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Good afternoon, and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Bill Benson and I am the host of the museum’s public program, First Person. Thank you for joining us today. We are in our ninth year of First Person, and our First Person today is Mrs. Helen Luksenburg, whom we shall meet shortly.
First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust, who share with us their firsthand accounts of their experience during the Holocaust. Each First Person guest presently serves as a volunteer here at the museum.
With few exceptions, we will have a First Person program each Wednesday through August 27th, and in June and July, we will also have First Person programs on Tuesdays, so this is our first Tuesday First Person Program that we’ve had. The museum’s website at www.USHMM.org provides a list of the upcoming First Person guests. Just go to the website, and click on the First Person program and you’ll see what the “lineup” is, if you will, for the rest of this year.
This 2008 season of First Person is made possible through the generosity of the Louis and Dora Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for again sponsoring First Person. Helen Luksenburg will share with us her First Person account of his experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor, for about 45 minutes.
If time allows, we will have an opportunity for you to ask Helen some questions. Before you are introduced to Helen, I have a couple of requests of you and a couple of announcements. First, we ask, if it’s possible, please stay seated throughout our one-hour program. That way, we minimize any disruptions for Helen as she’s speaking.
Second, if we have a question-and-answer period, and you have a question, please make your question as brief as you can. I will repeat the question so everyone in the room hears it, including Helen, and then she’ll respond to your question. If you have a pager or a cell phone that has not yet been turned off, we ask that you do that now.
I’d like to also let you know that if you have a pass for the permanent exhibition today, it’s good for the entire afternoon, so you can comfortably stay with us and then see the permanent exhibition.
In January, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announced that it began providing information to Holocaust survivors and their families from the International Tracing Service, or ITS, Archive. Located in Germany, the ITS Archive was the largest, closed Holocaust archive in the world, containing information on approximately 17.5 million victims of the Nazis, both Jews and non-Jews.
After years of effort, the archive has been opened to the museum. The ITS material is being transferred in digital form to the museum in a series of installments, the first of which arrived in August 2007. More information on the ITS collection can be found on the museum’s website, or by visiting the museum’s Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors that is located in the Wexner Learning Center on the second floor.
The Holocaust was a state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons.
Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny. What you are about to hear from Helen is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with Helen’s introduction.
We begin with this portrait of Helen, who was the eldest of three children from a comfortable, middle-class Jewish family. This photo of Hinda Chilewicz, which was her Polish name, was taken in 1941 for the purposes of fingerprinting and identification card.
On this map of Europe, the arrow points to Poland and on this map of Poland, the arrow points to Sosnowiec, where Helen was born April 4th, 1926. In this photo, Helen, who is in the middle and circled, and her two cousins, Edzia, who is on the left, and Hadasa Cudzynowski, posed with a bear in Sosnowiec in 1938.
Helen was just 13 when the German army invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, By the end of the year, Jews were subject to a host of discriminatory laws. Helen’s father had to close his textile business. This photo shows the German army marching into Poland.
In 1943, the Jews of Sosnowiec were forced to move into a ghetto. This photograph is of a sewing training workshop in the Sosnowiec ghetto and Helen is virtually in the middle of this photograph with her head bent down. In the photograph in your left, these are girls who were members of a Zionist youth movement in the Sosnowiec ghetto. Helen is to your right in the photograph on your left.
And on the photograph on the right-hand side, it’s a group of young Jewish women, members of the Hanoar Hatzioni youth movement, picking vegetables on the farma and Helen is kneeling to the far right of this photograph. Helen was deported to Gleiwitz after being selected for forced labor.
Gleiwitz became part of the vast Auschwitz concentration camp network. There Helen formed a close friendship with Welek Luksenburg, a fellow inmate. As the Soviet army approached in January 1945, prisoners from Gleiwitz were evacuated.
Helen survived a death march to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and then to another place, before being liberated by Soviet troops in May of 1945, and the arrows track her march to Ravensbrück. Helen reunited with Welek in a displaced person’s camp in the American-occupied zone of Germany. They were married March 2nd, 1947, and we close our slide presentation with their wedding portrait.
Helen and Welek, or William, as he’s known today, live in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Upon their arrival in the Washington, D.C. area in 1949, William became a master plumber, then bought and ran his own service station for many years before retiring.
The Luksenburgs have three children, two are doctors and one is an attorney, and they have five grandchildren. Both Helen and William are volunteers at the museum and are very active in civic matters. Helen works at the museum’s donations and membership desk, where you will find her on Mondays.
And William, who will be our First Person on June 18th, is with us today, so before you meet Helen, William, if you wouldn’t mind, just a little wave so folks know you’re here? With that, I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our First Person, Mrs. Helen Luksenburg.
Well, Helen, welcome, and thank you for your willingness to be our First Person today. It is good to see you. In the late summer of 1939, you were just 13 years of age and living with your parents and your two younger brothers in Sosnowiec, a heavily industrialized area close to the German border. Let’s begin with you telling us a little bit about your family, your community, your life, and about you in those years before war began.
