1012 is the number she is given. Her name and who she was before that day means nothing; she is now a number, a prisoner of war, and the crime she was punished for being a Jew…
The year was 1944; She was 16 years old when she and many others were forced from the ghetto to board one of the last train cattle cars sent to the death camp.
They all stood in anguish, hypnotically moving in unison to the jostling rhythm of the train meeting the tracks while voices whispered, “We are bound for hell.”
Shoulder to shoulder among strangers, she was alone and terrified, with no family for comfort. There was no room for anyone to lay down or even move, and fear paralyzed her as minutes turned into hours while exhaustion slowly set in. The train meant for transporting cattle was overcome with the stench of urine and feces due to the overflowing bucket sloshing its content onto the wooden floor around their feet. The stench was intensified by the hot sun’s heat, causing her stomach to turn. Beads of sweat ran down her back, her clothes sticking to her skin. The only relief was a slight breeze, dancing in and out of the cracks of the train car not fit for humans.
To save her mind from drowning thoughts, she spent her time thinking of her family, her farm, and all the love that was felt between her six brothers and sisters. She wondered if they were safe and knew her father would be worried about her because she hadn’t come home from the village. She then let her mind drift to the lovely boy who had been teaching her ballroom dancing; before she was taken, she hoped they would get married one day. She closed her eyes tightly, holding onto those memories for dear life.
After two days of travel, she was suddenly jolted out of her numb state of mind by the piercing sound of the whistle announcing their arrival. She couldn’t help but feel relief as the tears spilled down her cheeks. Finally, it was over, but to her dismay, the horror had just begun.
They arrived at Auschwitz death camp, and she could hear the sharp, angry voices of men yelling out orders while dogs barked to enforce them. She was terrified of the unknown and tried to stand back from the doors while waiting for something to happen. She wanted to escape as fear bubbled up inside her chest, lodging itself in her throat, silencing her scream. Suddenly the outside chaos met them full-on as the doors swung open. People were panicking; screams and cries were heard while the people were being ripped from their families. Blinded by the sun’s glare, she had no time to adjust before being dragged out. She saw men standing at the top of the watchtowers, pointing machine guns down at them. The rancid smell of death enclosed them everywhere she looked while thick grey ashes fell from the sky.
The selection of who lived and who did not was decided at a rapid and regimented pace by one of the camp’s doctors. He yelled, ‘right or left, keeping men alive for slavery and hard labor while the elderly, mothers, and young children, were immediately ordered to line up for the gas chambers, disguised as the showers. To control the hysteria of prisoners being separated from each other, the Sondercommado’s, who mainly consisted of Jewish prisoners, prepared them for the showers. They spoke to them in their language, speaking calmly, gaining their trust, and reassuring them the showers were part of the camp’s safety protocols to avoid diseases being spread. They helped them undress and told them that they would receive a warm bowl of soup after the shower and be reunited with their loved ones. Once they were in the gas chamber, the doors closed, and in 10 minutes, they were all dead.
While she was in line, a woman beside her begged her to take her baby. She looked around, confused as fear took over, shaking her head, no. She never saw that woman again. She was inspected, and because her hands had shown she was a worker, she was given prison clothes and said, “you’re not going to die today.” They shaved off her hair and ordered her to take off her clothes. She stood there naked, shaking, feeling shame and humiliation, trying to cover herself while being laughed at by the Nazi SS Officers. She quickly changed into blood-stained prison clothes, with the number 1012 sewn on the arm, and was taken to her new home, block C.
She walked in, wrapping her arms around her body while the tears flowed, dropping down to the cold stone floor. They all looked at her, sullen and hollow as death’s door loomed behind each and everyone’s vacant stare. She wondered how long it would take to look like them. There were more people than wooden bunk beds, and she squeezed herself into one with four other women huddling close for warmth and comfort. At that moment, she tucked herself into her nightmares. All she wanted was the warm embrace of her mother’s hold, telling her everything would be okay.
The following day at four, a SS officer banged on the door, interrupting their sleepless night, and ordered them out for roll call. No one understood why; the barracks and camp were surrounded by electric barbed wire making it nearly impossible to escape. After they were accounted for, the rumbling in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten or drank anything in three days. She waited hours in line for her piece of bread. Once it was handed to her, she saw worms crawling on it; she shuddered, brushed them off, and with shaking hands, put the bread in her mouth.
After she ate, she walked around, noticing the deterioration of people and their will to live; everything that must have been beautiful before was now dead, finite, or pending. She gasped at what she saw, raising her hand to her mouth to silence her cries. All around her, the dead were discarded; their last words froze with fear on their faces, begging for mercy one last time. She didn’t understand why she was there or what she had done, or who could be capable of such inhumanity towards human beings.
