Born July 9, 1928, in Volosyanka, Czechoslovakia
Helen Goldkind was born Chaya Lebowitz on July 9, 1928, in Volosyanka, Czechoslovakia, a small town with a bustling Jewish community, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. One of seven children in a close-knit, observant Jewish family, Helen grew up with many relatives, including her grandparents, nearby. Her father, Martin, owned a shoe store, and her mother, Rose, took care of the home and children.
When Helen was just 11 years old, Hungary annexed the Subcarpathian Rus, the region of Czechoslovakia where her family lived. Under the Hungarian occupation, Jewish children were not allowed to attend school and the synagogues were closed.
Helen’s father hired a tutor, a young Jewish teacher who had lost his post, and their home became like a school for the Jewish children in the community. Eventually her father was forced to give up his business, and the family had to rely on the few livestock her grandparents still owned for food.
The Germans Take Over
In March 1944 the Germans took over the occupation of Volosyanka and within a month they sent all the able-bodied men, including Helen’s father and older brothers, to labor camps. During Passover, two weeks later, Helen and the rest of her family were ordered to pack a single suitcase and gather in the town square.
Helen’s grandfather packed the Torah scroll he had saved from their synagogue, and the family put on multiple layers of clothing to protect themselves against the cold. They were sent to the Uzhgorod ghetto, which was little more than an old brick factory with a roof and no walls, surrounded by a lumber yard. Six weeks later the ghetto was liquidated and Helen’s family was deported to Auschwitz.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Helen’s grandfather was beaten and thrown into a truck for refusing to desecrate his Torah scroll. Her mother was holding her younger brother when a guard tried to pull him from her, taking him to the left and sending her to the right. The guards beat her as she ran after her son, pleading with them to let her go to the left with him. Meanwhile, Helen and her sister, Sylvia, were sent to the right, where they could do nothing but watch as their grandmother, younger brother, and mother disappeared to the left. The girls never saw their family again.
Helen and her sister remained in Auschwitz for about five weeks before they were sent to Germany to work at a munitions factory with 2,000 other girls. There they loaded empty shells with gunpowder, but the ventilation was poor and the gunpowder was poisonous. It burned the girls’ skin and eyes, turning them yellow; hundreds died under such conditions.
By the time the factory was bombed in the spring of 1945, there were only about 500 girls left. Although very weak, Helen survived with the help of her sister. They were loaded onto trucks and sent to Bergen-Belsen, where soldiers of the British 11th Armored Division liberated them on April 15, 1945. Helen and Sylvia both fell ill in the camp and, after a brief separation, were sent to Sweden to recuperate.
After the War
In 1946 Helen and Sylvia immigrated to the United States to live with an older sister in Brooklyn. Helen married Abe Goldkind in 1947 and they had three children. She now has eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A longtime volunteer at the Museum, Helen continues to be a strong advocate for freedom and human rights, particularly for the people of Darfur.
“I like to work with all of the people in the Museum,” Helen says. “And most of all, I like teaching people to be tolerant of others.”