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Deported to the Plaszów concentration camp, Helen Jonas faced almost certain death. Instead, she was chosen by Amon Göth—the camp’s notorious, brutal commandant—to be his servant.
Photos and Artifacts
Helen Jonas, née Helena Sternlicht, at age 10 or 11 (at top), with her mother Lola and her two sisters, Betty/Bronislawa (left) and Sydeil/Sydonia, Poland, ca. 1935. Credit: Courtesy of Vivian Jonas Delman.
Helen Jonas’s mother, Lola Sternlicht (1900-1944). Helen brought photos of her mother and father with her from the Kraków ghetto to the Plaszów concentration camp. When Oskar Schindler put Helen on his list, the train that took her and other women to Schindler’s factory in Brněnec, Czechoslovakia, made a stop at Auschwitz, where the women were ordered into the showers. Helen hid the pictures in her mouth so the Nazis wouldn’t take them. The photos partially disintegrated and she later had an artist touch them up. Credit: Photo via Geni.com
Commandant Amon Göth stands with his rifle on the balcony of his villa at the Plaszów concentration camp, 1943. Credit: Photo by Raimund Titsch; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection.
Partial page of Oskar Schindler’s list, with Helena Sternlicht’s name underlined. Credit: Via Yad Vashem.
Helen and her future husband Joseph (Joe) Jonas, Austria, 1945. Credit: Courtesy of Vivian Jonas Delman.
Helen and Joe Jonas on their wedding day, Salzburg, Austria, August 1947. Credit: Courtesy of Vivian Jonas Delman.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
Helen Jonas, née Helena Sternlicht, was 14 years old when the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 put a sudden and brutal end to her idyllic childhood. Only between 2 to 3 percent of the Polish Jews who went through the German occupation survived. Given those terrible odds, their stories of survival are extraordinary, replete with miracles, heart-stopping moments of sheer luck, and a never-ending determination to stay alive. But Helen’s story is especially remarkable in that she narrowly escaped death at the hands of one well-known Nazi—the notorious Amon Göth—and survived thanks to another: Oskar Schindler.
Helen was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1925, the youngest daughter of Szymon and Lola Sternlicht. The family, while not wealthy, was economically secure, thanks to Szymon’s successful ironware business. Lola was a nurturing mother with a keen sense of humor. Helen and her two older sisters, Sydonia and Bronia, grew up in a close-knit Jewish home, with loving parents who observed Jewish traditions and imparted a sense of stability and warmth. Like most Jewish children in Kraków, Helen attended a Polish public school. In the afternoons, she studied in a Beys Yankev school—part of a school system founded by Sarah Schenirer to ensure that Jewish girls from religious homes could also receive a solid Jewish education.
On the eve of the war, there were 57,000 Jews living in Kraków, about a quarter of the total population. Before Poland regained its independence in 1918, liberal Habsburg rule had allowed Kraków and the rest of Galicia a large degree of autonomy; until independence, it was Kraków and Lwów, not Warsaw and Lodz, that had been the beacons of Polish culture with their universities, theaters, and literary scene. The Jews of Kraków built an impressive network of Jewish hospitals, vocational schools, bilingual Polish-Hebrew high schools, and libraries.
Most of Kraków’s Jews spoke Polish, but that did not mean that they were assimilated. They saw themselves as Jews, not as so-called “Poles of the Mosaic Persuasion.” A daily Jewish newspaper in the Polish language, Nowy Dziennik, featured not only current news reports but also articles on Jewish religious thought, Zionism, Yiddish theater, and Hebrew literature. The city’s Jewish adolescents joined youth movements such as Gordonia, Akiba, Hashomer Hatsair, and the Bundist SKIF. (These youth movements would form the backbone of two courageous resistance organizations in the Kraków ghetto. Just before Christmas 1942 they attacked a German officers’ café in the center of town, killing 11 Germans and wounding 13. Very few of these young people survived.)
The Germans started persecuting Kraków’s Jews as soon as they seized the city on September 6, 1939. They burned synagogues, beat Jews on the streets, cut off the beards of religious Jews, and rounded up men and women for forced labor and snow clearing. German soldiers and officials barged into Jewish apartments and stole whatever they wished. Restrictive decrees followed in quick succession: identifying armbands became mandatory, bank accounts were frozen, Jewish businesses were confiscated, and schools were ordered closed. Helen’s father had to hand over his workshop to a German trustee, though he was still able, for a time, to work there. Meanwhile, the family was forced to look on helplessly as Germans made off with their furniture and valuables.
