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Helen R.

Helen R. was raised in Zwolen, Poland, a Jewish shtetl, with two brothers and a sister. She recalls a comfortable, happy life until antisemitism began increasing in 1937.

“When the war broke out [1939] I was sixteen…Our lives changed completely…We came out after the bombardment, just what we had on ourselves. There was nothing left – the business, the house…everything was bombed out. We started new. My father said we’re going to be all right…we can start new and we’re going to be fine, not expecting what would happen because nobody could realize that such a calamity…would happen.”

The family moved to Radom. When ghettoization was ordered in 1941, they returned to Zwolen where her father’s contacts enabled them to obtain food. In 1942, the entire extended family went to work on an estate which provided food for the German army, hoping to save themselves. When older people were deported, including her parents, the four children returned to the Radom ghetto. They worked as slave laborers trying to avoid frequent round-ups and mass shootings.

At the end of 1943, they were included in a transport of 500 people to Majdanek. Here she “had very good friends, very close friends. It was like having a family. I wasn’t alone. …You hear people say lager sister, which is like having a sister. …We had a lagerälteste…, the head of our barrack. She was an extremely humane person. She gave us so much courage.” Next they were transported to Plaszow.

“There were still children in that camp [Plaszow], mothers with children. One morning…they started taking away the children from the mothers. …Each SS man or SS woman they told them such nice stories and the music was playing, blasting the loud speakers. And here the children didn’t want to leave the mothers, and it was so much pain, so much tragedy, seeing the separation…when the children were really small…Even a child at three or four years old, she knew that if she’s leaving her mother’s hand, that she’s going to death. They cry…I can still hear it and the blast of those loud speakers…the Strauss waltz playing loud. …They didn’t even take them to Auschwitz. …There was a little hill and they took them up. …There was no consolation. I mean how can you tell a mother? What can you tell her? …It’s something that I don’t think anyone can imagine!”

They were transported to Auschwitz, where she experienced the utter humiliation of being shaved. Remaining with her sister and friends was important. “I wanted to live. I wanted to know what married life is. I mean, I was, really, we were philosophizing with my friend who is in Israel, who is a wonderful, wonderful woman, and my other friend, and we would sit in Auschwitz and talk and say ‘God, we didn’t live! We want to get married. We want to know the feeling what it is to make love to a man. We want to know what it is to have a child.”

She and her sister were liberated from Bergen-Belsen. They learned later both brothers had been killed, but her sister’s husband survived. Helen married in 1946 and both couples emigrated to the United States.

“We [sister and Helen] didn’t have any family, just my husband’s. …It was very, very hard. …We made family…good, very close friends. We have to have it, otherwise we couldn’t exist, just again to be alone.. It was very hard to adjust to life. I think the better materialistically…we got…a nicer house, if we could build our lives nicer and nicer, the more we suffered, the more guilt we felt. Until I had to work it out, to say no! It’s good to be alive. …It’s worth living. …Pain you forget, you have to forget! You can’t live twenty-four hours with pain. Even things they happen now and they’re very painful. …If I remember, I remember the good things…the childhood, the love that my parents gave me, and I realize that nothing can be forever. It was a cataclysm…we should never forget. We shouldn’t forgive…the guilty ones. But we cannot live with hate the rest of our lives. …I try to adjust to life, because otherwise what do you do? You have to go up on the Empire State Building and jump down. …I have to make the best of it, can’t go on hating and remembering all the time.”

Helen raised two daughters in whom she instilled the values of charity which had been part of her childhood.

The length of the complete testimony is 1 hour, 53 minutes. Search for the testimony here.