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On the run: the story of a Holocaust survivor

By Alana Blum

Section: Features

March 25, 2011

‘A beautiful family’ Helen with husband Sam and grandchildren.
Photo Courtesy of Alana Blum/the Hoot

My grandmother, Helen Nachtigal, stared shyly ahead as I introduced her to a mass of eighth graders. At 4’7”, Helen was not much taller than her audience. After all, she was their age when the Holocaust started, and the subsequent years without food had severely stunted her growth. She was standing in front of these eighth graders to talk about just that: the Holocaust.

As Helen began her story, her voice was soft and she spoke slowly.

Her thick Polish accent was apparent in her speech as I watched the video of that day. After her death last semester, I found a video tape of her visit to my class all those years ago. I can still hear her voice gradually growing stronger as she relived her tale.

It was 1939. Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany, had decided to invade Poland. Helen, age 13, was living in Lodz with her grandmother, mother and four older brothers when the bombing began. “They were bombing and bombing all night long. People were scared and running. In the morning, thousands of people were dead on the street. It was terrible,” she described. Poland was conquered. Soon, truckloads of German soldiers came in, bringing their anti-Jewish policies to Helen’s town. At first, the Jews were instructed to wear yellow bands around their forearms to mark them as Jews. A week later, that was not enough. Now, they also had to wear yellow stars.

A couple of weeks later, the Nazis burned down the Lodz synagogue. People from all around had come to watch, as if it was a show put on by the Nazis. The Nazis took crying Jews and threw them into the fire. It was at this point in Helen’s story that her voice gained determination. Looking around the room, Helen continued, “My mother was crying so hard, and I said ‘stop crying, because they’re going to kill you.’ I was afraid.”

Helen began experiencing something more gripping than just fear. Hunger became an everyday reality. As food ran out, grocery stores began closing until none were left. Soon only the bakeries remained open. Yet the lines were so long that by the time Helen reached the front there would be no bread left. Helen and one of her brothers decided to stand in front of a bakery for an entire night. When it opened in the morning, they would be one of the first in line. At six in the morning, the bakery opened. Nazi soldiers entered, announcing “Jews out. No bread for the Jews.” Helen started to shake with fright, and instructed her brother that she wanted to leave. But hunger overcame their fear and the two siblings remained in the bakery. Another Jewish girl was also determined to stay. Unlike Helen and her brother, the young girl had worn her yellow star, and the Nazis easily detected her Jewish identity. “She had long pigtails,” Helen explained, “and because she didn’t want to go out—because she was hungry—the Nazis took a razor and shaved her whole head. She passed out and it was terrible. I had pigtails, and I started to open them up quickly.” Helen and her brother finally received their bread, but by the time they arrived home they had finished the entire loaf. “My mother asked, ‘Where’s the bread?’” Helen laughed. “We were so hungry.”

One day Helen heard a shot in her apartment. She ran into another room to discover that her grandmother had been murdered in her bed. She was 83 years old, and had refused to get out of bed at the Nazis’ request. This was enough grounds to shoot the elderly woman. The grandmother’s defiant nature would prove to run in the family. When the Nazis planned to relocate all of the local Jews to the Lodz ghetto, Helen’s mother had other ideas. Perhaps it was due to the burning of the synagogue or the lack of food. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the Nazis were willing to shoot a sick woman in bed. Her mother’s exact motivations were unclear. However, she certainly sensed that if the situation was bad now, it would only worsen in the ghetto. Helen’s mother, Leah, decided it was time to leave.

Leah’s husband had died 12 years earlier. Fortunately, he had been Russian, which meant that he left Leah with Soviet documents. She decided she would use those documents to flee to the Soviet Union with her children. If they had stayed and relocated to the ghettos, chances were that they would have been among the thousands of Jews deported from Lodz to the Chelmno killing center, never to be heard from again.