By November 1939 an influx of refugees had increased Kraków’s Jewish population to about 70,000. In the meantime, Kraków had become the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the administrative entity that encompassed Nazi-occupied central Poland. Hitler named Hans Frank as the governor-general, who wasted no time installing himself in regal splendor in the Wawel Castle, not far from the Sternlichts’ prewar home. As thousands of German officials moved into the city, Frank ordered most of the Jews in Kraków to leave. Over the course of 1940, about 50,000 Jews were expelled; only Jews deemed “economically useful,” including Helen’s family, were allowed to stay.
In March 1941 all the remaining Jews—about 16,000—were ordered to move into a ghetto in the city’s rundown Podgorze area, on the southern bank of the Vistula River. They were allowed to bring only 55 pounds worth of belongings per person. Conditions in the ghetto were dismal, with epidemics, food shortages, and severe overcrowding. The Germans surrounded the ghetto with a wall and a fence. They appointed a Judenrat, or Jewish council, that had the thankless task of implementing German orders, even as it made valiant efforts to set up soup kitchens, support orphanages, and even encourage clandestine ghetto schools.
The first two leaders of the Judenrat, Dr. Marek Bieberstein and Dr. Artur Rozenzweig, were respected by the community, but in late 1942 the Germans appointed David Gutter, who was widely remembered as little more than a stooge. Jews in the ghetto especially hated the Jewish police—and its commander, Symcha Spira—for their brutality, their corruption, and their slavish willingness to enforce German orders. Many Jewish policemen were eventually transferred to the Plaszów concentration camp, where they continued to “keep order.”
When Helen and her family first entered the ghetto, she recalled feeling relieved. Perhaps the dragnets and street roundups would now end. Maybe now there might be some stability and quiet. There was even a secret school. Here as elsewhere, however, the Germans showed themselves to be masters of psychological manipulation. They devised a fiendishly complicated system of ID cards and work certificates to set Jews against each other and give them a false sense of security. These pieces of paper decided life and death. On one day a certain work document, which might have been purchased for an enormous bribe, offered a guarantee of survival, but the next day, the Germans might change the rules and decree that only documents in a different color blue, or with a new stamp, would be valid. They applied this system cunningly and brutally in the Kraków ghetto.
One of the system’s victims was Helen’s father, Szymon. He went to the Belzec extermination camp convinced that the Germans were sending him to a new labor camp. After all, why would they want to kill skilled workers? Deportations to Belzec began in May-June of 1942, when 5,000 Jews, including Szymon, were sent off to the gas chambers. Further deportations to Belzec began on October 27, 1942, when 7,000 Jews were killed.
The final liquidation of the Kraków ghetto took place on March 14, 1943. The Germans shot about 700 Jews on the spot, sent 2,300 to Auschwitz, and the rest—including Helen, her mother, and her sisters—ended up at the nearby labor camp at Plaszów, a suburb of Kraków. Shortly after Helen got to Plaszów, the camp’s commandant, Amon Göth, ordered her to work in his quarters as a cleaning woman. For more than a year, Helen and another maid, Helen Hirsch, were in constant contact with one of the worst sadists of the Holocaust. Göth grew up in a wealthy Catholic family in Vienna, where the Göths had a profitable publishing business. In 1931, he joined the then illegal Austrian Nazi Party and worked his way up through the ranks of the SS. In 1942 he served under Odilo Globocnik in Operation Reinhardt, which sent close to two million Jews to the death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec.
In March 1943 Göth became commandant of the Plaszów camp. Established in November 1942, Plaszów was an especially cruel labor camp where many executions also took place. Administratively, it did not become part of the SS concentration camp system until early 1944. It received Jews not only from the Kraków ghetto but also from other Galician towns, Hungary, and other camps evacuated ahead of the advancing Russians in 1944. Plaszów also housed non-Jewish prisoners, and, for a time, many children, until Göth sent them all to Auschwitz in May 1944. All in all, between 30,000 and 50,000 prisoners passed through Plaszów. Between 5,000 and 8,000 died there (the actual camp records were destroyed), though most of the camp’s Jewish prisoners died in the death marches in the last months of the Reich.
