All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Those Who Survived
"The world must know what happened, and never forget." - General Eisenhower
Paris, France 1974:
Josef Vogeler knew that his mother, Helena, had been involved during the war, but she never told him how. Often, he looked at the tattoo on her left arm, although she usually covered it. His Uncle Itzhak told Josef that Helena did not want to talk about it. Helena had a friend named Claire who lived in Paris and there were times that she came to help Helena. Claire had lived through the war too and still cursed the Germans so many years later. Josef’s father died when he was only two and Helena rarely talked about him. She only said that he had been a brave man and helped people during the war. When sixteen-year-old Josef came home that day, he saw his mother talking to Claire in the kitchen.
Helena greeted her son, “What did you study today?” she asked.
“Trigonometry and stuff,” he replied hastily before heading down the hallway to his bedroom.
“What is stuff?” his mother asked.
“You know, history, we were learning about World War Two,” Josef said quickly.
“Can I ask you something?” Josef asked hesitatingly.
“Of course,” Helena had a fairly good idea of what the question would be.
“Were you in Auschwitz?” her son asked, “I mean, I only thought because of the tattoo...”
“Yes,” Helena replied softly, “But the story starts before that.”
Helena walked over to the sofa and motioned for her son to sit down and turned to Claire who still stood in the kitchen.
“Do you mind?” she asked.
The other woman shook her head and sat down too.
She turned to her son and said, “You’re old enough to hear it and I need to tell someone one day.”
She stared into the distance as she began, “It began in the winter of 1940…”
Kraków, Poland, December 1940:
A large van pulled up in front of a small brick house in the dead of night. Its lights shone in through the window, but the occupant slept on. A pounding began at the door and Helena Fäber sat straight up in bed. She heard her brother, Itzhak, groan sleepily in the next room. The pounding came again and a harsh voice called out in German, "Öffnen die Tür! Open the door!”
Helena harbored no doubts that the midnight visitors were the Gestapo. Her mouth went dry as she listened to her brother open the door and heard the men tramping through the house. She jumped out of her bed and turned on lights; she knew that they were there to arrest her and no one else. Helena worked for the Resistance, unbeknownst to her brother and his wife. Her door opened with a bang and in stepped two uniformed members of the Gestapo. Behind them, her brother stared on with fear.
"Helena Fäber?" one of them barked at her.
"Ye-es," Helena stuttered.
"You are under arrest, you have five minutes to dress," the Gestapo man turned to Itzhak, "Make sure she hurries."
"Sir, why are you arresting my sister, she didn't do anything?" Itzhak asked the police officer.
He received no answer and the man stomped out of the room, slamming the door closed behind him. Helena pulled on a heavy dress and her only coat. She slipped on stockings and a pair of worn shoes as fast as she could and ran to the bed.
"Helena, why are they arresting you?" Itzhak asked worriedly.
Helena lifted up the mattress and pulled out a small gun. She turned to her brother and said, "Get rid of it, do anything with it, but don't let them see it!"
Her brother's eyes burned with rage as he made the connection, "You endangered the whole family by joining the Resistance?" he asked angrily.
Helena didn't answer, but opened her bedroom door to face the Gestapo. On the opposite side of the hall, her brother's wife, Edda, stood with Helena’s younger brother, Roman. Their faces had fearful expressions. One of the men grabbed Helena by the arm and dragged her out the door. He wrenched open the car door and flung Helena inside, throwing her on the floor. The back doors were slammed closed and Helena sat in darkness. How the Germans knew of her Resistance work would always remain a mystery; there must have been an informer.
The car came to a sudden stop. The door opened and one of the men forcibly dragged Helena from the vehicle. Helena looked up at the building with fear; they had taken her to Montelupich prison. The building had barred windows lining the outside wall and had an infamous reputation. Once inside, Helena followed her captors to a heavy wooden door. The plaque read 'Gerhard Manthe'. The door opened to reveal a large and surprisingly well-lit office. A man sat behind a desk covered with papers. Helena stood in front of the desk and tried to stop herself from shaking. The man behind the desk stood a head taller than Helena and loomed over her as he stood up. He asked in a surprisingly amiable tone, "Your name is Helena Fäber and you are seventeen?"
"Yes," she replied.
"And you live at 75 ul. Ligoka in Kraków?"
"Who else lives with you? How old are they?" the man asked flipping through the papers in his hands.
Helena swallowed nervously but answered, " My brother's name is Itzhak and he's twenty eight, so is his wife Edda. Their son is one and his name is Oskar. My younger brother is Roman and he's eight."
Helena did not reveal any more information than necessary.
"How about your parents?" the man asked.
"They're dead," Helena replied, looking at the floor.
The man motioned to her two captors and they led her away from the room. She walked down several flights of stairs and turned into a dark hallway. A metal door clanged open ahead of her and her guard threw her into a cell. Helena allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark and surveyed her small cell. A pail meant to be used as a latrine stood in the corner. There were no windows. The metal door had a small opening that the guards could use to look inside. Helena felt terrified and used every bit of willpower to choke back the tears that threatened to spill over. She hoped that Itzhak had disposed of the gun. Instead of thinking more, Helena leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew, the door to her cell banged open and a man grabbed her and shoved her out the door. He led her back to the same office as yesterday. Her guard went to stand in the corner, leaving her face to face with the intimidating figure of Gerhard Manthe. His uniform looked clean and professional, but something glinted behind his eye as he looked at her.
"If you cooperate this will not take long," Manthe said, "You are a member of the Resistance."
It was a statement, not a question.
"You will tell me the whereabouts of Kraków’s leader and where meetings take place."
Helena remained silent, she would not answer and betray anyone. Manthe circled his desk until he stood in front of her. She did not look up at him, but stared at his chest.
"Answer me!" he yelled and struck her face with his large hand.
Helena stumbled back, but did not fall. When she did not comply with his order, he hit her again, this time knocking her to the floor. Violently, he kicked her face several times. Blood ran from her nose onto the ground and her interrogator began to hit her stomach. Panting, Manthe dropped down next to her on the floor and repeatedly struck her face. Manthe continued to beat her and, when he stopped, she lay unmoving on the floor. Blood ran out of her nose and mouth and bruises blossomed all over her swollen face. She laid bent double in pain from where he kicked her stomach and legs. Tears mixed with the blood on her face and they ran silently off her face. The guard, who remained in the room the entire time, pulled her into standing position. When Helena's knees buckled, he kicked her and yelled at her to stand.
"This is only the beginning of what will happen if you don't comply," Manthe warned.
Helena’s eyes were closed as she stood up and tried not to fall again. She did not answer and Manthe spoke to the guard, “Take her back to her cell,"
Helena fell to the floor of the cell as the door closed behind her. She held the sleeve of her coat to her face, trying to stop the blood that ran down her face. Helena wondered if they would kill her if she didn't comply. Several hours later, the door swung open and a man placed a plate of food and a tin of water inside. Helena reached for the water and soaked the edge of her coat in it. She dabbed at the multiple cuts and bruises on her face. Helena did not touch the food; instead, she closed her eyes and blissfully fell into unconsciousness.
A day passed before anything happened. The door of the cell swung open and three Gestapo men walked inside. One carried a chair and the other a radio, which puzzled Helena. One of the men repeated the same question she had been asked by Manthe, but Helena remained silent, knowing what the punishment would be. The other man grasped her hands and bound them tightly to the chair. The first reached for the whip that hung on his belt and Helena understood the meaning of the radio. She felt the first lash burn across her shoulder, but bit her lip to keep silent. The radio played music loud enough to cover any noise in the cell. The third German counted out the strikes of the whip,
"Zwei drei vier fünf. Two, three, four, five."
At the tenth stroke of the whip, Helena bit her hand to stop from crying out. The whip lashed into already cut skin and a cry escaped her. Her tormenter laughed and continued to lash her,
"Achtzehn, neunzehn, zwanzig. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty."
At twenty-five, the German stopped and the radio shut off. Blood ran off Helena's hand where she had bitten herself to keep quiet.
"So, are you ready to answer yet?" the man asked maliciously.
Helena pressed her face against her tied hands, not wanting him to see the pain and fear on her face. Her tormentor pulled her head back and lifted her face up. Her blood splattered the German’s face and he spat in her face before releasing her head. When she did not answer, the radio resumed playing and the lashings rained down on her already cut skin. Helena cried out every time the whip hit her back and wished that she would pass out.
