by Grace Johnson (Class of 2022) and Lindsay Luberecki (Class of 2025)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Berlin 1928, Helga Melmed was born into a home that loved her, surrounded by a world that would hate her purely for existing as a Jewish girl.
“I used to read children’s books. I read Max and Moritz and Der Strewwelpeter and all the Grimm’s fairy tales,” Helga said, brightly explaining how she spent some of her time as an only child.
Helga’s parents showed their love for her in different ways. Her mother was the disciplinarian, she said, while she could do no wrong in her father’s eyes.
“You didn’t do bad things when Mother was around. [With] my father, you could get away with murder. I was his little girl,” she said, laughter accompanying her recollections.
Both of Helga’s parents had established a name for themselves in their occupations, both forced into underground work amidst the growing antisemitism in their community.
“My father was in banking. He was an executive. He was making a very good living at one time, but he was thrown out of work in 1934. After that, he played around with things underground a little bit. My mother did sewing,” Helga said, introducing her mother with a shift in her tone from melancholic to proud. “She was an excellent seamstress. I had every Shirley Temple dress that they showed. I used to be the envy in school. We used to go buy material together, remnants. … At night time, sometimes she would make a dress for me, and in the morning it would hang in front of my closet. I had a lot of pretty dresses that she made. She also would sew for money, for people that came. I guess a lot of them weren’t even Jewish. They snuck into the backdoors and my mother would sew things for them.”
Helga’s parents sheltered her the best they could from the increasingly hateful world. She remains grateful for this treatment; she trusts that it’s the only reason she has any happy memories of Berlin.
“When I came home and the radio was gone, my mother wouldn’t say that it was taken; she would say, ‘Oh, something was wrong with it. I put it away.’ When they took all the silverware and stuff, she said, ‘I was tired of that.’ She always had excuses for why things weren’t there anymore.”
Helga dreamed of going to medical school and becoming a doctor, “but even that was never possible,” she said, grief tipping each word. Helga was just five years old when she first truly felt the impact of the aggravating political climate surrounding her.
“I started school, public school, in Berlin. I was very happy to start school. I was five years old, and my teacher beat my hands with a ruler until they were bloody, and she told the kids to call me a dirty Jew. I went home to my mama, and asked her, ‘Why do they call me dirty Jew? I just had a bath, and you washed my hair,’” Helga said, reflecting on the strain her mother must have felt in comforting her five year old. “She told me to be proud to be a Jew. Even when we started to wear the stars, she said, ‘It’s a nice symbol, and it’s pretty. You don’t have to be ashamed of it.’”
Still, Helga said she felt singled out when she wore the Star of David. She said it made all her Christian friends leave her. The community had rejected her.
“The store, where I used to buy a banana or an apple, had big signs on it: ‘Juden Verboten’ [in German, this means ‘Jews forbidden’]. So I couldn’t go there. Every place I went in the community, I couldn’t go. To the zoo, the park. I couldn’t go to the movies, and I loved Shirley Temple movies. I couldn’t do anything, everything,” Helga said.
In the suburbs of Berlin, though, Helga soon had a place where she felt she had everything.
“My mother took me out of the public school and I went to a private Jewish school. I was very safe and happy there… The school was beautiful, out in the suburb, and even had a swimming pool,” Helga said. “We had everything there. We stayed there after school and they showed movies, and we played games. We played outdoors, and we had competitions with other Jewish schools in sports, so it was very sheltered and very nice… we stayed there most of the time, we had picnics there. That was our life. Until 1938. Kristallnacht.”
Helga was just ten years old when she witnessed her school and temple burn during Kristallnacht.
“Kristallnacht was a terrible time. We got to school and we weren’t allowed in. We had to stand around in a circle. The circle had fire in it, and they burned every one of our books and notebooks. The soldiers were standing around us, and we were hugging each other and crying. It was just a very tense, awful time. It also was the last time I saw a lot of my friends,” Helga said. “I couldn’t believe that that was happening. We were so stunned, so frightened. We were all just ten years old.”
The haven of Helga’s childhood was gone. Now, those left of her school community were forced underground.
“Teachers and adults would take small groups into small basements and they would teach us the best they could, some of the subjects,” Helga said, continuing. “some, just of the good things for living.”
October 18, 1941, soldiers came to Helga’s door in the night and told her family they had twenty minutes to get ready.