No, starting with the war, because before I was a schoolgirl, I didn’t know much what’s going on. I lived a comfortable life. We were not very rich, but we were also not poor. And my mother had a Jewish background. More observing, I went to Jewish schools, and was normal life like anybody else.
Helen, tell us a little bit about your mother and father, if you wouldn’t mind.
My mother was a food nut. [Laughs] She was very involved with what to eat. For her age…I am talking about 60, 70 years ago, I was told that we don’t eat…her six brothers, and she was telling them that after 40, they shouldn’t eat the red meat.
That’s how advanced she was, because they call it sclerosa. Here, it’s cholesterol, but in Europe they called it sclerosa. And everything had to be…like summertime, a period during the summer which wasn’t available because you were not supposed to eat meat—just dairy and greens.
My father used to say to her, “Whatever, I’m cattle? Always eating greens? Well, now it’s everyplace. Yesterday I saw a bus and it was all covered with greens, because we are supposed to be green now. Eat everything green.” So my mother was very advanced.
My father was a businessman and he used to, not very observing, but whenever it was necessary, he used to go to the synagogue, but whenever it was necessary, and he had to use on a Saturday, a street car, he used it. [Laughs] But during the war, when the war broke out, my father stopped praying (because every morning he used to pray).
He said, “Where is God? Why should my children suffer?” and he stopped praying. That was 1939, September 1st…because I was born right near the German border; the Germans marched in on a Friday, September 1st, ’39. My mother was very nervous because living through one war, and because we were so close to the border, she was very nervous.
So my father came a couple days, he was outside, and came and said, “I heard the train going further up,” where my mother was born in a small town. He put us on the train. He said, “I will join you a little bit later,” because it was after the first of the month; he had a lot of things to do. Unfortunately, we didn’t know what to expect.
We got on the train and we didn’t even take any food with us. My brother fainted on the train. And because we were staying so long, we were caught in the battle between Germany in the woods—we were in the woods between Germany and Poland fighting—and the fires were going all across us….
Over the train that you were in.
Over the train. Finally, my mother said, “Let’s get off the train.” The train stopped and she remembered that nearby, some neighbors had parents living there, and she remembered that and where to go. And we knocked at the door and they let us in. Well, I don’t remember how long we were walking to find the place.
I remember next day, the Germans knock at the door and say, “[Are there men in here?] Are they men?” So my mother, who spoke good German…don’t forget that she was under different occupation—she was under Russian occupation and the German occupation during the first World War and the Austrian occupation and after Poland became independent in 1918 after the first World War.
The man asks so she answered him in German. She said, “Yes, we have an old man.” I’m sure that I’m older now than that man was because you know, 60-some years ago, people didn’t look so good like we do today and live much longer! She said that we have an old man and a young boy. My brother was just 11 years old. So he told us to leave the house.
After we left the house and were in the marketplace, thousands of people, somebody came over and said to my mother…one of her brothers had a car. Not many people owned a car in Poland before the war. And they found blood in the car and my mother got hysterical that they killed her brother.
But we couldn’t stay there any longer, so somebody by chance gave us a ride on a horse and buggy to my mother’s birthplace. Unbelievable—the whole family was there. My grandfather had a building there and his oldest daughter, my mother’s oldest sister, lived there and her grandchildren came and everybody.
These children were so spoiled, you had to force them to swallow something because they were such poor eaters. Three days in the war they are screaming they are hungry and nothing was available. You had to get up at 3:00 in the morning to stay in line in a bakery to get a piece of bread.
Somehow, whatever we could scrape up, after two months being there (my father never arrived), after being there for two months I said, “I can’t stand it anymore.” [Crying] I was just 13 years old and somebody gave me a ride to go back.
By myself. When I arrived at home, I didn’t recognize my father. He looked…did you ever see a picture of Gandhi when he was released from the prison? That’s how my father looked. He was bald always and he lost so much weight. And after I opened the credenza and I see a pile of bread, penicillin was growing on it, and I said to my father, “For whom did you save it?” He said, “For my children.”
He used to get up at 3:00 in the morning to stay in line in the bakery and he shared it with my aunt. She didn’t leave. She had heart trouble and she didn’t leave; she had three children so he stood for her to get bread and he saved it for us. We had to throw it out. It wasn’t edible anymore.
But my father had a very bad experience. When the Germans marched in to our city, they ordered all the men, Jewish men, they had to come to the city hall to register. They went to register and he was going…oh yes, before that, he went to have a beer on the same day when the Germans marched in, with a friend.
And by the time they are coming back home, the Germans were on the main road on the motorcycles and they yelled out, “Halt!” and my father ran into a building where we used to live, knocked at the door, and they let him in because they knew him. The other man never made it—they shot him.
After that, my father was afraid of his own shadow. You couldn’t make him do anything. I was the spokesperson for him. We were not allowed to have newspapers, not allowed to listen to radios. If two or three men gathered together, somebody had to stay in front of the building if a German doesn’t comes. And he could come in and suspect that right away that we are spies and shoot you on the spot.
He never was the same, my father. Some friends; we didn’t have any information—everything was confiscated, all the electrical appliances, the radios, we had to give up everything. Fur coats, everything was going to the army, for the German army.