"Dreißig, einunddreißig, zweiunddreißig. Thirty, thirty one, thirty two."
Her muscles convulsed each time the whip struck her and she gasped for breath. Helena felt her own blood run down her back and drip to the floor.
"Achtundvierzig, neunundvierzig, fünfzig! Forty eight, forty nine, fifty!"
The German put down the whip and the radio turned off. Someone ripped the rope off her hands and she fell to the floor. Sobs racked her body as she lay on the floor. One of the men hauled her to her feet and pressed her against the wall, forcing her to remain upright. The man pushed back her brown hair to reveal her face. Helena coughed and blood ran out of her mouth. Her tormenter looked at her face and he must have seen the fear in her dark eyes and said to his companions, “She won’t take long to break. Maybe another fifty lashes will do it.”
“Please...” the plea escaped Helena’s lips as the German grasped his whip again.
Instead of lashing her, he slammed his fist into the side of her head, sending her sprawling onto the floor.
“Leave her for now,” one of his companions said.
Kicking her one last time, the men left the cell. Within minutes, the world became dark.
When Helena came to, the back of her dress stood stiff with dried blood. Helena saw a reddish stain on the floor and her back felt as if though it was on fire. She moaned in pain when she sat up and leaned her back against the cold wall of the cell. She tipped the head back and wondered how long this would go on, or how long it would take until she let something slip.
There would always be periods of time before any one came back to interrogate her. In the middle of the night, two men came and dragged Helena from her cell. She followed them back to Manthe’s office. Manthe walked over to where Helena stood and looked at her bruised, bloody face.
“Are you going to cooperate?” Manthe asked Helena.
Helena remained silent, not answering him.
“Maybe you just need more convincing,” he said with a dangerous tone.
He grasped her arm and dragged her to a tub of water. He forced her into it and Helena felt the ice-cold water seep through her clothes. He motioned to one of the guards and one of them walked over. He tried to force her head under the water and Helena struck back against him.
“Do it like this,” Manthe said impatiently.
With one hand he held down Helena’s hands and with the other, forced her head under water. Once he succeeded, he released her hands. Helena could not breathe. Her hands grasped Manthe’s arms as she ran out of air. He did not release her until she felt her fingers loosen their grip. Gasping for air, Helena fell on the floor, shivering violently. Manthe repeated the process three more times before he let her lie on the floor. One of the guards pulled Helena into standing position while Manthe cursed loudly at her in German. Reaching into his belt, he removed a pistol and placed it against her head.
“I’ll ask you one more time, where do the Resistance meetings take place?” Manthe asked as he pressed the cold metal against her temple.
Helena thought that death would be better than this torture and closed her eyes. The trigger clicked, but nothing happened. The chamber was empty. The guard released her and Helena fell to the floor with tears running down her face.
Several months passed in such a way and the days merged into one another. Helena was only aware of her own cries mixed in with the waltzes on the radio. The rest passed by in a haze of pain. Some days she wished that they would just kill here instead of torturing her like this. Then one day the beatings stopped. Three days later, they unexplainably released her. The Gestapo man pushed her into the car and without asking where she lived, drove away. The vehicle did not stop in front of her home. Instead, Helena followed the man to a heavily guarded gate. Without questioning, she followed the Gestapo man through filthy streets filled with people. They stopped in front of a drab apartment building.
“Third floor, first door,” the man said and left Helena alone.
"Courage is a peculiar kind of fear."
“So you were part of the Resistance?” her son’s question jerked her back to reality.
“Yes, I joined when I turned sixteen and a year later I fully participated,” Helena replied, looking down at the floor.
“Weren’t you afraid of being caught?”
“I never though about it until it happened.”
She lifted her head and her son saw the tears on her face. Josef scooted closer to her and wrapped his arm around his mother’s shoulders.
“You don’t have to keep talking if you don’t want to,” he said gently.
Helena shook her head, “I’ll be fine.”
Claire sat down next to Helena, her own face very pale. Helena continued: “While imprisoned, all the Jews were taken to the Kraków ghetto, including my family. I didn’t know until the day I they released me.”
Kraków ghetto, April 1, 1941:
Helena walked up the dark staircase and followed the instructions she had been given. She knocked on the first door and waited. The door opened a few inches and Helena saw a face peer between the crack before it opened further.
“Helena?” her brother’s voice asked in shock and to her surprise, anger.
He opened the door and for the first time in four months, Helena saw Itzhak. He had become thin and he looked tired and defeated. She supposed she didn’t look much better. Itzhak opened the door and motioned for Helena to enter the apartment. She entered and found herself standing in a dimly lit kitchen. Several other people stood around the only table and glanced up at her. He turned to the to others and said, “This is Helena, my sister.” Helena looked around and saw her younger brother Roman walking cautiously towards her. She smiled at him and he jumped on her. Helena winced as her brother’s weight landed on her battered body; Itzhak did not miss the look. Helena laughed as she lifted Roman up and placed him on the floor. In the corner of the room, Edda stood holding Oskar with a sour expression on her face.
“Helena, this is Chaya and Chaim Lipowski,” her brother motioned towards an elderly couple.
“This is Anne and Otto Austerlitz and their daughter, Elsa,” he nodded towards a group of three people.
Helena greeted the people who were sharing the apartment and turned to her brother, who nudged her.
“What?” she asked.
Her brother said nothing, but walked out of the room; Helena followed him. Once they were alone, Itzhak turned angrily towards his sister.
“You endangered the entire family by joining the Resistance,” he said angrily.
“I didn’t want to surrender to them without a fight,” Helena shot back.
“And then you left all of us in this mess,” Itzhak motioned to the dingy apartment.
“Do you think I wanted to be arrested?” Helena asked quietly and turned around to leave her brother.
Itzhak grabbed her shoulder and pulled her around. Helena cried out in pain as her brother’s hand made contact with her wounded body.
“Look at you! Is this what you risked your life for?” he demanded as he continued to squeeze her shoulder.
Helena didn’t answer, but closed her eyes in pain.
“Stop,” a heavily accented voice cut in through the silence.
A tall woman wearing glasses limped into the room and stopped next to them. She turned to Itzhak, “Let go, you hurt her.” She spoke in broken Polish, but her brother released her and strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Helena bit back tears of sadness, why did her brother hate her?
“Are you alright?” the woman asked.
Helena looked at the floor and nodded.
“What’s your name?” the woman questioned.
“Helena,” she whispered.
“You are Itzhak’s sister, from the Resistance?”
“My name is Claire Bisset,” Claire lowered her voice, “From the French Resistance.”
Helena looked up at her and Claire asked, “Are you hurt?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Helena said, not wanting anyone to see the marks on her back and arms; her face looked bad enough.
Claire ignored her and as she took Helena’s arm, Helena saw the thin scars protrude from the other woman’s sleeve. Claire saw Helena staring and smiled a sad, crooked smile.
“Your brother hates you because he is afraid,” Claire said.
Helena turned away and felt tears come to her eyes. The other woman reached out and touched her arm.
“Please, just leave me alone,” Helena choked out.
Footsteps echoed through the room and when the noise disappeared, Helena leaned her head against the wall. Tears ran down her face and sobs shook her body. Helena wished that she never joined the Resistance, then her brother would not hate her. Helena did not want to be alone anymore. A gentle hand touched her shoulder and Helena turned around to see Claire. Claire put her arm around her shaking shoulders and Helena fell against her. The French woman hugged her tightly and Helena buried her face in her chest. Sobs racked her body and Claire stroked Helena’s hair and whispered, “You are afraid too, it doesn’t matter.” For a long time, Claire stood there while Helena cried. When she stopped, Claire led her back to the kitchen. Helena glanced out of the window; night had already fallen. In the back of the kitchen, a door led to another room with beds in it. Helena turned to her brother, knowing that her eyes were red.
“Where do you want me to sleep?” Helena asked her brother quietly.
“Well, Edda, Oskar, Roman, and I share that room with the Lipowskis,” Itzhak said motioning to the back room, “You can sleep with the Austerlitzs and Claire.”
Helena went back to the room where she had come from and found the Austerlitzs in it already. She smiled at Elsa, who asked in German, “What happened to your face?” A pained expression crossed Helena’s face as she answered in Polish, “I was arrested.” The girl did not understand the Polish words and Helena repeated them in German. She turned to Elsa’s parents and asked in German,
“Woher kommen Sie? Where are you from?”
