“From your skin we make lampshades. From your hair we make mattresses and pillows. From your fat, if you have any, we make soap. From your ashes we will make fertilizers to enrich the German soil.”
— Nazi Guard at Auschwitz, 1944
“Can you imagine what it feels like to have a guard tell you that? Things like that are unthinkable but it happened. It happened to me.”
Helena Weinrauch is one of the remaining survivors of the Holocaust, the genocide of approximately six million Jews by Nazi Germany. She will speak at Congregation Beth David April 28 to share firsthand how she made it through the worst horrors of World War II.
The Jewish Community Center of San Luis Obispo (JCCSLO), along with Congregation Beth David, will host Weinrauch. Every year, JCCSLO brings a Holocaust survivor to speak to the San Luis Obispo community in honor of Yom Hashoah, Day of Holocaust Remembrance.
Executive Director of JCCSLO Lauren Bandari said the story Weinrauch tells will be valuable to both Jewish and non-Jewish people.
“The historical context is important to carry on the stories of the souls that didn’t make it,” Bandari said. “There were six million Jews that did not survive, and 11 million total that went through the Holocaust. It is a testament to their memory.”
Bandari said she estimates 400 people will attend to hear Weinrauch speak. An account of her story is available to read before the event on JCCSLO’s website.
“It’s so exciting that her story can be downloaded and read before she comes,” Bandari said. “I hope people who are thinking of coming do download the story and do take the time to read it. It will make meeting her, and listening to her, so powerful.”
Weinrauch will also speak at Nipomo High School on Thursday, and Pioneer Valley High School in Santa Maria, on Friday. She specifically requested to speak to 15 and 16-year-olds because that is the age during which she first experienced the consequences of the Holocaust.
Mechanical engineering professor and Hillel director Saeed Niku said Weinrauch’s story serves as a learning experience.
“Holocaust survivors want to remember it — not in order to blame this country or that country — but as a lesson,” he said. “It is a lesson for everybody that it can happen. It doesn’t matter what group of people you choose, it can happen.”
Weinrauch started sharing her story to the public two years ago because she is one of the few remaining survivors.
“I was silent for many years because right after the war many people were talking about it,” Weinrauch said. “But now, I am speaking because there are very few Holocaust survivors left. Soon this will be forgotten completely.”
At 87 years old, she speaks out so the Holocaust will not be forgotten.
She was discovered unconscious by the British Army liberating the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in northwestern Germany on April 15, 1945. Soldiers were piling corpses into trucks. The only sign of life remaining in her skeletal body was that she was warm. A soldier noticed her warmth, uncovered her from the heap of dead bodies and rushed her to a hospital.
She was the only survivor in the barrack of 250 starved women.
These women did not die at the hands of crematoria ovens, a firing squad or poisonous gas, but faced a drawn-out death of starvation, dehydration and disease. They did not receive solid food for eight weeks. There was no water supply, so they resorted to sucking on muddy soil.
The dead rotted among the living. Some people attempted to devour the cadavers — the remaining limbs were left to rats, she said.
Had Weinrauch been found 24 hours later, she would have succumbed to the same death she witnessed during the five years she was in hiding, prison and concentration camps.
“At times I wonder how I survived altogether,” Weinrauch said. “I wanted to live, and even today, at 87 years old, I still want to live. It is that drive that keeps me going. I am afraid of dying. That sounds incredible considering what I faced during the war, but I have this strong will I cannot account for.”
Life didn’t start out hard for Weinrauch. She had a sheltered childhood and came from an affluent family that owned oil wells, she said. But in September 1939, her family went into hiding during the Russian occupation of Poland, where she lived, because they were seen by the Russian Communist Regime as Capitalist enemies.
She was 15 years old.
“We lost everything,” Weinrauch said. “We lost our wealth overnight because when the Russian occupation came, they nationalized our wealth. They closed the banks and all our money was in it. They took all of our possessions, so we were left penniless.”
While her parents and sister hid in a cottage owned by one of her father’s workers, Weinrauch stayed behind to continue high school. She lived with distant relatives or non-Jewish friends but had to move every couple of weeks because no one wanted to risk keeping her for any length of time.
In addition to going to school, she worked at the salt mines to provide for herself.
“I would stand in line at 5 a.m. to receive my rationed food,” Weinrauch said. “I was working in the salt mines from 6 a.m. till 3 p.m. I would run home, take my books, go to school and spend the afternoon in school until about 9:30 p.m. I would then do my homework at night and get up again in the morning at 4 a.m. to go to work at the salt mines.”
Then, life got harder
During the German occupation in 1941, her family was led to the forest and shot by a Nazi firing squad. Weinrauch was alone.
It was then she knew change needed to happen. In 1941, with the help of her sister’s earrings and father’s gold cufflinks and clip, she obtained false papers under the name Katarzyna Helena Winnicka and started a new life as a German “non-Jew.”
“I had to watch every word I said, every step I took, every gesture I made; not to give myself away,” Weinrauch said. “It was very difficult living and facing these people — people who were murderers of my people and who were set to eliminate us.”
At one point she even found herself driving in a car next to a soldier of the Third Reich who, spotting a group of Jews working on the street, promptly drove into them, running an elderly man over. He shot the bleeding man point blank. Weinrauch and the soldier then drove to a coffee shop where she was forced to have a civil conversation with a murderer of her kin.
For a couple of months she lived a fake existence, but one day it all came crashing down. An officer for the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, recognized her as a Polish-Jew from her hometown of Drohobeycz. They detained her.
The gig was up
At 16 years old, she was interrogated, beaten until she passed out, burned with cigars and tortured until she admitted she was a Jew.
After jail, she was sent to the concentration camp Plaszow in Poland (the camp featured in Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”). Over the span of three years, she lived at the Plaszow, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration campus.
Weinrauch was 20 years old when the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen. By then, five years of her life had been taken away.
“The most important five years in my life would have been the five formative years between 15 and 20,” Weinrauch said. “During these five years, I was deprived of the most essential basic elements for a normal life. I was deprived of shelter, of food, of hygiene and of course, of freedom. Not to have a toothbrush, not to have clothes, how do you survive and remain sane?”
Surviving the genocide
Somehow Weinrauch has found a way to remain sane. She said she focuses on going on with life and trying to make the best of it.
“You see, many Holocaust survivors, years after the war, have been absent of closure,” Weinrauch said. “They could not forget it, they could not live with it, they could not cope. I was fortunate — I had closure of it. I went on with my life and tried to do the best I could. It is not painful for me to talk about it. It is not forgotten, but I don’t live with it daily, I don’t think about it.”
She found peace in nature and beauty through art and music. Two years ago, she even learned ballroom dancing.
“I can keep up with any 20-year-old,” Weinrauch said. “The Swing, the Jive, the Hustle, Rhumba, Tango, Foxtrot, Waltz and Maranga — you mention it, I can do it.”
While she doesn’t dwell on the cruelty of the past, she lets her past be known to prevent it from happening again.
“Since I have been a witness to the evil consequences of what hate can do, I would like to alert the young people today to be tolerant and respectful of every single race, color and religion,” Weinrauch said. “Otherwise, we will never have a peaceful coexistence.”
Weinrauch will speak at 7 p.m. Congregation Beth David is located at 10180 Los Osos Valley Road. The event is free and open to the public