How a Holocaust survivor became a B.C. business legend

Joe Gold's recent book tells the moving and inspiring story of his parents' wartime suffering—and their new life in Vancouver.

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Gold

Author Joe Gold’s parents, Holocaust survivors David and Aurelia Gold, in 1939, when they were 25 and 24

In his recent book, Joe Gold tells the moving and inspiring story of his parents’ wartime suffering—and their new life in Vancouver

Joe Gold often wonders what his life would have been like if the Holocaust had never happened. “I’d still be living in Europe with a massive family,” says the author of Two Pieces of Cloth: One Family’s Story of the Holocaust, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1947.

Gold didn’t get to know his European relatives because they were murdered by the Nazis, along with millions of other Jews. “I never had grandparents,” says the Vancouver resident. “And being a grandparent—I have nine grandchildren now—I realize just how important having a grandparent is. Someone to talk to who is not going to question anything.”

Fortunately, Gold’s parents, David and Aurelia, both survived the Holocaust. After they immigrated to Vancouver with Joe and his older brother, Andrew, in 1948, David opened what became the biggest fabric store in Western Canada.

But as Two Pieces of Cloth reveals, the couple’s new life in Canada was hard won. The book is a moving and gripping account of wartime suffering, related in their voices. “My father always told me that he wanted to write a book,” Gold says. “I thought that if I wrote it in the first person, readers would feel that it was my parents talking to them.”

His father, born David Goldberger, was general manager of a Jewish-owned textile company in Bratislava, Slovakia, when he met Aurelia Birnbaum in 1941. Married that year, the two got separated after fleeing to Budapest to avoid being deported to Nazi concentration camps with most of the nation’s Jewish community.

Aurelia and her elder son spent the rest of the Second World War hiding in the Hungarian capital under false Christian identities. For his part, David toiled as a slave labourer in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen before British and Canadian troops liberated him from the latter in 1945.

Somehow, he remained optimistic through it all. “There were two things which kept me going: my belief in God, my religion, and my prayers; and my wife and son,” he says in the book.

Words, music and pictures

Why did Joe Gold write Two Pieces of Cloth? “I wanted to pass the legacy on to my children and grandchildren,” he says. “I had a treasure trove of all this information—stories passed down to me, documents, letters. They were left in my hands, and I don’t know what would have been done with them….Had something happened to me, it would have gone out in a box somewhere and never been seen.”

Writing the book was an emotionally charged experience, Gold recalls. “I had periods where I felt I was depressed, very sad. Because it was all concentrated into a very short period of five months, so there was a lot to deal with at that time.”

For Gold, an accomplished musician, one of his outlets was playing the piano. One day after finishing the manuscript, he wondered what it would sound like in music rather than words. “So I wrote this piece of music, and I played it daily to myself, and I think it really helped,” he says. “My emotions came out through music.”

The resulting composition, “Melody of Tears,” appears on the website for Two Pieces of Cloth, along with the Gold family photo archive. Since his book was published, people have been reaching out with pictures and stories, Gold says.

“One of the reasons for putting up the website is that I have a place to put newfound information,” he explains. “For the first time in my life, just in the last four or five months, I’ve got a picture of my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather. I never saw what they looked like, but I’ve got those now.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Gold

David Gold opened what was later renamed Gold’s Fashion Fabrics on Granville Street in 1948

Profiting from slavery

As the book points out, the Nazi genocide unfolded with the complicity of hundreds of big German businesses. They included brands that remain popular and powerful today, such as BMW, Daimler-Benz and Siemens.

In the late 1990s, Gold helped his dad fill out the paperwork to obtain reparations for the unpaid work he performed. “My father did slave labour for some of those companies that I mention,” he says. “These companies couldn’t get workers because in Germany, people that were capable of working in these factories were soldiers. They were in the war effort.”

Gold learned that for the SS, slavery was a profitable business. “They had unlimited resources to supply labour, with very meagre and limited rations and expense,” he says. “So they would take able-bodied people and supply these corporations with labour. It served two purposes. One, they got paid from these corporations for supplying and labour, because the labourers didn’t get paid. And it also helped in their efforts of killing, of murdering.”

To call David Gold resilient is an understatement. At one point during the war, he weighed just 65 pounds—the result of a meagre camp diet that left prisoners doing heavy labour as much as 1,200 calories short of their daily needs.

“He also said that the first time he saw my mother with my brother, he put up his index finger and he said, She’s as skinny as my finger,” his son relates. “Because there was no food in Budapest, either, for my mother and my brother. My mother, she only had one pair of clothing left because the bartered whatever she had for food for my brother, for the baby.”

His hands did the talking

After the war, David Gold launched a new wholesale business in Bratislava, but his family didn’t feel safe or welcome there.

“Slovakia was one of only two countries that actually paid the German government to take the Jewish population out of the country, and even paid the railway,” Gold explains. “They paid to make sure that they never came back. There was still anti-Semitism after the war, and it made it very difficult for my parents. Even though my dad had started up again and was somewhat successful, he knew that there was no future there for him.”

