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Holocaust Survivor Helen Handler MAG
A small, older woman sits across from me. Her wispy blond hair moves with the breeze. She speaks with a Hungarian accent and her mocha-brown eyes intently look into mine as she speaks.
How old were you when you began to feel the effects of the war?
I was about ten years old.
Where did you live then?
That is a very complicated question because I lived in a part of Europe that changed hands constantly. I didn't move. I was actually born in the same house as my mother;our family had lived there for generations. I could trace my family back five generations; that is much more than any American. So what I'm trying to say is, I was born in the Carpathian Mountains. It was a major city, but when my mother was born, it was the Austrian Hungarian Monarchy. When I was born in that house, it was Czechoslovakia. By the time I went to school it was Hungary. By the time they took us away, it belonged to the USSR, and, believe it or not, now it belongs to the Ukrainian government. There are some European places that are exchanged with each war.
What changes occurred when the war began?
Hungary was cooperating with Germany and as a matter of fact joined them. So, Germany, Italy and Hungary were actually fighting in the same group, but the Germans didn't occupy Hungary until 1944. Still, it hadn't been a democratic country since I was ten years old.
I didn't live in a Jewish neighborhood and our neighbors were not Jewish. I had a friend, who lived next door, her mother was my mother's friend; they had gone to school together. This girl and I, we promised we would be friends for life. Well, when I was ten years old and invited her to my birthday, she told me she could not come to our house anymore. Her mother told her she had to make new friends. I was broken hearted. When I told my mother what had happened, she told me this would be the situation from now on. I'd have to goto a new school, and would have to change my whole lifestyle. My world shrunk inch by inch, practically every morning.
Things got pretty rough. We started wearing yellow stars [to signify they were Jewish] because we looked and sounded like everyone else. How else would they tell the world that we didn't measure up anymore? I remember that I asked my mother for a new coat, a navy bluecoat with gold buttons, because that was the style. My mother promised me one for my birthday. She found an old navy-blue coat of hers and took it apart and turne dit inside out, so I got a new coat with gold buttons. Then, she went and sewed a yellow star on it. I was shocked. I thought it was horrible because against the navy blue the yellow stood out so much more. I ended up never wearing it.
All kinds of laws began to restrict what Jews could and could not do. There was even one saying Jews weren't free anymore, and our world continued to shrink. From 1939 our world was never the same. The one good thing is that our family was still home, we were still together.
What happened when you were forced to leave your home?
We walked out only with what we were able to carry in a rucksack. Then we were closed in a ghetto that was one small part of the city. We ended up staying with ten people in a room. Before, Jews lived in the whole city, but now we were concentrated into one small area. Now it was 1944, so we were only in the ghetto for four or five weeks. We had to walk in the middle of the street when they took us from the ghetto to the brick factory that we were deported to. Surrounded by police and soldiers, they acted as though we were criminals. In the same city where we paid taxes, where we were loyal citizens for five generations, all at once we were nonexistent.
Where did you go from there, and how long were you there?
Well, we were jammed into a cattle car and for four nights and four days we stayed there. We had to relieve ourselves in a bucket in a corner. There wasn't even enough room to sit down. If you were in a cattle car where people died, then the bodies were lying there. If you were in a cattle car and a woman gave birth, then that's what happened. It was just an unbelievable situation.
Then finally we arrived in a place where they opened the cattle cars. It was a foggy morning, and we couldn't see anything but barbed wire, and we really didn't know where we were.
German soldiers were screaming at us and hurting us. Then they lined us up side by side, and there stood a tall, elegant SS officer* who decided between life and death. I was pulled out. Our family was five, and I was pulled out. One minute I was with my family and the next, I was alone in the middle of Auschwitz. I was 15 years old.
What did you do to overcome the possibility of dying when so many did?
Dr. Victor Frankel was a young Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna. He found himself in Auschwitz and all the while he was writing a book in his mind. What he wrote in The Search for Human Meaning is that there are three tools with which you can survive any situation. One is that you have to know you have a choice. You may not have a choice whether you live or die, but you do have a choice of how you die. The second is that you have to have a purpose, and the third is you have to be able to write, in your mind and in your soul, about that situation. You can make it with these tools.
Right from the first day I made up my mind, I'm not going to die. I'm going to live. It was very naive because in the camp the same people who surrounded me the night before might have been dead the next morning just from starvation. But I always knew, not me. It didn't matter how horrible things were, or that I was starving.
The other thing is, I had a goal. I didn't believe that my parents and the rest of my family were dead, despite the fact that in Auschwitz you could practically smell the burning flesh. At night you could see the sky lit up from the crematories. But I always said that no, my parents were in another camp and they would be there after the war, and I have to live because it would break their hearts if I didn't come back. I thought, I have to live for my parents, and, in turn, I did rise above it.
What events led to your liberation?
I was in three death marches from Auschwitz to Stutpphof in the middle of the winter. If someone fell and couldn't get up, they were shot. And I'm sure that this had happened before, because, as we walked, both sides of the road were scattered with bodies. They were all prisoners; you could see that they were not soldiers. I can tell you that they were all Jewish bodies, and I remember how horrible that was. People lying there like garbage. I don't think the whole world ever disrespected life as much as the Second World War. I think something happened to Western civilization where life became of absolutely no value anymore when I think about it. I remember that road scattered like garbage with human bodies. The thing is that to dehumanize human beings that much, I think it humanized the whole world.
While we were marching, we were bombed because we were marching with SS officers. Since that was what the planes saw, they bombed us. Well, the Germans knew they were losing the war, so they closed us in a huge barn. There were about 1, 000 of us, and when the Russians liberated us, only 30 were still alive. There were bodies all over the barn.
How did your outlook on life change after you were liberated?
I went through many changes. In the beginning I was only filled with pain because I was the only survivor of my family. I was still very young, 16, when I was liberated in 1945. I went from country to country, from hospital to hospital, for the next five years. These hospitals were fabulous, but for two years I couldn't even sit up. All that time I never had one visitor.
The people of the world, and this includes mostly Jewish people, were financially very generous. We were all children, because the older people did not survive. I think that was the most painful experience; people always ask me, "How did you feel when you were liberated?" I felt abandoned. I felt confused. I felt lost. I needed a grown-up, preferably a Jew, to come and tell me, "You are still a child. Come and live with us. We will give you a home. We will teach you to love again. We will teach you to believe again. We will teach you to trust again. " No one was there to teach me those things.
Would you say that the Holocaust impacted you more physically or psychologically?
Most of the time people don't realize how destructive it was psychologically. There are really no words to explain it. If you weren't shot or killed by bombs or bullets or from being beaten, and you, all at once, after the war found yourself in a free world, then you were physically saved.
But how do you erase the psychological pain that you went throug has a child? How can you erase the fact that all at once you were totally dehumanized and you lost your identity and you were a non-person? Those things will never heal.
How do you help prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again?
I talk. The dead, they cannot doit. I'm the one who survived. They cannot talk, so I have to do it for them. I always say this as a joke. I have to do this so I can prove to God that he didn't make a mistake. But you know, the truth is, this is what I do.
The giving of yourself is very important. You have to do things to show you are a part of this world. I do not take my existing, my surviving, my being here as a miracle;I look at it as an obligation.
*SS is short for Schutzstaffel, an elite corps of combat troops formed as a bodyguard for Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Its responsibilities expanded to include the suppression of political opponents and the persecution of Jews. The SS supervised the concentration camps. (www. bartleby. com)