We had relatives who had restaurants so I used to go there to listen to all the people, what do they have to say, if somebody had some information, and bring it to my father. At the age of 14, we had to be working already. If you didn’t register and work, you didn’t get your rations. You had to have the ID cards.
Do you have the ID cards, what are here when you go to see the exhibit? They were copied after the original…that picture what you saw of me, this is from the ID card. I was about 14 years old on that picture. And the ID card was to be able to get rations. We didn’t have enough food. We didn’t have…
My father’s business was confiscated, we were selling everything we could. Even my mother had a little bit of jewelry so we buried it in the basement in the place that was my grandfather’s. We couldn’t go there to even dig it out. And the sad part is that after the war, I wanted to go and get something, to have something from my mother. [Crying]
One of my aunt’s brothers survived with a 15-year-old son and he went back to his birthplace. They had a mill, so he wanted…guess what? He went, the Poles killed him and the boy was left alone with us. He was 15 years old. So I was afraid to go. My cousin said, “Are you crazy? For material things, you risk your life and go and dig something out?” So I forgot about it and I still don’t have anything from my mother.
So we had to work at 14 years old. In 1942 there was an order that all the Jews have to come and register. It was in a sport stadium and everybody got dressed the best to impress the Germans. We arrived there, there were tables set up alphabetically; there were about 100,000 people in three different places.
We stood there and stood there. My father used to say, “Let’s wait, let’s wait, because maybe they will get tired and send us home.” No. It was 10:00 at night by the time we approached the table. What happened, they retained my parents and my sister because she was still 10 years old. They took my brother and me and shoved us, “Go home.”
I started to cry and my father gave me the keys and said, “Somebody will have to survive and that will be you,” [Crying] and I am the only one who survived. I was 16 years old the last time I saw my parents. They retained them but kept them in the building. The next day was pouring rain like God was crying with us.
Somehow, through connection, I got them out. That was August 1942, August the 1st, 1942. Still the situation was getting worse and worse and everybody at that time we were in the open ghetto. After that registration, they wanted to know how many people are there. If you go to the exhibit, you will see how they kept track of us with the IBM machines.
Helen, tell us what an open ghetto was.
An open ghetto was right when they marched in. It was that on certain streets, we were not allowed to be out and after 7:00 in the evening. It was still nice weather, beginning of September, we were not allowed. I was jumping fences between because in our building, nobody was my age so to be with my age people, I had to jump fences through the back—not on the front, not on the street—to be able to speak with…to be with my own people, my age, rather.
So later after that, they put us in a closed ghetto and they said it wasn’t big enough. Oh yes, what they did, there were people who got an A and people who got a B. If you got an A, you were in the main ghetto on the outskirts of the city. We got a B so we were on the other side of the outside of the city.
You can’t imagine the conditions. You had to leave everything behind what you work all your life for. We took with us two beds, single beds (we were five people), a table and chairs, some pots and pans, some clothing and everything was left behind. Material things are not important. Material things can be replaced. Life is important.
Helen, before you continue with what happened in the closed ghetto, I want to ask you a couple of questions before that, if I can. Your family had kept a kosher kitchen. Am I right that for the meager meat rations, the Nazis gave you pork?
Yes, that’s right. The meager rations, what we got, but the piece of meat, and my mother refused to cook it. It was pork, like purposely, in spite. So my mother wouldn’t cook it. She gave me one pot and I went to her youngest sister. She had five sisters and six brothers.
You wouldn’t believe, can you imagine, from 11 siblings, how big the family was, the immediate family? You know how many of us survived? Six. And two passed away with a normal death because it’s 60 years after the war.
Helen, I’d also like you to tell us, tell the audience, before you went into the closed ghetto, about the time when your father, because he had lost his business and you were struggling to make ends meet, he had you go across the border. Tell us this story.
Oh yeah. Do we have enough time?
This one I think we should hear.
My father had clients in Oberschlesien and it was the first of the month, they owed him money. Always, my father, I remember complaining, “It’s crisis, crisis,” but after, when the war broke out, he told us how much people owed him money.
So I took off my armband, I had blonde hair, and that was already in February 1940 (because war broke out on September 1st), February, winter time. He gave me a list of people he trusted and I took off my armband and went to the border. It was like five miles to walk.
That part belonged to Poland. That part originally was German before the first World War. And the Polish had that plebiscite and gave the people a choice, promised them better condition, living condition, if they will become Polish. So that part was originally, at one time, Polish. It was, again, on the old border.
So I come and there is a guard on the border and he asked me how old I am. I said 13, because at 14, you had to have an ID card. I couldn’t use my ID card because it said Jewish. I said, “I am 13.” I wasn’t so developed and big that he believed me. And he said…but he was a decent guy. He said, “Please be back by 6:00 in the evening because if the guards change, maybe they will give you a hard time.”
So I collected some money, a few hundred marks, and I went to the border before 6:00, he let me go, but I will never forget, it was a cold winter night. The snow was falling and there were just fields in between, and I was walking this way and the snow was hitting me on this cheek, on the right side.