Otto glared at her and, in Polish, told her to mind her own business. Claire entered the room and motioned to the thin mattress on the floor next to her, “You sleep here?” she asked. Helena smiled and nodded. Helena knew enough French to talk to Claire in her own language.
“Où sont les Austerlitzs de? Where are the Austerlitzs from?” Helena asked.
Claire glanced up in surprise, but answered,
“Allemagne, mais ils ne disent pas comment ils sont arrivés ici. Germany, but they won’t say how they got here.”
Helena glanced over at the family who slept on the opposite side of the small room. She turned back towards Claire and for the first time she removed her coat. Her dress had tears and bloodstains on it. Helena removed it and pulled her coat over herself; she intended to mend the dress as best as could, but Claire took it from her and said, “You use mine.” She turned to a small pile of clothing and removed a woolen dress and handed it to Helena. She smiled in thanks, but before she pulled it over her head, Claire grabbed her hand.
“Let me see your shoulder,” Claire said firmly.
Helena trembled as Claire lifted the coat to reveal a long lash mark that traversed her shoulder. Claire frowned and went to find some water. When she returned, Claire dabbed the water on Helena’s shoulder. Helena winced as the liquid trickled into the wound. As Claire neared the end of the cut, Helena abruptly said, “That’s fine.” She did not want Claire to see the scars on her back. But Claire shook her head and kept cleaning the wound.
“Do they still hurt?” Claire asked, motioning to the old marks.
Helena shook her head and lay down on the mattress. As Claire reached over to blow out the candle, her sleeve pulled up and Helena saw the scars on her arms again.
“What did they do to you?” Helena asked quietly.
“They’re the same marks as on your back, Helena,” she replied, “They just tortured me for longer than you.”
She lay down, but turned to face Helena in the dark. “They didn’t just leave me with a bad leg and a crooked mouth,” Claire said softly, “But with fear.” In the darkness, Helena reached out and clasped Claire’s hand. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
"We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival."
Helena turned to her son who had gone very quiet next to her. He stared at Claire.
“You’re the same person aren’t you?” Josef asked.
Claire nodded, “Your mother was afraid when she came, you could see it on her face, and yet she still smiled. I never saw Itzhak smile.”
“Did the Gestapo torture you too?” Josef asked Claire.
The woman turned her head away from him and did not answer. Helena shook her head at her son, motioning for him to be quiet.
“Did they all survive?” Josef asked knowing what the answer would be.
“No, only three including me survived,” Helena replied.
“But Claire and Uncle Itzhak are still alive, so the rest died?” her son asked quietly.
Her son gazed out the window; “I don’t like Uncle Itzhak very much anymore.”
“Nor did I,” Helena smiled sadly, “But sometime you have to forgive people.”
“But he hated you!” Josef protested.
“Yes, because he cared about his family,” Helena said, “Although I wish he had cared more.”
February 10 1943:
Helena Fäber stared out through the filthy glass window into the dark streets below. For almost two miserable years, Helena and her family had lived in this room with three other families. A year later after Helena came to the ghetto, the deportations, or Aktions, began. People were rounded up and loaded into trucks; no one ever returned. Now, Helena had just turned nineteen. She turned to the bed and shook her older brother, Itzhak. In return, he groaned and rolled over towards his sister.
“What?” he asked sleepily.
“We need to go to work,” she replied.
Helena left the small room, being careful not to crush anyone’s fingers or toes, and entered the makeshift kitchen. The Austerlitzs and Claire already stood at the table
“Where’s your brother?” Mr. Austerlitz asked.
“Trying to wake up,” Helena replied.
“Don’t wait for him, just leave or you’ll be late,” Mr. Austerlitz said worriedly.
Helena opened the heavy wooden door and ran down the pitch-black stairway. Helena knew every step of it; she had used it every day for two years. Helena worked several streets down from their apartment in a clothing factory. All the clothes went to the Germans. Her brother worked in a construction job and worked long hours for little pay. Mrs. Lipowski had an office job that was relatively easy. Mr. Austerlitz was an OD man and hated his job immensely. Roman, her ten-year-old brother, stayed home with fifteen-year-old Elsa. Helena reached the large factory and entered and hoped that she would not be late. To her relief, the other women were only just arriving. It was 5:30 AM. All day, she would mend clothes for the people who held them captive. Mrs. Austerlitz and Claire both worked in the same factory.
“Halt! Stop!” the loud voice rang out across the factory floor.
Helena felt relieved, that meant she could go home. Along with the other women, she walked outside, breathing in the cool air. Her brother, Itzhak, waited outside for her and he looked afraid.
“Come on,” he said urgently.
Itzhak stared around; making sure no one could hear him. “Mr. Lipowski is dead,” he said. Helena stared back in disbelief. “But I thought he had flu and stayed in the apartment?”
“Exactly, they shot him in the apartment,” her brother said.
“What about Roman and Elsa, were they able to reach the hiding place in time?” she asked fearfully.
“Yes,” Itzhak said, “Now hurry up.”
The siblings walked back home quickly. The two of them ran upstairs quickly to the dark apartment. Two candles illuminated the dingy room. In the middle of the room, Mr. Lipowski’s wife sat crying. Helena went over to where Elsa Austerlitz sat beneath the window hugging her knees.
“What happened?” Helena asked gently.
Elsa turned a tear-streaked face towards her and said, “We were finishing the cleaning and someone knocked on the door. When we didn’t open, he threatened to break open the door. Mr. Lipowski told me to take Roman to the hiding spot and that he would take care of everything. We did and he opened the door.” Elsa stopped abruptly and began shaking. Helena placed her arm around the younger girl and asked, “What did the man say?”
“He was a Nazi and he asked Mr. Lipowski why he hadn’t gone to work. He said he that he needed to stay home because of his illness. Then he started yelling horrible things and we heard a gun go off,” Elsa finished. Helena stayed next to her until, one by one, everyone went to sleep.
“Helena, come here for a minute,” her brother called quietly from the kitchen.
Helena stood up and found her brother and Edda crowded around the small table. Itzhak stood up.
“Helena, we want you to be careful. Many people think Mr. Austerlitz caused Mr. Lipowski’s murder,” he brother said gravely, “After all, he is an OD man.”
Startled, Helena looked up at Itzhak. Her brother never worried about her, he didn’t care what she did with herself.
“I think you’re wrong,” she said, “Mr. Austerlitz never takes pleasure in his job and Elsa saved Roman today.”
“The thing is, Helena, no one outside of the apartment knew that Mr. Lipowski stayed home, so someone must have told,” Itzhak said.
“No matter who is responsible for this, you will be more careful from now on,” Edda said sternly, “Itzhak will meet you at the factory after work everyday, you are not to walk home without him.”
‘But I’ve never walked home alone,” she said puzzled, “I come back with Claire.”
“Who speaks little German and is here not only because she’s a Jew, but because she’s a Resistance member,” Itzhak said.
“She is not someone we can trust with our lives. Regardless of what she’s told you,” he said sharply as Helena protested.
“I don’t care what you think, I trust her,” Helena turned and walked out of the kitchen
The next morning, Helena woke up from Claire shaking her. She sat up and coughed loudly.
“Are you sick?” the French woman asked worriedly.
Helena shook her head and began dressing quickly. During the day, she kept coughing more and more, but blamed the dusty air she worked in. By the time Itzhak came for her she felt sick and dizzy.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied between coughs.
The next morning, the cough only became worse and Helena had a fever and felt ill.
“You cannot go to work,” Claire said firmly.
To sick to protest, Helena fell back down on her bed.
“Roman and Elsa are here and they can take care of you,” she said before heading out the door.
As the week progressed, two things took a turn for the worse. Helena had only become sicker and could hardly stand up and the amount of food on the dinner table became less and less. Helena knew why. She hadn’t worked and thus hadn’t been paid.
“I’ll go back to work tomorrow,” she told Claire that evening.
“You can’t, you’re too sick,” she replied.
“She’s right, Claire, we’re running out of food,” her brother snapped.
Somehow, Helena managed to drag herself out of her bed and to the factory the next morning. Her hands shook as she tried to thread the needle and Claire took it from her and slipped the fine thread through the eye. As the morning crawled by, Helena felt sicker and the sun beating down on the warehouse did not help. Nor did the dust flying about ease her coughing. A hand touched her back and Helena turned to the side to see Claire looking at her worriedly.
“Avez-vous besoin de rentrer à la maison? Do you need to go home?” she asked in French.
