

Courtesy of Laura Hobson Faure.

Knowing Lolita, and observing her daily interactions, was to contemplate her tremendous verve and grace. Lolita approached each encounter as an opportunity for joy and friendship, creating a web of positive intentions that accompanied her wherever she went. As a historian, I could only wonder whether Lolita’s exceptional people skills were honed as a survival mechanism. One can imagine the mix of confidence and courage it took for Lolita to smuggle herself onto a ship to the United States in the middle of World War II, when her U.S. visa did not arrive in time for her departure. She finagled her way onto the ship impersonating a Portuguese nurse and then obtained her American visa on one of the ship’s stops in Cuba, after tracking down the U.S. Consular officer…. on a golf-course.

Lolita and I spent a great deal of time discussing her experiences in the Holocaust and her evolving attitude toward her past. Over time and with some outside encouragement, Lolita turned her anger into a positive force in her life. After over seventy years of absence, she returned to Berlin in 2006, and found deep meaning in her exchanges with the teachers and students of her former high school.

Lolita’s story is one of joy and resilience. When her beloved husband passed away in 2002, Lolita had a choice. She could have retreated from the world in mourning. However, she decided instead to embrace life. She took his favorite blazer to a tailor, who adapted it to her size. Wearing her husband’s Magen David and his favorite blazer, she embarked on the next chapter of her life.

About the Author

Laura Hobson Faure, Associate Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University and author of ‘Un Plan Marshall juif:’ la presence juive américaine en France après la Shoah, 1944-1954 (Paris, Armand Colin, 2013; forthcoming in English).