By the time I got home, it was dark already, I was scared stiff, you didn’t see a soul. And by the time I got home, my cheek was all swollen from the snow hitting me. But I brought home some money.
Tremendous responsibility for a 14-year-old.
Yes, for a 13 years, 14-year-old, I had a lot of
So, Helen, you were telling us now what conditions were like for you inside the closed ghetto. I stopped you to ask you those questions. Why don’t we return to that.
So it was an order that everybody from the age of 14 has to be employed, otherwise you didn’t receive your rations and that was the basic of our…we didn’t have much to eat. So my brother, my father and I—I had an uncle who had a metal factory but the factory didn’t belong to him anymore; a German took over and we were working there.
So we got the Ausweiss, was the ID card, with us. To receive the ID card, you had to be employed. So I worked and once my uncle was still in charge to run the place. I came once a couple times late and he sent me back home to teach me a lesson because other people were working there too who were not relatives, so he wanted to teach me that I don’t expect privileges.
Anyhow, we work, work, work all the time, and you had a limited space. Finally we had to move to the new quarters. The new quarters were unbelievable. It was a kitchen and two rooms. We received a kitchen. We didn’t have any privacy because the two other families in the two other rooms had to go through us.
So I decided, we have somebody, a relative, in the housing department, I go to him and I said I want to talk to him. I came in, the Germans set up Jewish community centers and they were giving orders (the Germans). They never dirtied their hands. They were giving orders and the Jewish people in charge had to fill the orders, like we had our own militia.
When you are going upstairs to see the exhibit, you will see the militia was wearing a white hat with an armband, and they didn’t have any arms; they had a baseball bat in their hands. They didn’t have much power at all. So I came in and a man, a militiaman recognized me and he said to me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I want to talk to Mr. Greenfeld,” because he was in charge of housing and he was somehow related.
So he said, “Look on the wall,” and I look on the wall and I see my name on it, because we moved so they couldn’t find me. At the time I was already 16 years old. So he said, “Go home.” As soon as I left the building, the militia was right behind me and I came to the apartment, what was just a kitchen, and a suitcase was always ready because we never knew.
Many nights I didn’t sleep at home because you never knew when they will come and knock at the door during the night and take you out from bed, so the suitcase was always ready. Many nights I slept in the factory on the concrete, because I had an uncle who worked in the central committee, so he used to warn me which night they can come and get you, so many nights I slept in the factory on the concrete floor.
I went home, the militia was right behind me, and took me, but they also took my mother because my brother was on the list too, and my brother wasn’t there because he went to a bath house. We didn’t have any facilities. Till today, 60-some years later, I still don’t know if they ever released my mother or they killed her. [Crying] And I am not at peace with it for so many years. That was the end…that was the last time I saw her and my father, I never said goodbye to him.
They send me out to a temporary camp and I attach myself to three girls, who two of them went to school with me. This was the first time I was separated from my family. They send us to temporary thing, and after then I remember we were lined up and a man with a cane was the buyer and he picked his merchandise, sent us to another camp, Gleiwitz.
And you were the merchandise.
Yes, we were the merchandise. [At Gleiwitz], what happened in comparison with other camps, we didn’t have ovens, it was a working camp. That was the name of the factory, was Deutsche Gasrusswerke. The Deutsche Gasrusswerke was actually Dortmund, or Dusseldorf? I think Dortmund. Dortmund?
And because they built the factory in Gleiwitz, because at the time, in 1940, the planes couldn’t reach so far that was near, now Gleiwitz belongs, with shifting the borders, is in Poland. The planes in 1940 were not so powerful that they couldn’t reach so far, so that’s why they built that factory.
This was a factory what was producing soot, black stuff, from fine coal and oil, a temperature of 120 degrees. Each machine was as long as this, from wall to wall, and there were 12 windows in each machine, and there were 12 machines like that and you had to open that little window and clean with a poker for more production.
The flames, when you open, the heat hit you right away. So by the time you finish the 12 machines, you had to start again. On the one machine was a [cement bag] that you had to weight it on the hour for production. What more you clean, was more production.
We worked 12 hours a day, one Sunday every third week, we had free, because in order that one shift would be off, Sunday we had to work 12 hours over the weekend, because actually we worked eight hours, but over the weekend we were working 12 hours in order for one shift (there were three shifts) to be able to have a Sunday off every third week. So what did you do? You started….
And you know, the [camaraderie] was great and solidarity and one Sunday we had some very talented young women who were one was an opera singer and she still, in the beginning, had clothes from home. She had these beautiful Chinese robes and she was singing the opera. One was playing the mandolin. We tried to keep up our spirits.
On your one day off every third Sunday.
That’s right. And what we were talking mostly, we were reminiscent about food. My dream was to have a glass of tea with lemon, would you believe it? That was my dream. And we were talking what our mothers were cooking and what we were eating—we were dreaming. Never was anything enough.
Helen, this factory, the production of soot was dangerous, it was hard and it was incredibly filthy work that you were doing.
Yes, we had to have…they gave us good oil to wash our eyes…
To wash the soot out of your eyes.
