Discovering the life story of Dr. Good, who survived the Nazis
To a child, it was the perfect name: Dr. Good.
Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated. Who wouldn’t want a doctor who was good?
So it made sense that my parents, just weeks after moving to Southern California from Philadelphia, picked that name out of the phone book and made Dr. Good our family physician.
He was kind, almost timid in his gentleness. But there was also a mystery behind the slight build and the high-pitched, nasally, accented voice, always spoken just above a whisper. There also was his unfamiliarity, as an immigrant, with U.S. culture, like the summer he set my broken arm, then told me I could play football but had to avoid contact sports.
Four decades would pass before Dr. Good, at a memorial for my mother, would tell me his secret. He was in his mid-80s then, more stooped than I remembered, but with the same bright, mischievous eyes, darting behind the same wire-rim glasses.
The revelation didn’t come all at once, but unspooled like wool slowly released from a spindle. His given name wasn’t William Z. Good, but Wowka Zev Gdud. He was a Jew who grew up outside Vilna, in Poland, which before World War II was among the world’s largest and most important centers of Jewish culture.
While I had spent one summer of my childhood lamenting that I couldn’t play football because of the broken arm, he had spent three of his hiding in the woods and fighting the Nazis, cheating death again and again.
Dr. Good, it turned out, was a major badass. Not only had he survived the Holocaust, he actually fought back.
But why had he chosen this time and this place to reveal his secret?
Dr. Good told his story over hors d’oeuvres and coffee the way friends might discuss the weather — and later sent me a deeply detailed 25-page memoir.
It began with the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, which had absorbed Vilna two years earlier, adding it to the Soviet Republic of Lithuania and giving it the Lithuanian name Vilnius.
At first he thought he could outrun the invaders, pedaling his bike as fast as he could as they advanced. But German planes strafed the column of refugees he was in, killing a companion a mere arm’s length away. The blitzkrieg soon overtook him, and he had to turn back.
He had an even closer brush with death days later, when the Germans rounded up 500 people and took them about 9 miles outside Vilna to Ponary, now Paneriai, where a mass grave awaited them.
Approximately 100,000 people, most of them Jews, would be murdered there over three years, shot once in the back of the head. Only about a dozen Jews lived to tell of the trip to Ponary. Among them was Wowka Zev Gdud.
Just as the guard fired his gun, Gdud slipped on the uneven dirt and tumbled into the pit. Believing the boy had been shot, the assassin moved on to the next victim, whose body fell on top of Gdud, protecting him when the troops machine-gunned the pile of corpses.
Hours later he woke, covered in blood, and escaped by digging his way under the barbed wire. He was just 17.
Three months later, Gdud was asleep when a woman from the village came to his family’s house in the dead of night to warn that a group of men had been mobilized to dig more graves for the Jews. The Gdud family was to be killed at dawn.
He escaped death once again as he ran into the forest, this time dodging bullets — he heard seven shots — fired by a peasant boy.
His 14-year-old brother, Motl, already a concert violinist, wasn’t as lucky. Hiding elsewhere with their mother, Motl was spotted by a shepherd and captured by the local police. The next day his mother turned herself in, insisting she be allowed to accompany her youngest son, who was blind in one eye, on his last journey.
The next day, the second of Rosh Hashana, Gdud heard a prolonged burst of gunfire while in hiding. They were the shots, he later learned, that killed his brother and mother.
Gdud and his father spent much of the war hiding in the forest, escaping one final execution attempt, and occasionally participating in partisan missions to sabotage German rail lines. They also managed to avoid a hazard in the forest — poisonous vipers.
It was while in the forest, hiding in a depression dug in the fresh snow, that Gdud decided to become a doctor. His father had grown delirious, suffering from fever, chills and a swelling in his neck, and his son could do nothing for him.
The helplessness pained him. And though the abscess in his father’s neck gland eventually drained, and he recovered, his son kept his promise and studied medicine so that he would never have that feeling of impotence again.
Of the 100,000 Jews who lived in and around Vilna before the war, just 2,000 survived; Gdud and his father were among the few from an extended family of nearly 100 to live through the war. The city’s largest group of survivors, about 250, were from a forced labor camp commanded by a German major named Karl Plagge. One of them was Perela Esterowicz, who would later become Gdud’s wife.
Under Plagge, the labor camp became a safe haven for Jews, whom the major first protected, then helped escape moments before SS troops arrived with orders to “liquidate” the camp.
Although Esterowicz also survived the war in Vilnius, she and Gdud did not meet until years later, as students living in a home for Holocaust survivors that Gdud had set up in Turin, Italy. They also earned degrees in Italy, he in medicine and she in organic chemistry, before coming to New York under President Truman’s Displaced Persons Act.
There they married, learned English and adopted the names William and Pearl Good. They started a family and moved to California.
Dr. Good brought the mien and patience of a country doctor to the suburbs, making house calls and caring for patients even when they couldn’t pay, especially when they couldn’t pay.
He always wore a white lab coat over a button-down shirt and tie and looked you directly in the eyes when he spoke. He was there when I was born, his cold hands the first worldly thing I felt. That doesn’t make me special, though.
I grew up in blue-collar La Puente when it had one of the largest populations of children per capita in the United States, and Dr. Good delivered more than 2,000 of them, said his son Michael, who as a family physician with his own practice in Durham, Conn., is also a Dr. Good.