Helena shook her head in response. By midday, Helena had made only half the amount of shirts the other women had completed. Needless to say, the overseer did not look pleased. As he inspected her work, he started to yell at her for not finishing the correct amount. Helena could not protest and the German struck her across the face. She slipped off the bench she worked at and fell to the floor. The soldier continued to kick her. “I’m sorry!” Helena cried out as he beat her, “I’ll work more this afternoon!” He did not listen and hit her temple with the back of his gun and the world became black.
Someone shook her and her entire body throbbed with pain. A bright light shone through her closed eyes, making her sick. Helena opened her eyes and threw up. She turned around to see Claire and Mrs. Austerlitz standing above her.
“Are you all right?” Mrs. Austerlitz asked.
Helena opened her mouth to answer, but began coughing too hard to continue. Her chest and throat burned as she coughed and Claire pulled her up as she kept coughing. The side of Claire’s mouth bled and her lip had become swollen
“What happened?” Helena asked.
“She tried to stop the overseer from hitting you,” Mrs. Austerlitz said, “You’re not going back to work.”
Helena felt too tired to protest and she lay back down.
For three weeks, Helena lay in their apartment. One of her brother’s friends said she had pneumonia. Elsa Austerlitz tried to take care of her at first, but as she became sicker, she couldn’t do much. Instead, Claire stayed with her. She would disappear every couple of hours and Helena believed it had to do with the food that kept appearing on the table. Even though neither Helena nor Claire worked, they never lacked the money and food to support everyone in the apartment.
"The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."
-Marcus Tullius Cicero
“That’s horrible,” Josef said quietly.
Helena did not reply, but stared absently away.
“Did you ever find out who informed on Mr. Lipowski?” her son asked hesitatingly.
“No, but Mrs. Lipowski might have let something slip at work,” she replied.
“We learned that the deported people were sent to Auschwitz, is that how you ended up there?”
“No, we were sent to another camp first after the Nazis liquidated the ghetto.”
March 12, 1943:
In the three weeks that she had been sick, there were two Aktions. Amazingly, no one in the apartment had been deported. As Helena walked to work with Claire, the French woman pulled her aside.
“Les Allemands liquident le ghetto. The Germans are liquidating the ghetto,” she whispered to Helena.
“Quand? When?” Helena asked urgently, “Comment savez-vous? How do you know?”
“Tomorrow,” Claire replied and then scanned her surrounding for anyone.
“Resistance,” the French woman said and placed a finger to her lips.
Helena nodded at the warning and they resumed their walk. The day passed by slowly and Helena could not stop thinking about what Claire told her. Where will they take all of us? Even though her family led a miserable life, they knew how each day would pass for the most part. Helena wondered if they would all be shot.
When Itzhak met her to walk home, Helena watched him carefully. He looked as he always did; tired. Cautiously, Helena asked, “Do you know what’s happening tomorrow?” Her brother glanced at her and shook his head, “What did you hear now?”
“The ghetto is going to be liquidated,” Helena said abruptly.
“How do you know?” he asked as his face turned white.
“Claire told me,” she said quietly.
“Look, no one else has said anything and unless someone at home mentions it, we will not discuss it further,” Itzhak said and strode on.
Someone at home did know; Mrs. Lipowski sat ashen faced at the table. Her brother walked up to her and asked, “What is it?”
“The ghetto will be liquidated tomorrow,” she replied.
Itzhak turned to Helena, his mouth open with shock. Mr. Austerlitz shifted uncomfortably in the corner.
“We have papers,” Mr. Austerlitz said, “We intend to escape.”
“And how will you accomplish that?” Itzhak asked.
The room lapsed into silence once more. Everyone remained occupied with his own thoughts until darkness fell. Then, the Austerlitz family rose and gathered their belongings. The family slipped out of the door and Helena never saw them again. Helena went to the now almost empty room and gazed around. No trace showed that the Austerlitzs had ever been there. Helena stared at the small flame of the candle and thought about tomorrow. She knew that the man in charge of the ghetto had a reputation for being ruthless and Helena felt afraid. She feared the Gestapo and the SS more than anyone else. Claire came into the room and Helena turned to her and asked, “Where will they take us?”
“Goeth runs a camp,” she replied, “If we can work they’ll take us there, otherwise…”
Claire broke off, but Helena knew what she meant. That night, Helena lay close beside Claire as fear threatened to overcome her. She didn’t want to be tortured again. When she thought that Claire had fallen asleep, Helena let her calm disappear and sat up shaking with fear. A hand grasped her cold one and Claire sat up next to her. Helena leaned against her; letting Claire put her arms around her trembling form. Helena let her head fall against Claire’s shoulder and grasped her hand tightly.
“Are you afraid?” Claire asked softly.
Helena nodded silently.
“Listen, Helena, they can’t torture all of us in the whole ghetto. The most they can do is shoot us,” Claire said.
“I’d rather be shot,” Helena whispered.
Eventually, she must have fallen asleep because the next thing she knew, the French woman called out that people were in the streets. Helena dressed in less than a minute and joined her at the window. Uniformed men strode through the streets and stormed into apartments. Helena could hear boots pounding in the stairwell and a rough voice shouted,
“Raus! Raus! Out! Out!”
The door to the apartment flew open and a soldier stood holding his gun,
He motioned towards to door. All of the occupants ran down the stairs as fast as they could. The street was chaotic. Confused people swarmed about amidst soldiers who were yelling and waving their guns. People screamed as shots rang through the crowd. Standing among the confused crowd, Helena saw a soldier heading towards her brother and his wife, who were standing several feet away. The soldier yelled at them, apparently he wanted them to give their child to him. Edda backed away and refused to give Oskar to the soldier. The German threatened to shoot both of them and Itzhak pleaded with him. A shot rang out and a woman’s voice cried out in pain. Helena turned around to see Edda and Oskar fall to the ground. The child lay obviously dead, but Edda stirred. The soldier pulled out a pistol and shot her through the head. Itzhak let out a cry before the soldier forced him back with the others. Helena stared straight ahead, not looking at anyone. Roman clasped Itzhak’s hand tightly. This went on for hours and they were led to stand in a clearing. It had long passed midday and they were still standing without food or water. Finally, a voice shouted to march. The walk must have been two miles and by the time they reached their destination, Helena felt exhausted. The remaining people marched through a gate leading to their new prison: Płaszów KZ.
"In the concentration camps, we discovered this whole universe where everyone had his place. The killer came to kill, and the victims came to die."
“They just shot them?” her son asked in disbelief.
“Yes, but maybe it was better for them that way,” Helena replied, “The child would have died in Płaszów anyway,”
“How can you say that?” he asked.
“Because the commandant of Płaszów was the most sadistic man I ever knew.
“What happened to the Austerlitzs?” Josef asked.
“We think they were shot trying to escape,” Helena replied sadly.
Helena did not immediately continue, but turned to look directly at Josef.
“What do you know about Amon Goeth?”
Her son glanced at her and said, “Not much.”
“Well listen, I have never wished suffering on anyone, but that man deserved to burn in Hell,” Helena said sharply.
Płaszów KZ, Poland, 1943:
A man stood in the middle of a clearing and gave orders, “Women left, men right!” Helena followed the other women to a large wooden building. The inside walls were lined with wooden bunks, each three deep. There were already women in about half the bunks. Nothing stood in the center of the room except for a small metal stove. Another prisoner stood in front of the women and said, “This is where you will stay, tomorrow you will be assigned to a work detail.” She walked back out of the door. The newcomers were uncertain as to what to do. Helena turned to find Claire in the crowd, who had not understood the majority of the woman’s instructions. One of the prisoners stood up and came over to where they stood.
“I’m Halina,” the woman said, “It’s two in a bunk so find one that’s open.”
Helena found an open bunk close to the floor and sat down on the straw pallet. Claire sat down next to her. In the next few hours, several of the older prisoners made their way to the newcomers. Halina came to their row of bunks.
“Tomorrow you’ll be put in a work detail,” she said, “If you’re lucky they’ll put you in the clothing warehouse.”
“Where are the men?” a worried voice asked.
“They’re in other barracks, you’ll only see them at roll call and during breaks.”
Halina spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, “Listen, you need to be sixteen to work so if you’re younger just lie.”
Helena thought about Roman, “What if you’re too young?”
“Well there’s the kinderheim, but nothing good will come out of it,” Halina said sadly.