Yes. I didn’t need mascara at the time and I didn’t have it. And good soap they gave us because every day we had to take a shower. We came back and we were black. So after that, we were working…
One other question for you, Helen, when you went to Gleiwitz, the only thing you had, if I remember correctly, from your parents, you had a nightgown of your mother’s.
That was the only thing you had.
Yes, because my mother gave me…I always was wearing pajamas and my mother gave me her flannel nightgown and the first night I wore it in the temporary camp. When I got up, in the seams were lice, because we slept…they were infested, the beds. We didn’t have mattresses, it was straw. Right away we were infested. I think previously it was for sick people were there and we came and we slept on the same beds.
Helen, working as slave laborer under these circumstances, it would turn far worse than that in 1944.
No, because in the beginning was a labor camp and we still had our own clothes and it was not as strict. It wasn’t paradise, it wasn’t a day camp [laughs] away from home, even. But it was livable more. A year later, the SS took over, they took away all our civilian clothes, they issued the stripes and was not made from wool or cotton, that was ersatz, artificial.
And we had to work even harder and they tattoo us. Can you imagine, to all the girls (I didn’t see the men; the men were in a separate camp), we had to stay completely naked like God created us to be tattooed on the left arm. And it wasn’t a physical pain, it was a moral pain. You lost all your dignity, all your pride, you were branded like an animal, and I became just a number, 79139.
I removed it, not that I was ashamed of it, but my first child was reading at 24 months and he kept asking me when he will have a number. So I found a doctor, plastic surgeon, who was willing to do it. It was during the Korean war; he was born in 1951, during the Korean war. I read in the paper that some burns on soldiers were removed by sandpapering.
So I went with the article to the doctor and he examined the arm. He said, “I’m sorry, but sandpapering is just one-eighth of a millimeter could be removed,” this was deep in the muscle. So what he did, like a dentist, he was drilling all the dots around it, did it twice, and now, it’s just…you couldn’t tell. I could see where it was but some people think that I was ashamed; I wasn’t, but I didn’t want my child to be marked either. So what was the next step?
Well, the one positive thing in all of that was the meeting of William.
Tell us about that.
We had a wash barrack and the men’s wash barrack, we were divided by a fence and the men’s wash barrack had a back door that we could go in and fetch some water. And at that time, we didn’t have any water in ours. They were fixing it.
So I walked in and he was there washing his clothes. It was very important to him, he wash his clothes and he slept on the pants to make that they have a crease. Didn’t have what to eat, but it was important that he had a crease in his pants. [Laughs]
And he’s still very creased.
So somebody else was there and he introduced me to him. But to tell you the truth, I had my eye on him from the ghetto. He was working in our…he lived nearby, by [Stritka] community and he worked in our city and I knew somebody who worked there with him, so I told him once, “Can you bring him over to our factory that I can meet him?” His cousin was my friend and I asked her to introduce me; she never did.
So he remembers only I was sitting like now, my cousin was across from me. He brought him in and he just remembers two young girls giggling, because his mind wasn’t clear. His parents were already sent out in 1942 to Auschwitz, so he wasn’t interested in girls at all. It was still too painful. Anyhow, that was it.
But after I met him, our barrack was first by the fence. Somebody comes in and said, “Somebody’s looking for you by the fence,” so I go out, it was him. He was coming to the fence every day, I on one side, he on the other side. That was the romance. [Laughs] And once they opened the gates (that was before SS took over) and opened the gates they let us mingle.
The Germans used psychology because they taught young people, young men, seeing the opposite sex will give them maybe hope to go on and work harder. So we talked to each other and he said to me, “You see, we’ll survive and I will marry you.” Do you know what my reaction was? I touch his forehead, I thought he has a high temperature. That much hope I had left. We found each other after the war.
Nineteen forty-five, early January, you were forced out of Gleiwitz.
Tell us about that.
We didn’t know anything was going on, didn’t have any inkling, any information what’s going on. Sometimes we found a piece of paper—the people who were in charge, the Germans, used to wrap their lunch in newspaper so we used to pick up. I understand and could read German papers, “We will fight to the last drop of blood. We are victorious. We’ll take over the world.”
I don’t know how many of you heard the song, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” “Germany, Germany, all over the world.” So we were losing hope. Who would believe that we’ll be ever free again? Or we’ll die there. So January 1945, there’s an order that we have to evacuate.
If we would have any inkling…my home town was one hour away from where I was in Gleiwitz. Gleiwitz now is in Poland. With shifting the borders, it’s now in Poland. If we would have had any inkling, maybe we would take a chance and hide out, but we didn’t know what’s going on.
So everybody got a large piece of bread and we didn’t have where to keep it. We had little towels so big, maybe two feet wide. I took a needle and made a bag out of it and I made one for him too, that he could hold his bread and we walked. For three days we were walking. We didn’t know where and what.
