Start of Main Content

Helen Luksenburg: Survival in the Camps

First Person Podcast Series

Helen Luksenburg discusses daily life, spiritual resistance, and forced labor in Gleiwitz, a subcamp of the Auschwitz concentration camp.



HELEN LUKSENBERG: 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.

NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.

This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

In today’s episode Helen Luksenburg talks with host Bill Benson about life in the Gleiwitz concentration camp.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: 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 8 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.

BILL BENSON: On your one day off every third Sunday.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: 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.

BILL BENSON: Helen, this factory, the production of soot was dangerous, it was hard and it was incredibly filthy work that you were doing.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: Yes, we had to have…They gave us good oil to wash our eyes…

BILL BENSON: To wash the soot out of your eyes.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: 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…

BILL BENSON: 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.


BILL BENSON: That was the only thing you had.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: 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 with—I think previously it was for sick people were there and we came and we slept on the same beds.

BILL BENSON: Helen, working as slave labor under these circumstances, it would turn far worse than that in 1944.

HELEN LUKSENBURG: 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.

NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.