An hour later, a stern looking woman entered with food. Helena looked at her meal. The soup they received looked watery and yellow and the bread had the consistency of sawdust. She didn’t care; she felt too hungry. When they finished their meager meal, a trumpet sounded from outside. That would be their signal to sleep, rise, and eat. Helena lay down on the bunk beside Claire and before she knew it, she fell asleep.
The next morning, the trumpet sounded at 5:00 AM. Helena stumbled groggily from the bunk. The women were ushered outside and taken to the appelplatz. There, they stood in orderly lines. Helena stood in the front row and saw a prisoner with a desk in front of them. A man on horseback entered the appelplatz. He jumped of his horse and strode to the man behind the desk. Immediately, he came to attention and began talking in rapid German to the man. Helena realized that this man must be Goeth. The roll call went of for at least three hours and by the time it finished, Helena’s legs felt like collapsing. A uniformed woman began to split up the new women into work details, yelling all the while. Helena felt herself shoved to the left and saw Claire going to the right. Helena followed the others to a long dirt road. A group of women were already gathered there and they mingled together. A uniformed SS woman stood at the head of the group.
“You will pave the street with those stones,” she motioned to a large pile of rectangular stones, “Now get to it, you filthy Jews!”
Helena followed the group to the pile of stones. As she drew closer, she saw that they were not regular paving stones, but tombstones. Helena picked one up and carried it to the road. There, all the women began to lie out the stones. Helena felt revolted; they were using tombstones to make a road for the Germans. They went on in the same way. The overseer continuously yelled and swore at the women. When she felt displeased with the work, the women hit or whipped a prisoner. They had roll call again that evening for several long hours. Afterwards when they had dinner, Helena found Claire.
“In which detail you working?” Claire asked.
“We paved a street,” Helena replied and then added quietly, “With tombstones.” “It’s Orlowski’s work detail,” Claire said grimly, “Everyone hates and fears her.”
“What did you do?” Helena asked.
“Worked in the quarry,” she replied.
Claire turned her hands up; they were bloody and torn.
“Goeth came,” the French woman said, “He shot two women for no reason.”
Helena wondered what type of a place this was.
The next day, she continued working on the street. Unfortunately, Helena’s work did not please Orlowski. The SS woman came over to where Helena stood bent over the stones. She already had her whip clutched in her hand. She began yelling at her and pointed angrily to the ground. Helena had not put the stones down straight. Helena heard a crack and felt pain flash across her face. She stumbled back while clutching her eye. The whip had cut across the corner of her eye and blood ran down her face. Orlowski continued to curse at her and Helena turned back to her work. By that evening, the left side of Helena’s face had swollen. She could hardly open her eye. In the barracks, Helena dabbed clumsily at her wound with her damp sleeve. Claire came up behind her.
“Did it cut your eye?” she asked worriedly.
Helena nodded and pressed her sleeve harder against her face. Her eye felt as if though it was on fire.
"I think loss of loved ones is the hardest blow in life."
Josef’s question broke into her story, “Is that why you can’t see very good out of your left eye?”
“Yes,” Helena replied.
“Why did Goeth shoot those people?”
“Because he didn’t care about them, he shot people every day,” Claire broke in, “They were replaceable.”
“Sometime he let his dogs attack them too,” Helena added
Josef sat quietly for a few moments. “Did he ever do anything to you?”
“Yes, but only once,” she replied, “People like his maids and the boy who took care of his dogs were much worse off.”
Płaszów KZ, December 1943
Months dragged by in Płaszów and soon December arrived and with it, snow. Snow covered everything but the women kept working. The overseers wore thick coats, but the prisoners labored in their own clothes. Helena saw the cruelty of Goeth the first time when two people escaped from the camp. All the women stood in a line and every tenth woman was taken out of the line. They were taken to Chuj Hill, which equaled death. Helena heard the gunshots echo through the camp. The worst she had seen was when Goeth killed Adam Sztab. He had been accused of hiding weapons in the camp. The commandant pulled out his pistol and shot him twice. He ordered the body to be hung by the appelplatz to serve as an example to the others. If anyone dared to look away they would be beaten. Helena watched as Adam’s body swung from the rope that held him up, his eyes bulged grotesquely from his face. Although Helena worked under the cruel Orlowski, she felt relieved that she did not work in the quarry like Claire did. Goeth came there much more often and had on occasion released his two Great Danes, Ralf and Rolf, on a prisoner.
During one of her breaks, Helena walked to the latrine. As she did this she passed by a truck stacked high with crates. Goeth stood beside them. His eyes scanned around at the nearby prisoners looking for someone to call to unload the trucks.
"You!" he yelled at Helena who froze with fear, "Come here!"
Helena walked over to where Goeth stood. The man towered over her by at least a foot and she looked up at him.
"Unload the truck, take the boxes to my villa."
"Ja, Herr Commandant," Helena said and went to the truck.
The boxes were heavy and Helena had to carry them up a hill to reach Goeth's villa. After several hours Helena had emptied about three quarters of the truck. Goeth had waited by his house and sometimes followed her as she worked. Helena had not been allowed to stop once even though it started to snow harder. Her hands were numb with cold and while carrying a particularly heavy box; she accidentally let it fall to the ground. The box cracked and its contents spilled out. Goeth became furious and stormed over to her as she tried to put everything back in the box.
"You stupid dog!"
He struck Helena across her face so hard that she fell down. Helena saw black spots in her eyes as he hit her again and again. Helena held up her hands but Goeth struck her over and over. He stopped and ordered her to stand. Helena felt her face swelling and blood dribbled off her chin.
"Pick it up!"
Helena did and tried to pick up all the contents, but there were too many loose objects. She dropped several and Goeth grabbed her arm and roughly turned her around.
"You whore! Can't you do anything right?"
His fist hit her mouth and he shoved her backwards. Helena picked up the box and began walking to the villa. Goeth repeatedly struck her back with his gun as she walked. "Schnell! Laufen! Fast! Run!"
Helena ran as fast as she could with the crate until she reached the doorway. She stood at the door her entire face bloody and bruised.
"Get back to the barrack!"
Helena turned and walked back as fast as she could.
"What happened?" Claire asked when she saw Helena's face.
"Goeth made me carry boxes to his house," she said quietly.
Helena's mouth bled the most and Claire pressed a cloth against it.
"Spit," she ordered.
Helena did and several teeth came out. Soon, dinner arrived and Helena sat down next to Claire. She still shook.
"It's all right," Claire said putting an arm around her. "It's over."
As the winter went on the temperatures became colder and colder. The worst were the days when they had to shower. They would be driven outside and all the women would soon be shaking with cold. At night, Helena pressed close against Claire trying to keep warm. One day, the kinderheim was liquidated. At roll call one morning they heard music playing and saw the children being led to trucks. Helena scanned the crowd and saw Roman with them. She stepped forward but Claire pulled her back, "Don't you can't do anything." Commotion ensued as the hysterical mothers ran forth in an attempt to save their children. The Germans refused to let them near the children and beat them back. Helena struggled against Claire's grip but the older woman would not let go.
"Please just let go. I can't leave him." Helena begged.
"You can’t do anything, they only punish you!” Claire said harshly.
Surprised by her tone, Helena looked at Claire’s face and saw pain in the depths of her blue eyes. The French woman turned away from the sight and closed her eyes. When the trucks drove away they were sent to work. That night in the barracks many women cried for their lost children. Claire sat stone-faced on the bunk staring blankly ahead.
"Claire?" Helena asked quietly, "Are you alright?"
Claire turned her face towards her and Helena saw tears in her eyes. Slowly, they ran from behind her glasses and down her cheeks. Helena put her arm around Claire as she began to cry harder.
"They killed him and made me watch. I couldn't do anything."
The words tumbled from her mouth in a mixture of French and Polish. Claire leaned her head against Helena's chest and shook with sobs. She had never in more than two years seen Claire cry. Helena leaned against the top of Claire's head and stroked her back.
"It's all right," she whispered.
For a long time, Claire leaned against Helena. When she sat up her eyes were red and she shook violently. Claire lay down on the bunk and Helena covered her with her coat. She lay down next to Claire and pressed closely against her. Slowly, the other woman stopped trembling and lay still against Helena.
"Thank you," she whispered and grasped Helena's hand "Thank you."
"One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives."
"He beat you for dropping a box?" Josef asked in shock.
"Yes, and he did worse to others for much less." she replied.
Josef turned to Claire, who let her long, brown hair cover her face, “What happened?”