Once we slept in a barn, once we slept…and they opened the clothing thing what they took away from us and we could go in and get, but I was very naïve and I didn’t want to take any civilian clothes because I could recognize the Allies’ planes. They were silvery, very high and we sometimes were sitting on the grass and many times I did it, praying, “Please hit me already to end the miseries.” How long can you go on like that? [Crying]
So I didn’t want to take any civilian clothes because after we walked for three days, they didn’t know what to do with us, so we walked back to Gleiwitz and the trains, they were open cattle trains with people from Auschwitz. We joined the Auschwitz transport. We got on the train and I was on the first with women…
And this was a bitter cold winter.
Oh, January, 1945!
That was especially cold.
So I jumped on the first wagon because I’d seen Willie already on the last of men, so we could see each other at least and we could talk to each other. There were between 150 and 170 people in one wagon. You couldn’t even sit down and close your eyes.
You slept standing up and nothing to eat and each one had a blanket. And we were gathering from each other’s arm the snow so we had water at least. But after a week or so, it was more room because people were jumping. There was a lot of snow on the ground. People were jumping and some survived and some were killed, so there was more room. We could at least crouch down and close our eyes.
It was going on and we were passing Czechoslovakia and people were standing, some Czech people on the bridges, and throwing bread. He stretched out his arms and somebody was holding his legs inside and he put his blanket across that was not digging into his flesh, and he caught the bread in the air. [Laughs]
You had to be resourceful, otherwise you didn’t have a chance of surviving. Do you know what that bread meant at that time? More than today a million dollars, and I don’t exaggerate. He broke that bread in half and he said, “Stretch out your arms,” and he shared it with me, how much he cared for me.
And see, people were like vultures. You couldn’t just throw and say, “Give it to Helen.” Everybody was hungry so he said, “Stretch out your arms,” they call it the bread story. [Laughs] And guess what happened? I couldn’t stretch out so far. He was in another wagon. It fell between the two wagons. And he never forgave me for that. [Laughs]
So later they unloaded us, unloaded first the men and after we went further they unloaded brothers to Ravensbrück and in Ravensbrück was again hell. The ovens didn’t work anymore because they had the furnaces too, but there were 32,000 women in one camp. We slept so wide, five people—two at one end, two at the other and one across.
So I had a piece of bread, what he shared it with me, and I put it behind…didn’t have where to keep it. I kept it behind my…, middle of the night, somebody stole it. [Laughs] So you didn’t have where to keep anything and we had to work. I worked peeling potatoes. That was a good job because I went and peeled potatoes for the Germans. I cleaned once at airport.
So, you know, I couldn’t…had one pair underpants with the elastic in it. I couldn’t take cooked potatoes; they were hot. So I put raw potatoes and I shared it with my friend and we made a sandwich with the two slices of bread and we sliced the raw potatoes and made a sandwich out of it. And we ate it! Just something to put in the stomach.
Once there was a roll call. All of a sudden there’s a roll call and we had to stay there for two, three hours. And the roll call, we had to run out from the barrack and I left, I had some pictures from my family in my pocket of my pants but I didn’t have time to put on the pants. Guess what? After we came back, was everything taken. I don’t have a picture of my mother…my mother I have when she was young because she had a brother in Paris and he made copies and sent it to me. I don’t have a picture of my sister, I don’t have a picture of my father. Everything was destroyed.
So from there, again, we were marching. It never was end. Finally, I remember my mother telling me stories about the first war, how a child could disarm a soldier. We are walking again and I see we are walking with civilians! Everybody was running. So the old guards were Hungarian, old people, and we said, “We’ll catch up with you,” he didn’t care, because I saw, it must be the end of the war, all the people walking.
So we walked away, we rested by the road, all four of us, and who comes by, a young German in a uniform, and he starts to talk to us and I said in German to him, “Do you know who we are?” He answered, “Mädchen,” that means “girls.” I said, “But…” because I saw that he doesn’t have a belt and he doesn’t have a gun, so I told him that we are Jews.
You can’t imagine the reaction on his face when I told him that and I cursed him out in German and he just walked away. But the feeling that I had, I was liberated, I’m not afraid anymore, like the whole world belonged to me, because he just walked away.
Well, sitting again and resting by the road and we were speaking Polish among ourselves, and three Polish guys go by and they heard us speaking Polish and they started to hug us and kiss us. Now they know where the Polish girls are, and one tried to tell us about…he asked us where we are from. We said from Sosnowiec and he said, “I had an aunt in Sosnowiec.”
He wanted us to know he was there as a Pole and he was Jewish. A lot of people had false papers and pretended that they are not—a different, a Catholic, a Protestant or whatever. He let us know who he is. We understood right away.
Took us to the farm, the German woman gave us…a German farm consisted of a supper, a pitcher of milk, a pitcher of rendered pork and mashed potatoes. When I saw that combination, not because it wasn’t kosher, I just couldn’t tolerate any food. I threw up and the next thing I don’t remember anything. They took me to the hospital. I had typhoid.
And the biggest regret I have that I didn’t witness the mighty German downfall, because I had a high temperature and I didn’t see the liberation. And after, it was very hard to go back. There was no transportation because the Russians…it wasn’t like the American and English who liberated the people; the Russians told you, “You Polachki davay damoy” “Polish people, go home.”