“They said, ‘We will take you to a better place,’” she said, pausing before asking, “What could be better than home?”
The soldiers took them to a slaughterhouse, where Helga was faced with horror as soon as she was thrown inside.
“There were people hanging on the hooks of the slaughterhouse and they were bleeding and screaming,” she said. Helga’s parents hid her between them to try and shelter her from their surroundings. She said, “I could still hear the screams.”
After remaining there for a while, hundreds of people at a time were put into cattle cars and transported from Berlin to Lodz, Poland. In the cars, there was no food or drink, albeit communal water poured into each person’s cupped hands. “It would run right through your fingers,” Helga said. “It wasn’t even worth bothering.”
In Lodz, they were taken to a ghetto. Inside, they were free to walk around, but they could not leave. On Helga’s transport alone, there were 2,000 German Jews, who were added to the large sum of people already inside. Everyone in the ghetto was starving; a typical dinner could include patties made from coffee grounds and potato peels. Helga recalled always wishing for an onion to accompany the patties, though produce wasn’t accessible to her and her family.
Women worked in a factory, and the men – including her father – were taken by the Nazi soldiers outside to perform hard labor. One day, the soldiers forced the men to run in circles at the labor site.
“They used them for target practice. My father was shot. I never saw him again after that,” she said.
“I have a watch,” Helga said, remembering her father. “The watch was my great grandfather’s, and was given to my grandfather, and was eventually given to my father at his wedding. The watch is an old gold watch. It has what you call a ‘glockenspiel’ on it, which plays a musical melody. I used to love that watch. I used to sit on my father’s lap, and he would take it out of his pocket very carefully and he would open it up and he would let me listen to the glockenspiel.”
After Helga’s father died, Helga’s mother became sick. Eventually, she grew so sick that she could no longer work in the factory.
“I had to go to work and I would come home and take care of her the best I could. But she wouldn’t eat her rations. There were no more patties, only some of the rations, and she would say ‘I can’t eat, Helgalein. I can’t eat,” Helga said, strain accompanying her words. “ And, she would give it to me: ‘You eat it, you eat it.’”
Helga’s eyes filled with tears, her voice building up with emotion.
“The question is still in my mind: couldn’t she really eat?” she said, expressing how she’s never quite forgiven her own naivety, the childlike ignorance that could have led to her mother’s death. Helga’s voice finally broke. “She was giving the food to me so I would survive.”
On Helga’s fourteenth birthday, Helga’s mother gave her an onion. It felt magical to her, “the best onion I ever had,” she said warmly. That same night, her mother died. Helga was all alone in the ghetto now.
At the factory, a Jewish man who was elected as one of the leaders of the ghetto decided to adopt four boys and four girls, Helga being one of them. It was in this new family that she met her camp sisters for life: Ganya, who was Russian, Maja, who was Polish, and Miriam, who was Hungarian. The four girls would continue to stick together, and quickly became friends in the ghetto.
However, as the Russians drew closer to Poland, the Nazis began to empty Lodz. Every day, people would be put on trains out of the ghetto and sent to Auschwitz, including Helga and her sisters.
“We were scared, but the four of us were clinging together. We arrived at Auschwitz.” Helga said, extending her arms to show a photo of the entrance to Auschwitz. “It says ‘work makes you free.’ Well, not that kind of work.”
Helga pulled back the image, looking intently at it as she continued.
“We came to this admitting place, and they separated people. People went straight to the gas chambers, and some went away. Our boys went to the other side, and they went straight to the gas chambers. We never heard from them again. Now these were nice, young, between 16 and 19 year old boys. They killed them all. We never saw them again. Our four boys,” Helga said, her eyes looking up from the image, full of the same anguish that laced her tone.
Helga and her camp sisters were somewhat luckier than the boys, continuing to cling together as they were admitted to Auschwitz.
“We decided to lie about our ages. Everytime they said they wanted 16 year olds, we were 16. Everytime they wanted 18 year olds, we were 18. Whatever they [the Nazis] decided – you could hear it from the rows in front of us – we were up to lying. And they couldn’t really tell because we were so undernourished,” Helga said.
Newly assigned numbers sewn to their clothing, the camp sisters were taken to a warehouse where rows and rows of girls sat on the ground, in between one another’s legs. The sisters were instructed to sit down in the same manner.