Claire did not answer, but let out a silent sob. Helena pulled her close and let Claire lean against her.
"They shot her husband in front of her," Helena said softly.
Płaszów KZ, July 1944:
The deportations began in the summer of 1944. That same year, more and more transports began to arrive in Płaszów. The people came on trains shut up in boxcars like animals and left in the same fashion. Helena no longer paved the streets with tombstones, but transferred to the quarry. There, the work was strenuous and the kapos were horrible. The women either swung pickaxes or hauled the rocks. Helena hauled rocks. In the summer it became an almost intolerable task to walk up the steep hill. The sun beat down on Helena’s back as she dragged at least twenty pounds up the hill. If they didn’t walk fast enough, the kapo would beat them mercilessly. On occasion, Goeth visited the quarry. Some days he came out early, before 6:00 AM and arrived on horseback. At these times he wore his field cap. When the women saw this, they worked as hard and as fast as they could. That would be a sure sign that at least five people would be killed that morning. It would be even worse if he brought his dogs. If they saw Goeth in such a way during a break, people would run and hide. The latrine was one of the best places; all the Germans avoided it because of the stench. Rumors floated around the camp of a Nazi known as Oskar Schindler. People who worked in his factory said that he promised to help them survive the war. Helena did not know if the rumors were true. During one of the breaks, Helena stood next to a group of women who were talking to their husbands and sons.
“Goldberg is making a list,” one of the men whispered excitedly.
“Who will go on it?” someone asked.
“Well some people are put on it automatically, but I think bribes will play a large part in it,” the man replied.
“A list for what?” Helena broke in.
“For Schindler’s factory.”
That night, Helena asked Claire what she thought about the list.
“Do you think it’s true, that Schindler will save them?” Helena asked cautiously.
“I don’t know, he seems different,” the other woman replied.
At that moment, dinner arrived. The soup looked even paler than usual and Helena gulped it down. Claire divided her bread in half and handed it to Helena. She shook her head, “No, eat it yourself.”
“Listen to me, if you go on that list, you go, even if I’m not,” Claire said, “But I promise that if I’m on it only I’ll try to stay with you.”
“No, I won’t leave you in this hell,” Helena protested.
“Helena, you have you’re whole life ahead of you, you’re brother is alive,” Claire said, “I have no one.”
“Exactly, I’ll stay with you then.”
“Promise me you won’t, please Helena,” Claire asked.
It happened on a Sunday; the women didn’t have to work and could sleep later. A panicked voice broke the silence.
“Wake up! They’re coming!”
Immediately, all the women went outside as fast as they could. At the appelplatz, they were ordered to line up. The men stood in a similar formation on the opposite side. Helena saw Itzhak standing in the front row. It was a selection. An SS man walked rapidly down the line, selecting women and ordering them to step forward and go to the center. The same happened on the opposite side with the men. Her brother remained in the line. Helena watched as a woman limped out of the line, Claire. The French woman turned around and looked at Helena. The SS man continued down the line, leaving Helena where she stood. Helena glanced at Itzhak who shook his head at her; no doubt he knew what she planned to do. Several women next to her were selected and Helena grasped one of their wrists and pushed them into her spot. Helena followed the other selected women to the middle. Amidst the crowd, Claire found Helena. When the selection finished, the women were ordered to march to train station. There, a line of cattle cars awaited them. The cars were filled up with as many people as possible and then the doors were closed and locked. Helena found herself in a corner next to Claire. The metal roof made the boxcar an oven. The cars stood immobile on the rails for several hours. Many older people and younger children fainted. Those closest to the slits in the walls called out for water. After what seemed like an eternity, the train began to move. People took turns standing and sitting down. When Helena sat down she closed her eyes and fell asleep. Claire shook her to wake her up and Helena stood up. Her head throbbed with pain and her tongue felt entirely dried out. At some point, the train came to a halt and the doors were opened. Someone handed a bucket of water to the prisoners and passed around. Helena gulped down the murky water and passed it to Claire. For two days the train traveled and stopped very little. By the time they reached their destination, there were several corpses in the boxcar. The transport arrived at night. Helena heard loud voices yelling in German and dogs barking. The doors were open and as Helena followed the others out of the train car. In the darkness, Helena saw a red glow from several large chimneys and the air smelled horrible. They had arrived in Auschwitz.
"It requires bravery to do something no one else around you is doing."
“Was Auschwitz worse than Płaszów?” Josef asked.
“Yes, much worse.”
Josef remained silent as he watched his mother. Helena still sat next to Claire and gazed into the distance.
“You were brave, joining her like that,” Josef said softly.
Claire looked at the boy with red eyes and said, “If it weren’t for your mother I would have died when we arrived.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau KZ, Poland, 1944:
“Schnell! Laufen! Fast! Run!” many voices repeated this command loudly as the women emerged from the trains. They ran in the direction they were herded.
“Women to the left, men to the right!”
Two lines began to form and Helena stood behind Claire in a long line of women. As they neared the front, Helena saw a man in a white coat, who whistled merrily, wave his hand left and right. People went in either of the two directions. Helena surveyed the two groups that formed and saw that the one on the left consisted of the very old and the very young and those with handicaps. Helena nudged Claire and motioned to the groups. The French woman nodded in understanding. Claire passed in front of the man and as she walked, he must have seen her limp. With a wave of his hand, he sent her to the left. Helena felt the air leave her as the man motioned to the right.
“Please, she’s healthy, she can work,” Helena begged the man, “Please!”
An SS man grabbed her and pushed her roughly to the right.
“No!” Helena turned to the man holding her, “Let her go!”
Helena pleaded with him and she turned to Claire and saw desperation and fear in her eyes. Helena felt tears on her face as she watched Claire join the condemned. The SS man released her and strode over the where the other group stood. As more and more women were sorted, the man roughly dragged Claire from the group and shoved her to the right. He yelled at her in German. The SS man made it sound as if she had deliberately joined the left side. Claire fell against Helena as she joined the group. Over the other woman’s shoulder, Helena saw the SS man. The German looked strangely at her, a mixture of sorrow and pity on his face.
After all the women were sorted into the two groups, they were led away. Helena followed her group and they were to a large building. Here, they were told to undress and led into an empty room. Showerheads were in the ceiling and panic ensued amongst the women as they contemplated whether they would be gassed. Water poured down on them and relief swamped the group. The shower lasted only a couple of minutes and Helena and the others were herded out of the room. Next, they were ordered to grab a prison garb and a pair of shoes. Helena blindly reached out and pulled on a striped dress that hung on her like a sack. The shoes she took had two left feet. Helena put them on and walked behind the others. In the next room, a prisoner sat and cut their hair short. Another prisoner held a strange looking device. The man instructed Helena to hold out her arm. The device tattooed a number on her arm in blue ink. From that moment Helena became P94187.
"Auschwitz is a place in which tragedy cannot occur."
Helena’s right hand grasped her left arm where the tattoo was. Josef looked at his mother and Claire. Helena lifted up her sleeve and the blue tattoo still stood sharply against her skin. Claire wore short sleeves and her number read F94264.
“Why do you have a different letter?” Josef asked.
“The P stands for Polish and the F for French,” Helena said.
“The man who selected the women, was that Mengele?”
Something else bothered Josef.
“Why did the SS man let Claire live?”
“Josef, there’s more to that story than what you know, you’ll see later on,” Helena said quietly.
After being tattooed, Helena followed the other women to a large wooden building. This would be the barrack where they would stay. The building was empty except for the bunks that lined every wall. The windows in the walls did not have glass and the outside air blew inside. A woman stood in the middle of the barrack, she too wore a prison garb.
“Three to a bunk!” she yelled.
Helena assumed that she would be their kapo.
“Go to the top,” Claire whispered behind her.
Helena climbed up to one of the top bunks and Claire followed. Another woman joined them soon after. Claire had lost her glasses when they undressed and squinted through the darkening barrack. The next morning, Helena and the others went to the appelplatz for the roll call. It was 4:30. Then they were assigned to work details. Both Helena and Claire were assigned to haul stones. They did this for the entire day and then went back for the evening roll call. Helena stood there exhausted and tried not to fall asleep on her feet. Several women collapsed and those that did not get up were taken away. That day, Helena discovered that the red glow she had seen upon their arrival came from the crematoriums.