Leah’s instructions to her children were simple: “Remember, we’re Russian. We’re not Jewish, we’re Russian.” Nevertheless, the entire family was stopped as they arrived at a train station near the Soviet border. As German soldiers began interrogating Helen’s family, one of her brothers tried standing up to them. They grabbed him and two of his brothers and hit them into the wall until they started to bleed. The youngest brother remained untouched, but he stood there shaking with fear. A higher officer intervened, and the family was finally released after Leah assured him that her husband had been Russian. However, when Helen and her family arrived at the border, they were stopped by the Russian patrol. “They told us we have to go back,” Helen explained. “They said, ‘If you come back, you will be shot as spies.’ We knew we were in trouble.” The family ran into the woods to hide, knowing that they would have to find a way to cross the border into the Soviet Union. With no food available, Helen and her family were scared and hungry.

After a few nights of hiding, someone glimpsed a small house in the distance. They went up to the house and knocked on the door. An elderly couple answered, and decided to hide Helen and her family in the stable overnight. As the elderly woman handed soup and bread to the tired guests, Leah stated, “I don’t have a lot of money, but we are going to pay you.” The couple refused, saying, “We like to help. We have a God.” The following morning, the elderly man placed the family into a wagon and covered them with hay and chickens. He then took the family across the border. “He’s probably dead by now,” Helen stated. She then paused, and added, “God bless him and his soul.”

After their arrival in the Soviet Union, the family went from town to town, searching for jobs and food. In 1941, Germany violated its pact of non-aggression and invaded the Soviet Union. The local Jews were to be rounded up and killed. Helen and her family knew that it was time to flee once more. However, Helen and her mother were separated from her brothers. “My brother told my mother, ‘We are going to stay somewhere during the day, and at night we will come to see what you are doing.’ He never came,” Helen said to the students. “Then I see my brother’s wife with the little baby. She was crying. She said, ‘Yaakov was hanged.’ He was caught and he was hanged.” Helen paused and then repeated herself. “He was my older brother and he was hanged. So I knew my brother was dead.”

Helen did not know where her other brothers were. She did know that if she stayed she would be killed as well. Taking her mother, Helen ran into the woods. In hiding, she encountered a group of young Jews. “They asked me who I was because they were afraid. I said ‘I’m just like you.’” Helen proceeded to describe how they would wait until they heard a train whistle. Since they could not afford a train ticket, they would run to the train and grab onto the sides, holding on for dear life. They would then go wherever the train took them.

Helen suddenly stopped her speech for a moment. She then said something quietly to her daughter (my mother), Rose, who had brought her to the event. Nodding, Rose turned to the group of students and explained, “We went on a train last year. My mother freaked out. She couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t understand why and then she explained that her memory of trains is holding onto the railing for dear life. Can you imagine?”

Soon, Helen was deep inside the Soviet Union. It was winter and she had no shoes. Her feet were swollen and lice covered her head. Food was scarce. But she was alive. Making sure always to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, Helen never stayed in one place for too long. If she felt the Nazis were near, she would grab hold of a passing train again. Through this method, she eventually ended up in Georgia. She found a job working at a factory there that produced thread. One day Helen noticed that the other factory girls were putting spools of thread into their dresses. They explained to her that they were stealing the spools in order to sell them and use the money for food. “We’re hungry, aren’t you?” they asked. Helen began stealing the thread as well. One day, as she left the factory, a worker grabbed her and asked, “What do you have there?” She had been caught stealing. She was told to go see the director of the factory. “For one spool of thread, a year in jail,” Helen clarified. “I had four,” she said laughing. Fortunately, the director’s son had taken a liking to her and requested that they let her go free. “He said, ‘You can go now, but don’t take anymore.’ I took more,” Helen laughed.

It was 1945. The war was over. “I don’t know how I got through. I don’t know,” exclaimed Helen. It took her a year to return home. When she finally reached Poland, Helen was taken in by a Jewish agency. She was given new clothes and new shoes. Upon arrival, she immediately inquired as to her family’s whereabouts. She was overjoyed to discover that her mother and two of her brothers were alive. Her extended family had been comprised of 60 people—aunts, uncles and cousins. None had survived.

“Everybody else was dead,” Helen said somberly. “But I got married, and I had …” she paused for a moment and then looked over at her daughter and smiled. “A beautiful family,” one of the teachers in the room exclaimed.

“Yes, now I have a beautiful family.”

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