We walked. There was no transportation, no communication. So finally, we were resting and they put us in a villa, my fried and me, to recuperate, and I’m in the window once and two Russian soldiers go by. And they started to talk to me through the window—I didn’t trust them. [Laughs] And I ask him very casual, “Yevrey?” to the guy. He looked to me like maybe he’s Jewish.
This is a Russian soldier.
Russian captain. He didn’t answer me. So I said, “I try,” so that somebody would help us to get out. Middle of the night, is a knock on the window and we got scared and said, “Who is there?” He said, “The captain who was here before.” I didn’t want in front of my comrade to admit that I am Yevrey.
He said, “What can I do for you?” I said, “Please help us to get out from here.” So he arranged, because the Russians were dismantling everything in Germany and sending it by trucks to Russia. So the next day he told us where to wait and a general, a Russian general, was in charge with a truck loaded with machinery, took us to Poland, to Stetin. Stetin was before Germany, but as I mentioned before, with shifting the border, is in Poland now, and he let us off.
You can’t visualize what was going on after the war. People were hanging on the outside, holding on to the trains, everybody was going home. So we got on the train, outside, inside—I don’t even remember anymore—and I got home to my hometown and who is in the station? A girl who went to school with me. She actually was with me in camp too, but she’s the only one who ran away. She was there. I said, “You have where to go.”
My friend’s uncle and cousin were liberated. They were hidden. He was one of the richest people so he was buying his freedom. Not freedom, but a lot of people were hidden too. And I had some cousins. My cousin, who was in Auschwitz, was liberated January 1945 by the Russians. I wasn’t liberated. The capitulation was still May the 8th, 1945, so they were already established there.
And I lived with them, but after two months being in Poland, it was so painful, I went to the place where we lived and [there was] a man. I said, “How long have you lived here?” He said, “Oh, I’ve lived here from ’45, before the Jews were living here.” I felt I’m not welcome back. [Crying] So I left we went, my cousin’s fiancée, we went on the border and they arrested, not arrested, but they retained us in Czechoslovakia because we dint have any papers, no money, no ticket, and they retained us in a school.
Menachim got out—because nobody was actually watching us—and went to Prague, made arrangements and came back and everybody had a bottle of vodka because Czechoslovakia at that time was occupied by the Russians still. So we went on the border with a bottle of vodka under the arm, and as I’m getting on a streetcar to go to the appointed place at 6:00 in the evening to be there, I went one step on the streetcar and somebody calls my name.
And I turn around and I couldn’t believe it. ‘Who knows me here?’ It was a girl who was in charge in the concentration camp. She was from Prague and she said, “I saw Willie in joint distribution place!” That was a Jewish organization who was trying to help the survivors. So I said I didn’t want to go, but my cousin’s fiancée says, “We have to go, we have our appointment, I will be back in Prague and I will go and look for him.” He did go back but he couldn’t find him. [Laughs] So that was the story.
You can’t stop there. You obviously found him so you have to tell us how you did!
[Laughs] Oh, people were traveling from place to place and they were forming Jewish community centers. And people were writing their names and leaving on the walls, and that’s how most people found each other—traveling, hitchhiking from place to place and looking.
Still, after 60 years, if we have sometimes big gatherings, people still may put names on the walls and write down, if we see that person with that name. After so many years, people are still looking for each other, and it’s not any success. These people are not around anymore.
So the two girls came to visit. We stayed with a cousin. First we went from Czechoslovakia through the border to Kissinger’s hometown. He was born on the German/Czech border. And we stayed there overnight and the next day we went to the Weiden. Another cousin was there who survived.
So we were there and two girls came, people were traveling, looking, still looking, and I get two girls come in and mention that because they were UNRA, that was United Nation Relief, gave us clothing. They gave us food. For example, I got five packs of cigarettes a week; I didn’t smoke, that time. I gave it up. [Laughs]
And the Germans were very hungry. They liked the white bread the American…I couldn’t stand it to eat that white bread. I used to barter with the German bakers to give me nice cornbread, and the Germans loved it . They wanted coffee and cigarettes—they didn’t have it yet. So she mentioned that for two packs of cigarettes, a shoemaker made her shoes and somebody else made her a coat.
Because when I was in Ravensbrück, somebody introduced me to his cousins who were in Auschwitz and we were all together there. So I said, “Who is there?” She said, “Uder and Braha.” So I said, “Who is with Uder and Braha?” She said, Uder found her husband, she has a sister, an uncle [Felix] and a cousin, Willie Luksenburg.”
I didn’t know how he feels about me. Time is a…you know, does something. I just wrote him a note, because again, they said he is in Prague. He got a special permit from Captain [Cooley], who was the lieutenant governor in that city by [indiscernible] and he gave him permits to bring people.
People used to come who ran away to Russia during the war, were coming back and wanted to come to the American zone. Everybody wanted to come to America, at least that couldn’t come directly to America, but from the American zone, was like I mentioned before, to go to freedom, to be able to immigrate.
So I remember that she said…so I wrote him a note and I said, “If you want to see me, that’s where you can find me.” He said he should be home by Thursday. All the single girls knew every move he made! [Laughs] So it’s Thursday, it’s Friday, it’s Saturday, no sign. He forgot me.