Auschwitz-Birkenau KZ, January 1945:
Helena dragged herself back to the barracks after roll call. The snow fell heavily and she shivered violently. Claire already stood inside as far away from the broken windows as possible. Dinner consisted of a meager portion of bread and soup. Since they had arrived the previous June, they were hardly recognizable. Helena lay down in the bunk, they’re bunkmate had died the previous week and it only Helena and Claire remained. They shared one blanket and both women shivered despite it. It snowed even harder the next day and yet, they still had to haul stones. Claire limped through the snow and twisted her ankle in the drift. The stones she carried fell to the ground, causing the others behind her to stop. The kapo yelled angrily and struck her on the head. Claire fell on the ground and the kapo kicked her. He raised his boot and brought it down on Claire’s hand. A cry of pain escaped the French woman’s mouth. He raised his foot again and repeated the movement. Claire attempted to stand, but the man placed his foot on her ankle and pressed down on it. He continued to put pressure on her foot and Helena heard a sharp crack and Claire cried out again. Helena dropped her own stones and pushed the kapo off Claire. He struck her face in retaliation.
“Stop!” a sharp voice called.
Helena looked up to see an SS man, the same one who had saved Claire when they arrived. The man looked down at Helena and Claire and their eyes met. The kapo stopped hitting Helena and looked at the SS man. He complied with the order and instead yelled, "Back on your feet!" Helena rose and bent down to help Claire. She lay in the snow where she had fallen.
"Claire you need to get up," Helena said urgently.
Claire lifted her head from the snow and pushed herself into sitting position. Helena grasped Claire's uninjured hand and pulled her to her feet. When she stood up, the other woman's leg collapsed and she gasped with pain. Helena looked worriedly at her.
"You!" the SS man pointed to Helena, "Take her to the hospital."
Helena helped Claire to stand and let her lean against her. They walked as best as they could in the direction of the hospital. When they turned the corner, the SS man caught up to them.
"Why did you do it?" Helena asked uncertainly.
"I want to help you. Don't let her stay in the hospital," he said as he turned away. At the hospital they stood in line. Eventually, a soldier let them enter the building. A man who Helena assumed to be a doctor stood in the room. Helena helped Claire sit down and the other woman closed her eyes in pain.
"What happened?" the doctor asked.
"The kapo beat her," Helena replied.
The doctor lifted Claire's hand and examined it.
"Three of her fingers are broken."
Helena looked at them and saw that they had turned a dark blue color. The doctor pulled out a ragged cloth and wrapped it around Claire's fingers. He pulled it closed tightly and Claire squeezed her eyes closed. The man turned to her ankle and said, "Also broken." He procured another cloth and wound it tightly around Claire's foot. A gasp of pain escaped her and she leaned her head against the wall. Helena sat next to her and squeezed her uninjured hand. With Helena's help, Claire managed to hobble back to the barracks.
"Can we switch bunks?" Helena asked the women on the lower bunk, "She can't reach the top."
The women agreed and Claire lay down on the bunk. The next day at work was horrible. Helena saw the pain on Claire's face as she picked up the heavy rocks and trudged through the snow. At one point the kapo hit her and she stumbled forward dropping the rock. She bent over to pick it up and Helena saw tears on her face. That night, Helena tried to help Claire the best she could. Helena wrapped a shawl around Claire's shoulders when she sat down. Another woman came up to the bunk a put a piece of cloth on the bed.
"Put it in here shoe when she walks," she said.
Claire closed her eyes and soon fell asleep, exhausted by the days work.
"At last, the morning star appeared in the gray sky. A trail of indeterminate light showed on the horizon. We were exhausted. We were without strength, without illusions."
"Why did she have to keep working?" Josef asked.
"Because the hospital was a death sentence," Helena replied.
Josef thought about the time he had broken his arm; he definitely did not carry rocks the next day. Claire held up her hand and the last tree fingers were bent crookedly.
"What about the SS man?"
"I’ll explain that later," Helena said.
Claire’s ankle had entirely swollen up and she could not fit her foot into her already too small shoes. Thankfully, they did not have to work that day. Helena bit her lip and thought of what she could do. Helena’s own shoes were smaller than Claire’s. Helena could only think of one thing to do. She went outside to the latrine and scanned the crowd for a certain face. Her eyes found a certain SS man, who stood guard outside one of the barracks. Cautiously, Helena approached him. The man looked around to make sure no one watched him.
“What?” he asked.
“Would you really help us?” Helena asked.
“Yes, I’ve helped others before,” he replied.
“Can you find bigger shoes?” Helena inquired, “For the other woman.”
“Come back here this evening after roll call.”
Helena did what he told her to do and that evening the SS man stood waiting there. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a pair of shoes. He handed them to Helena and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Helena,” she replied.
“Helena, I promise you’ll survive,” the SS man replied, “I would tell you my name, but it’s too dangerous.”
He reached back into his pocket and pulled out a piece of bread. He held it out to Helena.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The man turned around and left. Helena walked back to the barracks and found Claire still on her bunk. Helena held out the shoes to Claire and smiled as she pulled out the bread. She split the food in two and handed the other half to the other woman.
The next morning, Helena retied the cloth around Claire’s ankle and put the shawl in her shoe. The French woman winced as she put her foot on the ground, but managed to walk. At roll call there was a selection, the second one in three days. During the day, worried whispers were exchanged amongst the prisoners. Rumors spread that the camp would be closed. Helena thought about it and believed that it might be true. After all, there had been two selections in less that a week. That evening, a woman came up to here and handed Helena a scrap of paper. Helena opened it with curiosity. She saw her brother’s handwriting on it and read:
They’re closing the camp. Don’t report sick or go to the hospital. They won’t kill those who are healthy. I’m sorry for whatever happened in the past. –Itzhak.
Helena showed Claire the note when they were in the barracks.
“Should we tell the others?” Helena asked.
“Yes,” Claire replied.
The rumor had already spread through most of the camp and no one knew what would happen. The next day they began marching.
“Uncle Itzhak was in Auschwitz too?” Josef asked.
“He was deported shortly afterwards and learned that I was there too,” Helena said, “He was in the hospital.”
“Those who could walk were marched to Bergen-Belsen,” Helena said, “The others who weren’t killed were liberated by the Soviets.
“Schnell! Fast!” voices called out the order repeatedly in German as they herded the prisoners out of the camp. Helena and the other prisoners, both men and women, marched out of the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. No one knew where they were going. From the early morning until the late evening, the prisoners were forced to walk. Those who lagged behind were shot. If anyone fell, they were left there. Helena dragged her feet through the snow as she tried to keep up with the group. Physically, Claire was healthier than Helena. Every bone of Helena’s face stood out prominently and after hours of marching, she began to slow down. Claire helped Helena as best as she could and tried to keep her moving. Some of the snowdrifts they walked through were several feet high. Helena stumbled and fell into one. One of the SS walked up and yelled at her to stand up and walk. He drew out his gun and pulled the trigger. The shot echoed through the silence and Helena felt two points of pain strike her leg. A cry of pain came from her mouth and she fell back into the snow. Claire dragged Helena back to her feet and forced her to walk until they were ahead of the SS man. Tears ran off Helena’s face and she could barley walk anymore. Finally, a voice ordered the prisoners to stop. The prisoners slept on the ground. Helena sat down against a tree on the side of the road. Claire looked at the wound of Helena’s leg and grimaced at the sight.
“The bullet is not inside your leg,” Claire said.
Blood ran from the wound and left a pinkish stain in the snow. Helena shivered violently from the cold and wanted nothing more than to close her eyes. Claire shook her hard and Helena felt pain run through her body.
“Stop! Don’t sleep!” Claire ordered loudly.
Helena forced her eyes to remain open and saw Claire looking at her worriedly. Claire sat down next to Helena and tried to keep her as warm as she could. Several times, Helena felt herself dropping into a deep sleep, but the other woman always shook her until she woke up. When she looked around, she saw a few soldiers among the prisoners. Some even sat next to them.
“They’re trying to redeem themselves in case we’re caught by the Allies,” a voice said in German. Helena looked up to see the same SS man who promised to help her. He kneeled next to Helena and gazed at her worriedly. He looked down at Helena’s leg and turned to Claire, “You need to keep it clean.” Claire shook her head in confusion.
“She doesn’t understand you,” Helena managed to say.
“Tell her that I’m going to help you,” the man said.
Helena repeated the phrase in French to Claire. The SS man reached down and picked up a handful of snow.
“This is going to hurt,” he warned.