So the Golds picked up and moved to Vancouver, where within three weeks, David had rented a store and begun opening a business. “He couldn’t speak a word of English,” Gold says. “He used to say that his hands did the talking for him.”

The elder Gold had little money, but after travelling to Montreal and Toronto, he was sent textiles on consignment. With typical resourcefulness, he made up for lack of shelving and tables by turning empty merchandise boxes upside down and using them to display fabrics.

He was also a consummate salesman—as one his first customers explained to Joe Gold. “She said, I went in, I was looking for a white fabric, and I came out with black fabric.”

With no time to attend classes, David Gold taught himself English by reading the newspaper every night. “It was very, very hard at first, but he was successful because he had determination,” Gold says. “He’d been through so much, and he was so appreciative of the fact that he could have a life and be in Canada.”

Gold’s Fashion Fabrics grew into an iconic business. “People sewed in those days; they made garments,” Gold says. “They wanted something different, and so they’d pick their fabric, they’d pick a pattern, they’d make it. And times have changed. We had a big following, not just throughout Vancouver but throughout the province.”

Gold worked at the store part-time as a kid and as a student at UBC, then spent two decades in the family business. “I travelled the world a number of times, visiting mills and buying fabric.” He eventually took over the fashion department on the main floor, while his father looked after draperies and upholsteries on the second. “I had a staff of about 50 full-time and part-time, and upstairs there were about 30 people,” Gold says. “I really enjoyed that time of my life.”

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Gold

Joe Gold (left) and father, David Gold, at the family business in 1971

A musical youth

Referring to a Vancouver Sun photo of father and son from 1971, Gold notes that at the time, the city was home to nightspots the Cave Supper Club and Isy’s Supper Club. Many famous musicians played at those venues to test their acts before heading to Las Vegas. “So many of these people would come into the store and buy fabric for their outfits,” Gold says. “I had Diana Ross come in, the Fifth Dimension, Mitzi Gaynor. So I got to chat and sell fabrics to these folks.”

As a young man, Gold himself played keyboards in bands. From 1963 to 1970, the Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School grad was part of an R&B group with several friends from another West Side school, Prince of Wales Secondary. Among them: trombonist Malcolm Brodie, now mayor of Richmond; and the late Warren Gill, who became a vice-president of SFU, on bass.

Oh, and a guy named Bruce Fairbairn. The legendary record producer, who passed away in 1999, “was like a genius,” Gold says. “So it was basically his band. We’d practise in his basement, and he’d put on a piece of music, and then he’d come around to every instrument and show us our parts.”

The band’s union membership led to some choice gigs. “Any time any group would come through Canada, they had to hire the same amount of musicians from here,” Gold says. “So we played with B.B. King, and Smokey Robinson at the Kerrisdale Arena. And we backed up a group called the Coasters at a place called Oilcan Harry’s.”

The Gold family eventually sold their store and went into real estate full-time. Starting out by selling properties, Gold became a developer. In 1990, he and two partners launched a software company by turning a program he was using for his rental business into one for condo management. “It was used in quite a few buildings in Vancouver but a lot back east and in the U.S.,” he says of that venture, which operated for about 20 years before it, too, was acquired.

The stories have to be told

For Gold, one of the goals with Two Pieces of Cloth is to get the book into high schools. He gave copies to 100 students at Sir Winston Churchill, where he also did a virtual presentation.  “I’m hoping that we can put some curriculum together,” says Gold, whose wife taught Holocaust studies. “Together, we hope that we can present the book in this way to students and talk about tolerance and the Holocaust.”

Sadly, many people still haven’t gotten the message—or simply don’t care. Dictators and would-be autocrats now hold power in many countries, and the rise of the far right is evident everywhere from Eastern Europe to Washington, D.C.

“We saw on January 6 what happened in the United States,” Gold says. “Who would have ever thought, right? And the Nazi ideology, it wasn’t just Germany, it wasn’t just the Nazi Party. Where my parents lived in Slovakia and then they fled to Hungary, the atrocities couldn’t have happened unless the citizens of those countries were involved.”

At his high-school talk, Gold stressed to the students that even in Canada, the same thing could occur if no one confronts the threat. “They have to be an upstander and get the proper news, not just from reading on the Internet but from reliable sources, so that they can stand up and say, Not in my country,” he says. “If more people would have stood up in Germany, in other Eastern European countries, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

Given the state of the world, is Gold an optimist like his dad?

“I am,” he replies. “All of these things, they’re stories, and the stories have to be told. Because once the stories are told, then we become witness to it, and we’re hopeful that these things won’t happen again.”

Gold recently found three pages of notes for the book his father had planned to write. Its title: Always Be an Optimist. “He would always find something good in something bad,” Gold says.

“And not just in life but in business. Wherever there was a situation where something didn’t seem right, he would see the good it in and turn it around, and it would become good.”

Gold says a little bit of that rubbed off on him. “Having faith in humanity and faith in the world is very important.”