And I didn’t have what to wear. Everybody went out and we were assigned a hotel that everybody had a room and we were sharing a kitchen on each floor, and a bathroom. So some of my cousins who were together with me went to that place, and he came on the train Sunday and he met somebody on the train who knew me.
And he said, “Oh, they are now in Café Wieden, so he went there and I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t move yet. And I didn’t go out with them because I didn’t have what to wear! I had a pair of shoes what the German woman gave me, the first [rain], I lost them. And I didn’t have nothing; my cousin had some clothes she shared with me so I was ashamed. I didn’t want to go out.
So the next thing, I remained by myself in the room, and somebody calls. She said, “Throw down the keys,” that was on the third floor but she couldn’t hold on anymore. The man, he went there to that hotel and I wasn’t there so my cousin was there already and she told him where I am, so they came and I got so nervous. She couldn’t hold on anymore not to tell me.
I couldn’t find the key. I had to knock on somebody’s door to give me the key to open the front. And here he comes in. His hair just started to grow in because he was completely shaven. And he was wearing a brown suit, and long jacket, and he looked pretty good. He was still puffed up. And he said, “We’ll get married.” I said, “With what?”
He bought me the first...he wanted to go out dancing. He’s a good dancer. I didn’t have a pair of shoes. He bought me a pair of shoes with a little heel and I got some fabric and we found a Viennese designer who was a refugee and I borrowed a machine and she made me two dresses—one a black dress and one more sporty.
And finally we got married and we didn’t have where to get married, so I had a friend whose father was in charge and they had two rooms, so the wedding was in the two rooms. And I had to cook my own wedding. It’s a Jewish custom that a bride is supposed to fast, the bridegroom too. And the saddest part was…I don’t know how many of you have seen Jewish weddings, it’s under a canopy.
And the saddest part is that the cantor was singing a special memorial prayer for the dead. [Crying] The parents are supposed to be there but we didn’t have any parents. And that was our wedding. The saddest part from the whole celebration was that the parents’ name was mentioned.
We remained there and we were hoping one day to emigrate. We didn’t want to remain in Germany. So we registered. He was in Munich and he registered. Actually we were ready to go to Israel, but for selfish reasons, I knew he was draft age, he was 23 years old, there was a war of independence going on, and so I said, “We’ll postpone it. We’ll come later.”
In the meantime, he’s in Munich and he sees a line. He says, “What’s the line for?” He said, “Registering to America,” so he got registered. Two months later, they called us and we came to America for free (we didn’t have any money to buy a ticket or anything) through the UNRA, and we arrived.
Every community accepted a certain amount of displaced person. Ours was Washington, D.C.! We were assigned to Washington, D.C. and that’s how we started and after a while, we decided, we were married almost five years, that we wanted to start a family. A lot of people had babies, but I if could help it, I didn’t know where I would wind up and so on. Do you want me to read the other part?
Just a moment. We’re about to wrap up. I want to thank you all for being with us for this hour, a little bit more than that, and as you can see, we could spend the rest of the afternoon. We only just scratched the surface of what Helen could have shared with us. Helen, thank you for doing this. Thank you for being here.
I’d like to remind you that we’ll have a First Person program each Tuesday and Wednesday in June and July, and then resume our Wednesdays only in August until the 27th of August. Our First Person tomorrow, Wednesday, the 4th of June, is Mr. Morris Rosen, who was born in Poland. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was forced into slave labor. He survived several Nazi camps and after a death march, he was taken to the Theresienstadt camp before his liberation.
Hopefully you can come back and join us, if not tomorrow, some other time, and we would like that. It’s our custom at First Person, before we let you go, that our First Person has the last word, and so with that, I’ll turn back to Helen to close our program today.
Recently, just recently, I was asked, what does this building mean to me personally. So I wrote a little thing: “My parents died in gas chambers with millions of other Jews with Shema Yisrael on their lips, that means a Hebrew saying, ‘Please, God, help us,’ and saying, ‘Remember us.’ At this place here, they will be always remembered.
“I dedicated my life to keep the memory alive by volunteering here in the Holocaust Museum, speaking to school children who are the future generations, and teaching them about respect and tolerance, gives me the opportunity to tell them, ‘Don’t be indifferent.’ I also work here to prove that my parents and millions of other Jews didn’t die in vain.
“Maybe I am naïve, believing that through education we can wipe out ignorance and respect each other regardless of color, religion, living in this country, the cradle of democracy, freedom of speech and equality to all. This museum is a symbol to future generations like the flame of remembrance to all mankind.”
And the young people here, I want to leave you with a message: You are the future. We survivors are dying out. We are all old people. And you are the future to keep, to remember it (sometimes history repeats itself), to fight, to be involved, to speak up.
Don’t be a follower, be a leader, because it’s still a wonderful country, the best in the world. Everybody wants to come to America. So be involved and speak up. That’s very important. Don’t follow anybody who tries to change you. Thank you.
Helen is going to stay behind for a few minutes, so if anybody would like to ask her a question or just come down and say hi, she’ll be right down here by the podium, so please feel free to do that.