“Every few hours they would call us up for inspection. We would have to line up in front of the bunks, and they would inspect us. They would come by with their dogs. I got bit by one of them,” Helga said, holding up her hand to show a long, faded scar crossing the length between her thumb and pointer finger. “You can’t see it too much anymore.”
The Nazis would call out numbers, sending them to the gas chambers. It was a terrifying waiting game for Helga and her sisters.
“We were standing there and we were so frightened. You can’t imagine how frightened we were. We were shaking all the time, but we were clinging together. We didn’t get called up for quite a while, but then one day we were called up. But the four of us were still clinging together,” Helga said. “We thought it was our last moment. We were hugging and kissing each other goodbye.”
But it wasn’t enough for the Nazis to reduce these young girls to numbers, and petrify them as they awaited their deaths. Helga and her sisters were dehumanized even further.
“The first thing they did, they shaved all our hair off, and I had big, long hair. Maja had beautiful long hair, reddish color, glowing in the sun. I had light hair. Ganya had dark brown hair, beautiful hair. And they shaved every bit of hair off us. Off. And it was very humiliating. Here we are, [teenage] girls and all of a sudden, we’re bald. Then they took us and they made us get undressed,” Helga said, her voice hastening in distress. “We had to get naked in front of these young soldiers. We were not used to that kind of thing. And there we were all naked, then they told us to get into the showers. And we knew that was the end.”
Bald, naked, certain they were about to die, and still clinging to one another, Helga and her sisters walked into the showers.
“We knew we were not going to come out. But, as it turns out, it was water. It wasn’t gas,” Helga said, pain and confusion traversing her features. “Then they threw some clothes at us that belonged to people that had died in the gas chambers. They were terrible clothes, but at least they covered us. We had no shoes, so we were barefooted. They put us back onto cattle cars and they transported us, we didn’t know where, but it was Hamburg.”
In Hamburg the prisoners were again put in a warehouse. After remaining there for a while, Helga was taken to Neuengamme, a concentration camp in Hamburg. Extremely large, Neuengamme had many subdivisions. Helga gestured to a black and white photo of men pushing wheelbarrows loaded with rubble.
“This particular picture is the hundred-day commando,” Helga said. “The people were starving, and the people were working so hard that they couldn’t survive more than a hundred days.”
Helga didn’t work for the hundred day-commando. She was sent to another subdivision where women from ages 16-20 went and where she was forced to do hard labor.
“We were taken out of the camp on trucks to areas that were bombed,” she said. “We had to take the rubble and the ruin, heavy stones from the buildings that were torn down.” Helga and the other girls then had to gather this rubble, carry it up a hill, and begin the process all over again.
Throughout it all, Helga still remained alongside her camp sisters, even devising a plan to stretch the measly portions of food each girl was given.
“We got four pieces of bread in the morning…we took the bread and cut [each slice] in four pieces,” Helga said. She went on to describe that each girl would eat one quarter of their bread at breakfast, one quarter during a break while working, one quarter while eating their potato peel soup dinner, and the final quarter at night before bed.
Resourceful and smart, they used this plan to bond together and keep each other from starving.
“We all came up with the idea. It was all okay with us,” she said. In addition to sharing bread, the camp sisters also shared their mattresses and blankets, keeping each other warm.
Until early 1945, the four girls remained in Neuengamme. As the bombing got closer and more severe, the Nazis decided to put the prisoners in trucks – to hide them from Hamburg’s German residents – taking them into the suburbs. Once they reached the outskirts, they had to walk.
“We walked all the way from that area of Hamburg to Bergen Belsen,” she said. “It was a very hard walk. You could not run away because the soldiers were driving right next to us… They had guns on us all the time. If you fell down, they would shoot you. If you started to veer away from the group, they would shoot you.”
It was at this point in her journey that she was separated from her camp sisters, and she began to fade away.
“I was ready to die,” she said. “I was so sick [with typhus fever and tuberculosis], I didn’t even realize where my camp sisters went until after the war.”
Despite being incredibly ill, Helga remained hyper-aware of her surroundings. She had to.
“When they came through, which they did frequently, you would have to make sure that you at least made a sound or moaned or wiggled your toes or did something because if you didn’t move, even if you were breathing, they would take you out and throw you into this grave,” Helga said.
One day in April of 1945, Helga was carried out of the warehouse on a board.
“They carried me away, and I thought, ‘Oh my god. Now that’s gonna be the end.’ But it turned out that they took me to this hospital unit and they treated me very, very well there,” Helga said, explaining that it wasn’t Nazis who’d carried her out of the warehouse, but British and American troops. They were liberated.
