Helen Luksenburg was born Hinda Chilewicz on April 4, 1926 in Sosnowiec, Poland. Her father, Chaim, owned a textile mill and her mother, Chana, tended to the house and children. Helen was the eldest of three children in a comfortable middle-class family and their town boasted a blossoming Jewish community complete with several religious schools and a Jewish hospital.
Helen was just thirteen years-old when German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Three days later, they occupied Sosnowiec and terrorized the Jewish community, killing more than a dozen people and setting fire to the Great Synagogue. By the end of the year, a host of discriminatory laws had been imposed upon the Jews, including an order to wear armbands emblazoned with the Star of David. Helen’s father was forced to close his business and the family had to sell whatever they could in order to have food to eat.
In the spring of 1942 an open ghetto was established in Sosnowiec and the German authorities began deporting Jews from Sosnowiec to Auschwitz. In order to avoid deportation and obtain their Ausweiss, the necessary ID cards, Helen, her father and her brother worked at a metal factory. The following spring the remaining Jews, including Helen’s family, were forced into a closed ghetto. Since the beginning of the occupation Jews had been forced to register so the authorities could keep track of them and after the move, Helen and her brother were listed as “missing”. One day, while her brother was away, the authorities came for them and took Helen and her mother (in place of her brother) away. Helen was sent to the Gogolin transit camp where she was selected for forced labor; to this day she does not know what happened to her mother.
From Gogolin Helen was deported to Gleiwitz, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, where she worked in a factory that produced soot for rubber. It was at Gleiwitz that Helen formed a close friendship with Welek (now William) Luksenburg, a fellow inmate. In January 1945, as the Soviet army approached, the prisoners were evacuated from Gleiwitz to Ravensbrück, first on foot and then in cattle cars. In May 1945 Helen was sent on a death march, but she was soon liberated by Soviet troops. Returning to Sosnowiec, she learned that her father and younger sister, Bluma, had been deported to Auschwitz when the ghetto was liquidated in August 1943; they did not survive. Her brother, Abraham, had been sent to Markstaedt, a labor camp in Germany, and died on a death march in 1944 at the age of 17.
Helen remained in Poland for about two months, living with cousins who had been in Auschwitz, but she felt unwelcome in her hometown and the memories were too painful. She and her cousins left Poland for Czechoslovakia, but they were detained near Prague because they had no papers and no money. It was around this time that Helen learned that William was in Prague but she was not able to find him. She sent him a note when she eventually arrived in Weiden, Germany, letting him know where he could find her.
They were finally reunited in Weiden in October 1945 and were married on March 2, 1947. In September 1949 Helen and William immigrated to the United States and settled in the Washington, D.C. area. They have three children.
Why I Volunteer
I work here because I survived for a purpose so history does not repeat itself. Through the years I have spoken to many people and I feel that I have made an impact on them. Maybe I am naive but maybe through education we can wipe out ignorance.