Personal Reflections - In Ghettos/Camps


Recounted by Helen Schwartz
Written by Marnie and Rena Schwartz
Edited by Susan Schwartz
Copyright October 1998

Part V

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V


For the last month before we were liberated, we were forced to share two turnips and some water among seven girls every other day. Nothing else. In other words, we were starving. To this day, I am amazed that we survived. One hard, dirty turnip was expected to feed more than a handful of people. The Germans expected us to fight over the food, eat a bite of a turnip, starve and eventually die out. I continue to wonder whether the Germans wanted any survivors? Unfortunately for them, I am among several others who did survive the treacherous experiences that occurred in the Holocaust and World War II.

APRIL 15, 1945...LIBERATION....

On April 15, 1945, we woke up in the morning to find that there were no German soldiers around. They were gone. We could not believe it. We had heard rumours that the war was slowing down but we never imagined the day would really come. But it did.

English soldiers marched into the camp and opened the gates, and there we were "FREE". I think in my heart, I cannot precisely describe that day. My son asked me many times to explain how I felt about being freed. I always say "The misery I went through and how I made it is inexplicable. Being twice sent to the crematorium, being sent to work in excruciating circumstances, watching people die, starving, and now finally being free. It's indescribable. It's miraculous. "

For years, I thought about freedom. I kept thinking about that 51% chance of survival and I did it with G-d's help! After the war, most of the Jewish people who survived the Holocaust doubted G-d. We never understood how he could he have allowed this massacre to occur. I never understood and I do not think I will ever understand, but I thank G-d for keeping me alive!

When we were freed, we ran straight for the kitchens, searching for food. And there it was in abundance. There was so many vegetables, breads and especially turnips. On that day, I swore to myself, that I would never eat another turnip for the rest of my life. We took the turnips and threw them at the Germans who were forced to bury the dead bodies. As the world knows by now, in Bergen-Belsen, in those mass graves, the people buried there were 99% Jewish.


Not long afterwards, some men from another camp nearby came by to see the women who had survived. This man found me and told me that Eric was alive and that I should go to see him. I was shocked and so surprised to hear this news. But I was so happy too! He was my friend and he was a survivor! He had made it! His 51% was stronger than his 49%! The next day, I went to see him, but I was horrified. It wasn't the Eric I knew. It was a skeleton lying in a bed. I barely recognized him. He was bald, skinny, frail, due to malnutrition. The only thing I recognized were his eyes, his beautiful blue eyes. He spoke to me with his eyes and I could not believe or understand how this person was breathing. In truth, it was Eric lying, practically dead, in the bed. I had to leave quickly. I was too upset to think straight.

He did survive though, and in a few weeks, he found me again. This time, he came to Bergen-Belsen to see me, still sick and weak. A broken man. Somebody came and told me that Eric was looking for me. I thought they made a mistake. But there he was, walking with a cane in one hand, staring out into the distance hoping to catch sight of me. He travelled three days and three nights, practically on his hands and knees, to meet up with me again.

By this time I was nineteen and living a new life. I was living with my girl friends, Frieda and Marlee, in a room with beds. The English soldiers were giving us freedom, food and presents. Life was looking up for us.

MARRIAGE... Photo of Helen and Eric

Eric approached me and asked me if I remembered our agreement. I remembered promising to give him my hand in marriage if we both survived the war. At that moment, I realized that this promise we made to each other in a time of war was real. I believe that it was what gave Eric the hope and will to live. It seemed as though my promise of marrying him and the dream of being husband and wife, what kept Eric alive. He pushed himself to live each and every day because he knew that one day he would see me again. He never let himself think otherwise. I never anticipated seeing Eric ever again. I remembered my promise, but I never imagined that he would survive the war. In all honesty, I thought our agreement was a joke. In a few minutes, I realized that he was serious. I loved him. Eric was a romantic. Sometimes a person's individual will power and positive attitude can take them to heights that once seemed impossible. In this case, Eric had surpassed many obstacles and had survived the war.

That night, I went to the supervisor and told him that Eric was my brother and Eric was given a bed. He was with us in the room, still wounded and not yet healthy. We looked after him, fed him, and soon he recuperated. As he grew stronger and stronger every day, he spoke more and more about marriage. When I looked around, I saw nobody but Eric. Through all that we had been through, both together and apart, I knew that he was the one for me.

Unfortunately, one rabbi in Germany did not want to marry us because he wanted proof that Eric's wife was dead. She was among many others who were killed in the gaschambers and so we had no evidence. However, we went to the American zone and met lots of people from Poland who confirmed that his wife had died. A month later we got married.

We stayed in Germany for three years. During these years, I had two miscarriages, one during the fifth month and the other during the seventh month. I somehow managed the disappointment, and realized that it was meant to be. I guess my body was still sick from the war.


Then in 1948, Eric and I came to Canada. On the ship, I was pregnant with my son Saul, and he was born a few months later. We became established in Canada finding work and supporting our new family. We worked very hard, and then four years later I had a daughter named Marilyn. Both of my children are named after and in the memory of my parents. Years later, my son married my daughter-in-law, Susan, whom I consider to be like my own child, and my daughter later married her husband Michael. Within, what seemed like, minutes my children had their own children and I became a grandmother. All of my five grandchildren are named after one of my family members or after one of Eric's family members who perished in the war. I have three granddaughters and two grandsons, Marnie, Rena, Marsha, Michael and Jamie. They are all my pride and joy!


Eric was a good man. In recent years, the age difference between the two of us seemed to be quite stark. He was becoming an old man while I still had a lot of energy. Eric was an excellent father and the greatest grandfather to his five grandchildren. He lived a prosperous, hard-working and extensive life. In 1987, Eric had a stroke. He recuperated, but a few years later, he had another one and a hearth attack. Seven years later, he passed away.

It was not easy, but we always said, "we are survivors". For the last three days of his life, we constantly reminded him of that 51% that helped him reach the age of 82. I was beside him when he passed away, a Friday evening.

We belong to the Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue, where the funeral service took place. Eric would have been proud of the eulogy, the words said, and the huge number of people who attended to pay him their last respects, both at the synagogue and during the shiva. (seven days of mourning.) He should have been very proud of his accomplishments and enduring all experiences that he had overcome. I was also very proud to be his wife. Eric was a well respected Cohen at the shul (synagogue); a popular and man among the members and the brotherhood. He was a good husband, father and grandfather. Most of all, Eric will be remembered by all of those who knew him as a survivor of the Holocaust!


Today, I voluntarily and wholeheartedly open my heart and soul, and share my story of the Holocaust with you and with others from all over the globe. I regularly volunteer to speak to students from a variety of schools about my story and my first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust. I hope that I have offered some insight into the horrific catastrophe that occurred in Germany with the annihilation of six million Jews. I hope that you have appreciated learning about my story and my life.

If I can offer some words of advice:
Live each day to the fullest.
Strive to reach your goals.
Make your dreams a reality.
Hold onto your memories and never let go.
Share your stories.
Listen and learn from others,
Learn from your experiences.
Focus on the present and look ahead to the future.
Enjoy life.
Make each day count.
Make the impossible possible!

September 10, 1998

 Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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