Helga had a longer stay at the military hospital than most. She was kept separately from the others in the hospital to reduce contagion. After her fever reduced, she was moved back with the other patients.
“We met Count Folke Burnodotte and he came around shaking our hands, and he was promising us that we were going to go to a nice place. We believed him,” Helga said. “He took young girls on a ship, the Castleholm, and he took us to Sweden to Sigtuna, a hospital. … Sigtuna is a beautiful place; they even had a rose garden. I stayed a year and a half at that hospital.”
Helga was almost 18 years old when she arrived in Sweden, weighing just 46 pounds.
“That was our activity at the hospital. Our legs were so thin that we could go around like that with our fingers,” Helga said, holding up her hand, her pointer finger and thumb forming a very small circle. “As we got fed and treated well, our legs grew to this,” she said, expanding the circle slightly. “And then they grew to this,” She said, again expanding the circle. “And then they grew to that,” Helga said, her pointer finger and her thumb finally separating as she expanded the circle a bit more.
Helga was alone in the hospital, with no family and no idea as to if her camp sisters were alive, much less where they might be.
“I lived in Sweden for 3 and a half years, but my aunt found me through World Jewish Congress. She was looking for my mother, but she found me. She insisted I come to this country [the United States],” Helga said.
Helga’s aunt sent for Helga to live with her in New York City. Once there, Helga enrolled in Washington Irving High School; she began when she was 19 years old. She wasn’t the only older student, though.
“There were a lot of soldiers returning,” she said. “The high school was filled with older students.”
However, these other students still had an advantage over Helga. They spoke English – she did not. So, each night, she would copy all the English from the blackboard, translate it into German at home, complete her work in German, and translate it back into English.
“By the morning, even though my eyes were half-closed, I would hand in my homework just like anyone else,” she said.
In New York City, Helga’s aspirations were to go into nursing. However, she couldn’t because she wasn’t yet a US citizen. A Jewish hospital hired her, as long as she was a citizen by the time she took her board exams. It was at the hospital that Helga met her best friend Liebe, and soon to be sister-in-law.
“She was my roommate, she was my best friend, she was my soul friend,” Helga said. Later, she would marry Liebe’s brother Charles.
It was in America that Helga discovered what had happened to her camp sisters – they all survived. Ganya stayed in a German camp, eventually going to Russia in search of her family, whom she never found. Miriam was taken to a different area in Sweden, marrying and raising her family there. She reconnected most with Maja, who also moved to New York City after her family found her in a German camp.
“We used to visit each other periodically. She married a principal from a high school, and she raised her children in New York,” Helga said, explaining that Ganya also made her way to New York. “Ganya went upstate. I used to see her when I worked as a camp nurse for my children in upstate New York, in the mountains. When I had a free day, I would go see her.”
Today, Helga’s 94, and leads an active life. A typical day is full of books, puzzles, knitting, or even excursions to Bayfront Park for picnics with her daughter Lisa. She enjoys being in nature and cherishes spending time with her four children and four grandchildren. Helga travels frequently. Her next adventure will take her to Maine to see her eldest grandson get married.
Helga’s immense strength is undeniable, and it was upheld during the Holocaust by just three things, she says.
“Hope, being young… and the companionship,” Helga said, emphasizing the last. “That we held onto each other, actually held onto each other.”
Though she had these three strengths, Helga always thought she was going to die, she said. She constantly questioned if she would survive, and she constantly questioned her faith. Helga still questions her faith.
“It made me question. It made me question many things… I don’t go to temple very often,” Helga said, explaining that she belongs to the Chabad, a sect of the Jewish religion that focuses less on orthodoxy and more on humanitarian efforts.
The aims of Chabad align with why Helga tells her story.
“I started speaking in the schools because I felt I needed to give back to the community and I wanted the children to know. I was hoping maybe the children could build a better world than the world that was given to us,” Helga said, her voice filling with urgency. “It could happen again. It could happen again. People become so very divided, that it’s frightening.”
If just one child that hears Helga’s story might stray from hatred and divisiveness, Helga said her time has been well-spent.
“Don’t fall in the trap of hating people. Respect each other. You don’t have to love each other, but you can respect each other. Don’t ever be violent,” Helga said. “Violence is a bad thing, and hate leads to violence.”