For most of the elder Dr. Good’s practice, which ended in 2013 when he was 89, he had the same receptionist, Flo, and the same nurses, Shirley and Tommy. Shirley vowed she wouldn’t retire until the doctor did; she was 79 when she worked her last shift.
The Goods’ three children knew their parents were Holocaust survivors because they freely told their stories at home. But those weren’t memories they shared outside the house.
That changed when Michael, their youngest son, took his parents to Lithuania to revisit a place his mother hadn’t seen since the war.
That trip led Michael Good to write “The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews,” an amazing book that documents the story of his mother’s unlikely savior. The book inspired a documentary and started a campaign that led the Holocaust memorial center Yad Vashem to recognize Plagge as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Pearl Good helped unveil the major’s name when he was added to the Wall of the Righteous.
The trauma William and Pearl Good had quietly endured sometimes revealed itself in strange ways. As Michael Good, 63, recounts in his book, when showing his future wife, Sue, around his parents’ home in West Covina, he pointed out a hidden closet she found odd. To the Goods, however, it had been a necessary design feature, a place to hide the children — Michael; his twin sister, Anne; and their older brother, Lenny — should the Nazis return.
The war also explained Dr. Good’s generosity. In his book, Michael Good describes how a family in hiding once wrote to his grandfather, Dov Gdud, begging for financial help. The young Gdud protested, saying they didn’t have enough money to help others.
Dov Gdud’s answer has stuck with his son to this day:
“We have no right to gamble on the presumption of our survival and keep the money for ourselves — we may be dead tomorrow. This money can buy five lives today.”
It did. The Beckenstein family survived the war along with Dov Gdud, who had one small coin left in his pocket when the Red Army liberated Vilna in 1944. He later settled in Israel, and died of colon cancer in 1969 at the age of 74.
That story, and others, had remained largely hidden for decades. But the trip to Lithuania encouraged Dr. Good to begin speaking publicly about his experiences, in his son’s book, the documentary and in talks to classrooms of schoolchildren. And that’s how he came to sidle up next to me at my mother’s memorial, paper plate in hand, and share a secret he had kept from my parents.
A couple of days later, a copy of his son’s book, signed and dated, arrived in the mail. But it sat on a shelf while I dealt with my mother’s affairs, ushered a son through high school and tended to an ailing aunt.
Then a pandemic hit, closing theaters and restaurants, and I finally reached for the book. It was still difficult to reconcile the superman in its pages with the meek, kindly man I knew, so I reached out through his son to continue our conversation. I don’t think Dr. Good knew I was a journalist, but now I felt an obligation to share his story.
Dr. Good and Pearl, married 67 years, live in a care facility in Azusa. He is 96, she five years younger. COVID-19 has kept them quarantined, but we managed to connect by phone shortly before the start of the High Holy Days.
He explained why he had never hidden his wartime experiences from his children.
“I did not keep it secret,” he said. “Many Holocaust survivors never told their story to their children. We, however, both Pearl and I, decided, ‘We did not kill German children. They killed our children,’ so we have nothing to hide.”
But why tell me? His answer was surprisingly simple:
“Why did I tell you that? I do not know. I guess I thought you might be interested.”
Despite the passage of time, his memory remains sharp. My mother, he said, was a “wonderful lady,” which is true enough. But it’s the experiences of the Holocaust and the days that followed that he recounts with startling clarity.
It was exactly 10 minutes after 1 p.m. when he heard the shots that killed his mother and brother. “That is engraved, the story of my mother and brother,” he said.
Dr. Good’s recollections don’t always flow linearly; he often interrupts himself, retreating to add context or correct a fact.
“I didn’t tell you something,” he will say. “I have to go back to tell you.”
He crossed “maybe 20 borders” to get to Italy, he said, arriving with only a shirt, shorts, a pair of pants, and sandals, and “not knowing a word of the language.”
Within months he was studying medicine in Italian.
“I was very good at learning languages,” said Good, who knows 11, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Spanish — so many, he wrote them down and keeps the list with him so as not to forget.
Pearl, who also speaks multiple languages, was a professor and researcher in organic chemistry at Pomona College.
For decades she harbored deep resentment over what happened to her and her family during the Holocaust. In time she let those feelings go, as her husband had years earlier.
“I’ll tell you,” he began, “most people are very angry — ‘Look what they did to us.’ And so they don’t go on with their lives. They are bitter. [But] if I am angry at you, it’s eating me. You don’t even know that I’m angry at you.
“So I decided that that’s a dead emotion, and I better get rid of that. And I did that early in life.”
A showcase for compelling storytelling
from the Los Angeles Times.
Dr. Good had one final story to tell, one that illustrates how he survived the Holocaust not just with his life, but his soul intact as well. It’s a story he first recounted after his daughter, Anne, repeatedly asked how many people he had killed during the war.
He and an escaped Russian prisoner, with one pistol and nine bullets between them, were hiding in a barn when two Lithuanian policemen, armed with handguns and rifles, walked in. He got the drop on them and forced them to surrender their weapons, then at the urging of the Russian, marched the policemen into the swamps to shoot them.
“You bloody murderers! You killed my mother, you killed my brother!” he remembers shouting as the men, their backs to him, dropped to their knees and pleaded for their lives.
With his outstretched arm shaking, he eventually lowered his gun and told the men to leave, but he said he long felt shame he didn’t avenge his family’s loss that day.
That shame lifted, he said, when he told his daughter the story, and she responded with a smile.
“Dad,” she said, “I’m so glad you never killed anybody.”
Seventy-seven years later, Dr. Good is glad as well.
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