My name is Helen Kahan. Many of you know me from Hadassah, as the flower Lady, the person who, for years, called you before Rosh Hashanah and before Pesach to buy flowers. Others know me as Livia’s mother or David and Matthew’s grandmother, or even as Bubbi to my great grandkids. But my life began long, long ago back in a small village in Romania. I was a happy child with a large family and looking forward to a bright future. My parents worked very hard to develop their store and buy up land to plant apple trees. We had a large apple orchard, a good grocery store and everything was fine until our part of the world became Hungary, then in 1944 the Nazi Germans arrived.
In 1944 my family and I along with most of the Jews from our town were put in a ghetto. Within a few weeks we were marched from the ghetto to the train station under Hungarian gendarme supervision. At the train station, we were loaded into cattle wagons, like sardines, without enough space to even sit down. We were told that we are being taken to inland Hungary to a working camp for the duration of the war. After 5 or more of days, the train stopped. We had been taken over by Nazi troops. At this point, we realized that the information given to us was a lie.
After 5 days of traveling in a crowded wagon with many ill people, old people, children, all hungry, we were even afraid to eat the little bread we took with us. We didn’t know how long our journey would last. Our bathroom needs were taken care of in a barrel that soon overflowed in one part of the wagon. It overflowed and smelled terrible. We finally arrived in Auschwitz.
First thing I remembered was the smell of smoked and burned flesh. We thought we arrived at a salami factory. We still believed we came to a labor camp. Soon, between beatings, shouting by SS soldiers and loud dog barking, we were on the ground in front of a group of SS soldiers, with the leadership of Dr. Mengele and his whole entourage giving us his famous speech, telling us that young men and women will walk the 20 km. to the camp; old people and children will go by trucks.
And with this, he started directing who goes to the left and who goes to the right. Left meant life, work, slavery, hunger, thirst, beatings, starvation, and humiliation. Right meant death immediately through gassing and then cremation.
In one night, I lost my mother, 3 sisters, 1 brother, a grandmother, a grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends, everybody, and everything close and dear to me. My grandfather was burned alive in a mass grave that the men had to dig for themselves. My father—who was separated from us the first night, worked in a coal mine. When he got sick, a Nazi beat him to death with his rifle. My 15-year-old sister died the day of liberation in Bergen-Belsen. My 18-year-old sister came home sick with abdominal tuberculosis. She could never have children. My cousin was killed in Birkenau-Auschwitz by a nazi who cracked her head with a rifle because she was considered too slow at digging ditches for irrigation. We had to carry her body into the camp for counting and then cremation; my friend was shot to death for stealing a potato peel from the garbage because she was very hungry.
Soon after arrival I lost my identity. I was tattooed on my left arm. I became #A-7504. This horror was tattooed in my MEMORY forever. This horror was tattooed in my MEMORY forever. I worked extremely hard. I did agricultural work, built highways, dug ditches as deep as 2 meters and more. I endured hunger, thirst, beatings, and utter humiliation. We slept on a bunk—without even a little straw—8-10 people where 2-3 would have been comfortable and were awakened often during the night by rats, lice, and crawling insects. We were always dressed in thin rags, whether it was summer or winter, cold or hot, rain or shine. And above all, I was frightened for my two younger sisters, watching them in sickness, starvation, hard work, and constantly in danger of the selections to be gassed.
In November 1944, I was transferred to Bergen-Belsen with one of my sisters (Miriam) and separated from the 15-year-old one, Suri. From there, after 6 weeks, the 2 of us were transported to an airplane-part factory. A few months later, from the airplane factory, as the Nazis realized they were surrounded by the allies and were losing the war, we started the death march in the cold winter, all around Germany. On the death march many people who could not keep up with the group were shot to death on the spot. We who continued walking, saw dead bodies left on the side of the road. Even with the war all but lost The Nazis determination to kill Jews did not stop. They were still hoping that they would out last the allies and could perhaps win the war at some point and still have their slaves to work for them. All that hatred.
In 1945, on May 9th, I was liberated by the Russian Red army. After a different kind of hell on earth, living under communism for 20 years, I was able to immigrate to the USA with my family. After all these years in the US, I planned to go back to Auschwitz to pay my respects to all those loved ones who were lost there, to all those heroes that rest in the unmarked graves. And so, in July 1993, after my 70th birthday, I arrived in Auschwitz, accompanied by my two children—my son and my daughter.
These are some of my observations and memories of my return to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1993.
To my surprise, Birkenau, where I was a prisoner of the Nazis does NOT look sad enough. The grass is tall, and greener than green, due to the rich fertilizing by human flesh. The sun is bright, the ground is nice and dry, not muddy and wet, the way I remember it. As prisoners we were not able to pick our feet up in the mud on the ground.
