Personal Reflections - In Ghettos/Camps
HELEN SCHWARTZ'S STORY....
A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
Recounted by Helen Schwartz
Written by Marnie and Rena Schwartz
Edited by Susan Schwartz
Copyright October 1998
At this point, it was morning but it was still dark out. We were ordered to rise and climb into cattle cars. We were so bewildered--we did not know what was happening. Shaye and I continued to cry over the loss of our parents. We were never given anything while in the cattle cars--no food, no water--and it was so crowded, we could hardly breath. It was so hot and uncomfortable--we were piled one on top of another. To this day, I still do not understand how we survived. If someone fell, he or she was never helped up--it was too crowded to move. If we had to urinate, we urinated. Everyone yelled for water--but food or water never arrived. There were no windows--we could see the light coming through at the top of the cattle car. Once on our journey, some Ukrainians and SS men took pails of water and carelessly threw the water inside and over us. It was more like a shower than a drink, and was oh so cruel.
ARRIVAL IN MAJDANEK
I cannot recall how long we travelled or how far, but we finally arrived at Majdanek. The Germans took us off the trains and surprised us by giving us something to eat--some bread and water. We felt like we were caged animals. I really do not know how many people came out of the cattle cars, but it looked like a sea of Jews. We were wild, restless, angry and scared. We had been caged for countless numbers of hours and now we were in a large space, with some room to move around.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a friend that I knew who worked with me in the ghetto. His name was Gershin. He was a kind man. Unfortunately, his wife and child had perished already. He was alone. While talking to Gershin, the Germans started to divide women and men. When this happened, Gershin told me that he would look after Shaye and try his best to take care of him. I felt better knowing that my brother would have someone watching over him--after all, he was only fifteen years old. I hugged Shaye before we were separated into two groups.
The Germans ordered all of the women to one side. While standing there with the other women, I found a friend of mine, Frieda. I stayed with Marlee and Freida, without Shaye. Now I was the only one left of my family. I was hoping to see Shaye some time soon.
Once again, the Germans forced us into cattle cars. When the train stopped, it was night again. We exited and realized that they had brought us to Treblinka. This turned out to be the worst of the worst concentration camp in history. So many Jews were killed in this horrific place. I was in this concentration camp with Freida and Molly. They survived along with me but passed away two years ago in Israel.
We were sitting on the grass, wondering what they were going to do to us. We were very hungry and because everybody was saying that they were going to kill us and put us in the crematoriums, some women did not want to eat. They thought it would be better not to have a full stomach if the Germans were going to gas us. Freida was a smart woman and very much a leader. She said, "Well, if they gas us, they will gas us. We might as well enjoy our last moments." So we went around to every woman, picked up a lot of food, and ate with gusto.
THE DREADED SHOWERS...
At daylight, the Germans took us to what they termed the "showers". We were terrified. We assumed they were going to gas us and murder us like they murdered other Jews. We anticipated the worst. Many women began to cry. After this announcement, we were forced to strip naked. I was uncomfortable doing this because I had never been naked in front of anybody, except my mother. Imagine, there I was standing naked in front of all these murderers, SS men, strangers and other women. I was intimidated, embarrassed and frightened for my immediate future. I was uncomfortable being naked in front of others. However, I kept reassuring myself that at least I had a full belly.
The Germans marched us naked to the showers, while the soldiers were standing at attention in two lines with weapons and dogs. We could do nothing. As we marched onward, more women started to cry and scream for their lives. They were terrified of the showers because of the rumours they had heard. I wanted to somehow sneak away from the group and hide. But there was no way out. As we continued to walk in a group, the Germans made all of us enter a big shower stall. They packed us in like sardines. I could not believe this was happening to me. We all stood there crying and praying for our lives in the old, dirty and cold shower stall. We yelled for them to free us, but we were given no reply. Then, out of nowhere, they told us to get washed. I was scared. I thought it was going to be the end of us. We never thought it was a real shower. However, low and behold, the fluid that entered the shower stall was water! Water! Water! Water! This was the biggest surprise. Imagine, there we were ready to be gassed and instead, it was water, a real shower. It was miraculous. We could not believe it.
After we washed, they did not give us a towel. Again, we walked out naked. This time we were cold and shivering. I had a comb with me, which I still have today, and combed out my hair. I had a beautiful head of hair, but that was all I had.
Soon after the shower, they took some girls to an office to get examined. I was forced to join this group. I remember I was pushed on a table and there were men and women in white coats examining me. Unfortunately, I do not remember anything else. I must have been given something to knock me out. I do not know what they did to me. Finally, I was slapped in the face, O awoke, was helped down from the table, and I ended walking outside the office with my legs shaking. After this incident, my menstruation period ceased. Only after the war, a little before I got married, my menstruation period returned. There are a number of reasons for this occurrence, perhaps it was from malnutrition or even some form of medication with which they injected me. The one thing I am certain of is that I knew I was a virgin when I got married. Still to this day, I do not understand what they did to me then.
At Treblinka, Freida and I were always together, never separated. She was smart and quick-minded. We used to hide in the toilets, which were big, deep, filthy holes near walls. If SS men wanted girls to go to work, they would chase them. So instead of being caught, we hid. The only way you could hide is if you crawled in and held onto the boards in the toilets. We stayed there until they found enough girls to go to work. When we crawled out, we had dirt and other people's feces all over our feet. This feces-hole was our hiding place. It was our way of survival.
One day, the Germans wanted about one hundred and fifty girls. They were looking for girls who were eighteen years old or older. Freida grabbed my hand to join. I was upset, because I was only seventeen. I could not understand why was she pulling me by the hand to go and register to move to another camp. She pushed me in front of the German woman. When she asked my age, I was speechless, so Freida answered, "Her birthday is May 4th". This would make me eighteen. In reality, my birthday is the 27th of October. The woman believed her and I was allowed to go. This is the reason that I have two birthdays each year which I still celebrate to this day.
THE CATTLECARS AGAIN...
After being registered, we were taken to the cattle cars once again. This time, like the others, we were scared because we did not know where they were taking us. There we were, at least a hundred and fifty girls in a cattle car, with about two hundred men in another car.
Again at night, we arrived at a working camp called Blishjen. We got out at a field. We stayed all curled up together because of the cold weather, until daylight. When I woke up, I was tired, cold, hungry, shivering and bewildered.
At the other side of field, we saw a whole group of men just like us. When we started to look around, I saw Gershin. I thought my eyes were deceiving me. What luck running into him? Was Shaye with him? I had so many questions. I was so happy to see him. I started to run towards him, and I yelled "Shaye, Shaye", but Gershin gave me this look. He did not need to say anything. I knew Shaye was gone. He explained to me that the Germans took away all of the young kids, and as a result, they were separated. At that point, I felt completely alone. I hoped to G-d that I would survive for my family.
LIFE IN A WORK CAMP...
Both men and women were unsure about the expectations at Blishjen. However, Blishjen was a real working camp. We were counted morning and night on command, like soldiers. If someone was sick or could not come out on time, we all got punished, by being slapped around and yelled at.
At Blishjen, I worked in a factory. I divided all of the clothes and belongings from Jews that were held or killed in Auschwitz. Of course, we did not do very much work. The sacks of clothes and shoes were abundant. We divided them, but we did not know what the Germans did with them afterwards. We could not ask questions. We just had to do our job. At this time, Gershin became my dear friend. We looked out for one another. He was like my father and I was like his child. If he would have survived the war, I think maybe I would have married him. I loved him because I had nobody else except him. He would always help me out. He continually gave me food. However, one day, his generosity stopped. He was different. For some reason, he could not help me anymore.