Holocaust survivor Helen Weingarten* shares, “I fought to survive each day. I didn’t know if we would survive the next day. Then, we would survive the next day. We lived like this for 180 days.”
* Her real name, used with permission.
It was a humbling and emotional experience to interview a Holocaust survivor in her living room, just she and I.
Movies can’t adequately capture the pain. Books (and overcomer blog posts) are limited by words and stock photos.
Sharing the experience with five hundred others in a lecture by another Holocaust survivor was by far more personal than movies or books.
But, when Helen looked me in the eye as she shared her personal Holocaust experiences, I felt intensely connected. As if I were seeing it through her very eyes.
Born in Romania in March of 1924, Helen was the 7th of nine children. Her father a tailor, and her mother a home maker. Even though she was part of a religiously observant Jewish family, Helen attended a Protestant school.
Because she was Jewish, her formal schooling ended when she was 12 years old. She left home at 16 to learn the sewing trade in the nearby city of Sighet. Returning home after a year, she began working in a weaving factory.
By 1941 (when she was 18 years old), the region where Helen lived came under Nazi rule by the Hungarians.
Requirements to wear the yellow star of David were put into effect for all Jews. Jewish businesses, including her father’s, were forced to stay open on the Jewish Sabbath.
Helen shares, “We were told Hitler was coming. I didn’t know there was a war going on. It wasn’t talked about.”
Helen and her family were forced from their home in early 1944. “We were directed to go to the school. Once there, the SS officers lined us up and told us we were being moved to the ghetto. I didn’t know what a ghetto was.”
“They made my father shave his beard, which is humiliating to a Jewish man. We didn’t recognize him.”
“We were forced to walk about nine to ten kilometers to Slatina. On that long walk, I remember my father saying, ‘We don’t know who is going to survive. That war will end some day. If you survive, go home to where you were born and look for others who survived.'”
After five to six weeks in the ghettos of Slatina, Helen’s family was ordered to the train station. “My family was loaded into a cattle car with a hundred other people. We didn’t know where we were going, and I was scared. I lived on a hunk of bread during the five day train ride,” Helen shares with tears in her eyes.
Helen looked off into the distance as she relived this painful experience. Her voice quavered when she continued, “I heard the train whistle, and then the train slowly came to a halt. SS officers screamed at us to Get Out!”
“We all had suitcases we’d brought from home. One of the officers told us to leave them by the train as they would be taking them to our hotels. We did as we were told.”
The officers began separating the young men from the young women. Helen remembers briefly turning to talk to someone and when she turned back, her mom, dad, older brother, and older sister were gone.
“I didn’t know where they went, but I thought I’d see them in a few days,” she shares.
Helen and three of her sisters were taken to the barracks, which were surrounded by eight feet tall electric fences. “As I followed the officers, I saw these crazy people with shaved heads who were wearing dresses. Crazy people shave their heads, right? I didn’t know we were being taken to have our heads shaved.”
“I remember telling the SS officers with the machine guns that they couldn’t shave our heads. One of them told me he would kill me. I believed him, so my head was shaved. Then we looked like the crazy people.”
“I didn’t recognize my sisters for three or four days, nor did they recognize me, because of our shaved heads. When I finally found my sister Freida, she told me one of our cousins, who came to Auschwitz before us, told her our parents and our sister Rose were taken to where they take showers. She said they were forced to undress and go where the water comes from the ceiling, but it wasn’t water. It was gas instead. They killed them.”
“I felt numb. But I didn’t cry. I didn’t know if I would survive, but I knew I had to. I fought to survive,” Helen shares.
“Every morning and evening, we had roll call – rain, sun, snow, it didn’t matter. If someone didn’t come, they made us stand in rows until that person showed up.”
“We weren’t given anything but a small cup of coffee for breakfast. Lunch was a small bowl of soup with sand at the bottom. A small hunk of bread and paper thin bologna or liverwurst for dinner.”
“You could always see the crematorium. The flames coming out of the chimneys looked like human beings,” Helen remembers.
Everyday, Helen watched new people being brought in by train to the Auschwitz death camp. Most were sent straight to the gas chambers. “I just felt numb. I knew I could be next.”
“I wasn’t given a tattoo, because if you were sent to Auschwitz, it was to die. We weren’t given work to do. We just waited. We just waited to be sent to the gas chamber.”
“I fought to survive each day. I didn’t know if we would survive the next day. Then, we would survive the next day. It went on like this for 180 days,” Helen remembers.
“Dr. Death, also known as Dr. Josef Mengele, would come look us over. He was there every other day. He touched me, turned me around, to see if I was healthy.”
“I got scared when my younger sister Pearl had spots on her chest. She was picked by him and was in a group who was sent to the crematorium, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her out. Nobody saw me. I saved her life, and she lived to be 78 years old.”
“After 180 days of being at Auschwitz, I was part of a group of 500 healthy women who were chosen to be sent to the crematorium. I was scared when they lined us up by the barbed wire fence. We marched about twenty minutes and then turned right toward the crematorium. A Nazi man came by in a car and handed a note to one of the SS women. It said all of us were needed to work in a labor camp.”
Helen narrowly escaped death. However, she was not free. Yet.
There were an estimated 900,000 Holocaust survivors in 1945. Helen is a Holocaust survivor who is still alive today. Part 2 will tell of Helen’s liberation. Check it out next Friday.