As a witness, at the entrance gate, with the big description “Arbeit Macht Frei” is still there. Yes, they gassed and burnt 6 million of us JEWS. There is still barrack number 25- The death barrack- for women, where those selected for gassing had to wait sometimes 24-48 hours-knowing what is awaiting them, when the crematories were overcrowded with transports that came in day and night.
And I saw barrack #24, where I was stationed with my 2 sisters when we started working after being tattooed. I still have the feeling of the rats creeping on us at night, lice biting and other crawling things.
We visited one of the pits where the Nazi murderers disposed of the ashes from the 30 ovens of crematoria II and III and 16 ovens from crematoria IV and V and whose capacity of burning the gassed or killed people totaled 8000 in 24 hours. And we visited the place where the 4 crematories were, 3 having been demolished by the Nazis before they retreated in January 1945 and one that was destroyed by the sonder (?) commando (prisoners working at the crematories) before liberation.
Still there is the fence around the camp, that used to be electrified, and each 200 meters apart are the watch towers from where the SS would watch every move in the camp, or sometimes for fun, they would shoot at the prisoners. At one of the barracks there remains a cart that collected the corpses every morning. This was all at Birkenau.
Now in Auschwitz! There is the museum with a lot of the evidence of what Auschwitz was in reality. We saw the 2 small crematories that proved not to be working fast enough for the Nazi desire to exterminate, for the final solution of the Jewish question, and also for the destruction of all political, social misfits and war prisoners. You can see the torture rooms in the bunkers in block #11. The rooms with absolute lack of ventilation, where prisoners would be crowded in and left there overnight for suffocation as a punishment. Visible are the rooms where all kinds of tortures were done including the “swing” etc. In a different room are the remains of the prisoners, found at liberation. 7 tons of human hair- all one color- discolored from the Zyklon B gas that was used suffocate the people in the so-called showers and then shaved off after the gassing. There were thousands of toothbrushes, shaving brushes, soaps, etc. all the suitcases with inscriptions of names, addresses, cities and countries. Thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, prostheses of different kinds, clothing, children’s toys, even a doll, prayer books, prayer shawls. There were sewing machines that the prisoners brought with them just to prove again that the people really believed they were being taken to a working-camps, to start a new life. And then there are the striped uniforms for the male inmates in the camp, for the slaves, kept there to carry out their dirty work. During our visit, we were shown a movie of the day of liberation at Auschwitz, of the prisoners that looked like walking skeletons. Also, the hundreds of bodies found dead or near death at liberation.
Standing there and looking at all these things found after liberation, I thought of the thousands and thousands of people shipped to Germany during the war. After killing the Jews and after robbing their belonging only because they were Jews only because Hitler considered us, the Jews, the sworn enemies of the German people. And, the Nazis still hoped to keep all this a secret. There is a photocopy in the state museum at Auschwitz of a declaration signed by a number of the SS, that each one will suffer the death penalty for not keeping silence over the action carried out in connection with the evacuation of the Jews, for stealing Jewish property and for not cooperating in the execution of these orders. All this is a witness to their criminal activities. But the most powerful witnesses are WE, the survivors, the people that were there as inmates and are still alive to tell the story.
However, with each passing year the handful of former prisoners, who directly lived and are still witnesses to the Auschwitz crimes, is smaller and smaller. Soon there will be no one left. Only written reports, documents, books and tapes will remain. Only history will remain, and history tends to become lifeless with passing of time. Nobody and nothing will then be able to recall the horrifying and shattering immensity of the Auschwitz atrocities. Therefore, it is worthwhile, even necessary, to reflect upon the fact that men created the Auschwitz inferno to destroy other men. Men turning against other men, against whole nations, transformed crime into the crime of genocide.
While I was in Auschwitz as a prisoner, I would always wait for a miracle. I hoped and dreamed that all of a sudden god will stop this criminal activity, all my loved ones will come back, and everything will be the same as it was—or even better. But only more disappointment was the reality.
And so now, when I went back to Auschwitz and I picked up a handful of the ground near the crematoria that was full of grinded bones, I wanted them to talk to me. I was waiting for a miracle, to hear the voice of my parents, my sisters and brothers, the voice of the millions who perished there. But there are no miracles. There is just reality. It is us that have to think of what to do in the present and the future, to stop all kinds of atrocities.
We must not forget this. Whatever happened once may happen again. It is within the power of human beings, within our power to prevent the rebirth of fascism and the crime of genocide. We must tell this to our children and children’s children. We must take the time and the strength to fight against all the beasts of this world that commit or intend to commit atrocities or crimes of any kind.
Shalom to you, to Israel and to all around the world.