Claire grasped her tightly to keep her from moving and he pressed the snow against the wound. Helena cried out in pain and pulled free from Claire’s weak grip. Her hand went to her leg and she tried to push away his gloved hand. The man removed the snow and handed it to Claire. He nodded to Helena’s leg, “You do it.” He came to her side and restrained her arms. Cries of pain came from her and tears streamed off her face as Claire tried to clean the wound. The man pulled Helena against his coat and held her tightly. When Claire finished, he continued to hold her and Helena leaned against him. He slipped off the second coat he wore and pulled it around Helena’s shivering form.
“You’ll be alright,” he whispered, “I promise no one will hurt you.”
The man hesitated before adding, “My name is Wolf.” The last thing Helena heard before falling asleep was Claire’s voice saying “Thank you,” very quietly.
The next day, the march continued. They kept walking for five days until they reached another camp. By that time, Helena could hardly walk. Wolf tried to help her when they stopped and Helena thought that she would have died. As they were herded into the camp, Helena saw that there were other prisoners in the camp. Everyone had become thin and many looked close to death. They had arrived in Bergen-Belsen.
"Freedom is never given; it is won."
-A. Philip Randolph
“Why did they take you to Bergen-Belsen?” Josef asked quietly.
“They just needed another placed to keep us,” Helena said, “We just kept working like before.”
Bergen-Belsen KZ, April 14, 1945:
In Bergen-Belsen they joined the other prisoners. The routine began again just like in Auschwitz. The prisoners worked, stood in roll call, and went through selections. By April, the weather had become warmer. Or at least the snow stopped falling. Helena became incredibly sick. She could barely stand and coughed constantly. Claire held a hand to her face and a worried expression crossed her face. None of the prisoners had received food for the past two days and they lacked water as well. During the afternoon, Wolf came into the barracks. He gazed down at Helena and said, “She has typhus.”
“Listen Helena,” he bent down close to her face, “The British surrounded the camp; we are going to surrender.”
“Yes, it’s all going to be over.”
His words were true. Early the next morning, the British forces entered Bergen-Belsen. The soldiers and remaining SS men surrendered without a fight. The sight that greeted the British must have shocked them. The corpses that had not been buried lay throughout the camp. Most of the prisoners were sick and none were entirely healthy. Claire stayed with Helena inside the barracks as the British soldiers went through the camp. Later that night, Helena heard gunshots and tried to sit up. Claire pushed her back down and held a finger to her lips. During the days that passed, Helena lay on the bunk with a high fever. The British soldiers came through the camp trying to help those who were sick and feeding others. One of the soldiers stopped by where Helena lay.
“Do you speak English?” he asked Claire.
“Does she have typhus?”
“Has she eaten yet?”
“No, she can’t.”
Helena opened her eyes to look up at the soldier talking to Claire. He leaned over Helena and helped her to sit up.
“Drink this,” he said lifting a cup up to Helena’s mouth.
It was milk; something she hadn’t drank for years. Being very dehydrated, Helena drank from the cup until the man took it back. Several minutes later, Helena threw up the liquid. She sat doubled over in pain as she vomited. The British soldier held a hand to her hot face and looked concerned.
“Lie down,” he said and helped her back down.
The soldier handed Claire a piece of bread before standing up. Claire stayed beside Helena while she lay burning with fever throughout the next few days. Several days later, Helena heard buzzing noises followed by explosions and screams. Claire jumped up and went outside.
“They’re bombing the camp!”
Claire ran back to the bunk and helped Helena to stand. Together they walked out of the barracks and ran to where others were standing. The bombing ended quickly. A few people, including British soldiers, were killed. Helena managed to drink water, but could still hardly eat. Soon, the British evacuated the camp. All the prisoners were deloused to avoid any more typhus outbreaks and transferred to a displaced persons camp. Helena was still ill when she went to the DP camp. She lay down all day, unable to stand. Claire constantly sat next to her. In her fevered delirium, Helena saw Claire’s face above her and tears rand down it. The salty liquid fell on Helena’s face and she heard Claire talking.
“Don’t die… We’re so close to the end…”
At some point, Helena saw Wolf standing above her. An expression of worry covered his face. More and more soldiers arrived to help feed and take care of the thousands of prisoners that had been saved. One of the British doctors came over to where Helena lay. The man muttered to himself as he looked at her. Helena felt a prick in her arm and the man held a cold cloth to her head, “You’re going to be fine.” Eventually, Helena became better. She and Claire stayed in the DP camp until June. During that time, thousands of people still died.
"Forgiveness is the final form of love."
“Where did you go after you left the camp?” Josef asked.
“Claire and I traveled back to Kraków,” Helena replied, “We found Itzhak there.”
Claire turned to look at Helena and said, “I thought you would have died in that camp.
Kraków, Poland 1945:
After days of searching, Helena and Claire stood outside Itzhak’s apartment. A woman opened the door ad greeted them.
“Is Itzhak home?” Helena asked.
The woman turned back inside and called out Itzhak’s name. Soon, Helena’s brother came to the door. He looked astonished to see his sister standing there.
“Itzhak?” Helena whispered.
Her brother hugged her tightly to him and she felt his body shaking with sobs.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He drew back and looked her up and down.
“What happened to you?” he asked
“They took us to Bergen-Belsen and the British liberated us,” Helena replied.
Itzhak invited them inside and motioned towards the woman, “This is my wife, Liesel.”
Helena and Claire stayed with Itzhak and his wife for several weeks. As Helena walked through the city, she remembered the horrible events from years ago.
“Are you planning on staying in Kraków?” Itzhak asked one evening.
Helena shook her head, “I can’t, all I only have horrible memories from here.”
“What happened to the SS man?”
Helena glanced at her son who still sat silently on the couch.
“What do you know about your father, Josef?”
“Only that he was a soldier,” he replied.
“Wolf Vogeler was your father,” Helena said quietly, “I never told you because he was an SS man.”
“What?” Josef asked in shock.
“When I lived in France with Claire,” Helena said, “I received a letter that asked me to come to the train station. It was signed ‘Wolf Vogeler’.”
“I never understood how Wolf found me, but he did. You’re father and I fell in love, Josef. We were an unlikely pair, but it happened,” Helena continued, “You were born in 1958 and two years later your father died.”
“Did he really die in a car crash?” Josef asked.
“Yes, he did.”
Josef sat silently for several minutes. He thought about his father and what his mother had gone through.
“Have you ever gone back to the camps?” Josef asked.
“No, but I will,” Helena said, “With you.”
That evening, after Helena had gone to sleep, Claire walked up to Josef.
“I want to tell you something,” Claire said.
Josef looked up at her, “OK?”
“When the war ended, you’re mother was only twenty-one. She couldn’t stay in Poland because of the horrible memories she had,” Claire said, “Your mother lived with me in Paris for several years until she married Wolf. The war affected her physically and mentally. Every night she woke up crying.”
“What did you do?”
“I won’t lie, nightmares came to me too. I couldn’t do anything for her except stay with her and standing by was the hardest thing,” Claire said, “She still has those dreams.”
Josef stared down at his feet.
“Going back will be very hard for your mother.”
"I have seen war...I hate war."
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Early the next morning, Josef went to his mother.
“Do you hate them?” Josef asked.
Helena sighed and said, “No, I don’t want to hate. Hate is what started the war.”
“Does Claire hate them?”
“What happened to her before you met her?” Josef asked.
“Claire was part of the French Resistance and she had been in Poland when the Germans caught her. They tortured her for months and she never betrayed anyone. The reason she joined the Resistance is because she watched a Nazi shoot her husband in front of her.” Helena said, “And she will never forgive any of them.”
Płaszów Camp Memorial 1974:
Two weeks later, Helena, Claire, and Josef stood where Płaszów KZ had been. Most of it had been broken down but Helena remembered the layout of the camp. The roads made of tombstones still lay there and Helena remembered the days she had made them.
"This is where the gallows were," Helena said to Josef.
“Did they hang Goeth here?” Josef asked.
“No, they hung him outside Montelupich prison,” Helena said quietly.
Helena showed Josef the houses where Goeth had lived in and where the barracks used to be.
"The appelplatz was here," Helena said motioning to the large clearing.
They stopped at the monument that had been erected in memory of the victims of Płaszów. Helena felt the tears running off her face as she stood in front of the statue. Sobs shook her and she sank to her knees. Claire kneeled next to her and wrapped her arms around Helena. Tears ran off Claire’s own face as she sat beside Helena. Josef stood behind Helena and Claire and wondered how they had ever survived.