She had been there for over a month when she saw a young woman who arrived at the camp to see her twin sister she had been separated from. They both squealed in delight and ran towards each other, embracing, holding on to one another. Everyone who saw this had tears of joy; it was the first time in a long time, and they were all given a glimmer of hope for the future.
The twin’s reunion didn’t go unnoticed by the Nazi SS officers. They immediately ordered everyone around to gather what they did next served as a warning to everyone as the officers grabbed a rope tying the girls together as they embraced. They continued to wrap the girls’ bodies with the rope, not stopping until they were squeezed to death. It was horrific to watch, and as their lifeless bodies fell to the ground, the Sondercommado’s picked them up and took them to the chimney to burn. Let this be a warning and an example to all of you.
It was only a matter of time for every one of them. She looked all around her and knew death’s door would open for all of them. She could see it in the starved, the overworked, the hopeless. For her, they were breaking her spirit. She was constantly trying to make herself small and unnoticed. She fought her thoughts for survival in a battle she knew she would lose, but she still hoped to see her family again one day.
Three months after she arrived in Auschwitz, a Nazi SS officer walked up to her, taking notice of her hands. She had lived her whole life working on her family’s farm, and in the end, that is what saved her. They sent her to an ammunition work camp where she worked the night shift making bullets for the Germans to use to kill the Jews. It was cruel work, and they were slowly dying from ingesting the toxic chemicals used. One day, during her shift, she passed out and was taken to the infirmary. It was rumored if a prisoner was taken there, they died because they no longer served a purpose. They had no use for her anymore and started to give her poison to speed up her death. A nurse was fond of her and gave her little bits of food to eat – telling her to “eat what you can, don’t die.”
January 27, 1945, was the day the Soviet forces liberated them. She was free to go but wasn’t strong enough because the poison was given to her. The nurse who cared for her instructed the Dr. to pump her stomach, and she was able to leave the camp alive. She was fragile, and the only thing that kept her going was her will to live to see her family again. She couldn’t tell you how she got back to Studena weeks later, but she did.
The day she arrived, there was nothing left. She stumbled up the walkway to her home and saw that it was ransacked. The animals were gone, the furniture was no longer there, her family was gone, and she fell to her knees, heartbroken and shattered. She screamed out, “Where are you?” There was no answer. No laughter, no brothers and sisters were teasing her, no father chopping wood to keep their home warm at night. The silence pierced through her heart, and she laid down on the ground in front of the doorway, sobbing. She wasn’t sure how long she was on the ground, and when she looked up, the neighbor was standing over her. She was told her entire family was tied to rocks and tossed into the Nester River. And then, she was asked if she wanted to sell the farm for $40.00. She was the only one left; why did this senseless, horrific war happen? Why did they all have to die? Her entire family was gone, erased, “what am I going to do all alone? She said to herself”. She took the money, thinking there’s nothing left for me here; her family was dead. Even the photographs her family gave to the neighbor for safekeeping were gone. They burned them in fear of being found and killed for having them. Her grief was immeasurable; she picked herself up and walked away from everything she had ever loved. While she made her way into town, she recognized someone she knew, and they decided to walk together. They went to the train station, begged for passage, and were let on. Once they arrived, she tried to find her aunt but couldn’t and was told she could go to a home helping Jewish people, where they gave her clothes and shoes.
She was walking down the street, hoping to find something to eat, and out of the corner of her eye, a man caught her attention as he rounded a corner. Her heart started to beat faster like it knew something she didn’t. She couldn’t see his face, but there was something so graceful about the way he moved. She was still so weak, and it took her some time to catch up, but he was nowhere to be found when she got there. Her heart dropped; she was desperate for something good; she was tired of heartbreak and wanted just one beautiful moment to find her. She turned and walked away and collided straight with the man she saw. Her jaw dropped. “I’m so sorry, miss, please accept my…” – but he stopped mid-sentence and looked at her face. It was him, her beloved, the boy who had been teaching her ballroom dancing before she was taken away. She gasped, and he held her at arm’s length, looking at her. “Helen?” he whispered. “Is that you?” Her knees buckled from under her, and he caught her before she fell. He held on to her, vowing never to let her go. He touched her face, her hair, telling her how beautiful she was. At that moment, he asked her to marry him. She said yes.
They were married as soon as she could find a white dress. They had three children and eventually moved to Canada. Helen speaks six languages. As she looks back on the time she spent in Auschwitz 83 years ago, it still hurts her heart to remember the horror she witnessed knowing it will never leave her mind regardless of her age. The one thing that got her through all of this was to talk, she talked about what she saw, what she went through, and how it impacted her, and she never stopped talking about it. It was important to her for people to know and not forget, but more importantly, she didn’t want her story to be forgotten…