Witnesses estimate that during the time that he was at Plaszów, Göth personally murdered at least 500 people. He once confessed that he didn’t feel good about the day unless he’d killed at least one Jew. He stood on the balcony of his villa with a sniper rifle and picked off inmates at random. He once shot a cook because the soup was too hot. Another time he interrupted dictation to shoot two prisoners and then casually continued where he’d left off. Göth also trained two dogs to maul prisoners when he gave a certain whistle.
Göth often beat Helen. Once when he was dissatisfied with how she’d ironed a shirt, he hit her so hard that she suffered permanent damage to her hearing. Helen was convinced that Göth would eventually murder her. But, miraculously, he did not. And on September 13, 1944, the Gestapo arrested Göth on charges of corruption.
What made Helen’s survival even more miraculous was that she was able to hide the fact that her then boyfriend was Adam Sztaub, a leader of an underground resistance group in the camp. Sztaub asked her to rummage through Göth’s office for blank ID forms and papers, which she did at great risk. Göth shot Sztaub after a Ukrainian guard betrayed him and strung up his lifeless body as a warning to others. Sztaub was tortured before his death, but he did not divulge Helen’s name.
Göth lived well and gave many parties, where Helen had to wait on the guests. While his wife Anni and two children stayed home in Vienna, Göth enjoyed an affair at Plaszów with Ruth Kalder, who bore him a daughter, Monika. Kalder, who adored Göth and staunchly defended his reputation, later committed suicide after reading the transcript of his 1946 war crimes trial in Poland.
One of Göth’s frequent guests was Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who had gotten rich after he bought a Jewish enamelware factory in Kraków and secured lucrative contracts with the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces. Schindler’s story is well known. He was no saint. Before the war, he had worked for German intelligence, and in the early years of the occupation, he was a crass opportunist who enjoyed the profits he made from the Emalia factory and engaged in wild parties where he happily cavorted with Gestapo and SS. But then something happened. The mass murder of the Jews affected him and he decided that he would rescue as many as he could. Ultimately, the famous “Schindler’s List” would save about 1,200 Jews.
Schindler met Helen at one of Göth’s parties as she was serving the guests. He approached her and told her that, just as the Jewish slaves in Egypt eventually gained their freedom, so, too, would she. Indeed, Schindler added Helen and her two sisters (her mother had by then died in Plaszów) to his famous list of so-called essential workers that he managed to save from the clutches of the SS. Helen and her sisters, along with 300 other women on the list, left Plaszów and spent three harrowing weeks in Auschwitz. But Schindler protected them and they eventually ended up in Brněnec, Czechoslovakia, where Schindler ran another factory that was actually a front to shield the Jewish workers. They were soon joined by men arriving via Gross-Rosen.
Helen and her two sisters survived the war. Helen testified against Göth at the 1946 trial in Poland that led to his execution.Two days after the liberation, Helen met Joe Jonas, a fellow survivor, and they soon married. Jonas had an uncle in the U.S. who secured affidavits for Helen and her sisters. Helen and Joe arrived in 1947, settled on Long Island, and raised three children. Helen became an accomplished and successful electrolysist. She had an especially gratifying reunion in Israel with Helen Hirsch, her fellow maid in Göth’s villa. Joe died suddenly and tragically in 1980. Helen then married Harry Rosenzweig, who died in 2007. Helen died in 2018.
In 2004 Helen agreed to meet Monika Hertwig, Amon Göth’s daughter, after Hertwig wrote to her that “we have to do this for the murdered people.” Together they toured Plaszów and became the subject of the acclaimed film Inheritance, by James Moll.
Helen never lost her faith in God. She also remained convinced that, had there been a Jewish state during World War II, the mass murder of European Jewry would never have happened. She felt a deep sense of responsibility to tell younger people about the Holocaust and about the dangers of prejudice.
Additional readings and information
– Crowe, David M. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.
– Keneally, Thomas. Schindler’s List. New York, NY: Atria Books, 1993.
– Martin, Sean. Jewish Life in Cracow, 1918–1939. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004.
– Pankiewicz, Tadeusz. The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy. Translated by Henry Tilles. New York, NY: Holocaust Library, 1987.
– Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List
– James Moll’s Inheritance