St. Louisans remember the Holocaust

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

Lisa Hellman was the youngest of five daughters growing up in Poland.

“I was number five, the baby of the family,” she said.

But by 1945, all of Hellman’s sisters, and the rest of her family, were gone.

Hellman and fellow Holocaust survivor Rachel Goldman Miller shared their stories of surviving the Holocaust during the annual Yom HaShoah Community Commemoration, held at Shaare Emeth on Sunday. Over 1,000 people attended the commemoration, held by the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and B’nai Brith St. Louis.

Hellman’s family was moved to the ghetto of Brest-Litovsk after the city was captured by the Germans in 1941. One year later, Hellman’s family was awakened by the Nazis, who ordered residents outside, and separated the men and the women.

The men, including Hellman’s father, were led to one side, and the women were ordered to follow soldiers away from the area.

“Only years later did I hear that the men had been taken to a wooded area where they dug their own graves and were then mowed down by machine guns,” she said.

Later, the Nazis separated Hellman and her sisters from their mother and grandmother, whom they would never see again.

Hellman and her four sisters, Sophie, Hannah, Lola and Doris, were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, for forced labor, in January 1942.

“After several months of bitter cold and the brutality of the guards, my sisters wound up with frozen toes, gangrene — unable to walk or work,” Hellman said.

With the Russians advancing on the concentration camp in 1945, the prisoners were forced to march for two days to a railroad station, where they were loaded onto cars.

After a long ride, the prisoners were allowed off to get water. By the time Hellman reached the water supply, she found it was empty. However, she noticed a farmhouse in the distance, and started to walk towards it.

“In my mind, I had nothing to lose,” she said. “As a matter of fact I was hoping that the Nazis would shoot toward me and kill me.”

However, no one fired, and Hellman wandered off to the farmhouse, not realizing she was, in fact, escaping her captors.

“I was accidentally liberated, and still not safe,” Hellman said.

A German woman in the farmhouse allowed her to stay and work on the farm. On Sunday mornings, Hellman went along to a Christian church, and once even took confession, to avoid suspicion from the neighbors.

As the Russian army moved closer, and the Germans evacuated the area, Hellman walked for three days, and ended up in Breslaw, where she found an old schoolmate of her sister, Doris. He gave Hellman a small photo of Doris.

“After losing all of my possessions and any part of my family, that picture meant so much to me,” Hellman said.

As the sole survivor of her family, Hellman said she feels “very fortunate…and blessed.”

“I don’t know how I survived those years in Auschwitz, but I believe that Hashem had something to do with it.”

As a 9-year-old, Rachel Goldman Miller, who was born in France, was sent to live with a non-Jewish friend’s family, under the name “Christine,” in 1942 to escape the Nazis.

All of Miller’s family were killed, including her beloved sister, Sabine.

“I think about Sabine every day,” Miller said. She said for a long time after the war, she fantasized that Sabine had survived the war, and was living in Israel.

Once she made it Israel, though, that dream was shattered. “As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew she was gone,” Miller said. Miller later received confirmations of her family members’ deaths from Nazi records during the war.

Miller said she has dedicated herself to speak regularly at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center so people do not forget what happened during the Holocaust.

Shaare Emeth Rabbi James Bennett told the crowd that the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration is an important exercise. “For communities gathering each year to remember Yom HaShoah, our purpose is far-reaching and profound. So long as we remember, and tell the stories to each successive generation, so long as these memories remain etched into the consciousness of our people and all people, there is yet hope that humanity will prevail, that we will overcome injustice,” he said.

“And that is why we are here again and again, to retell the story that is both ours alone and the story of all people. We come to remember and to rededicate ourselves to action,” Bennett said.

Jewish Federation of St. Louis President Heschel Raskas noted that the loss of one-and-a-half million children represented a far greater loss to society. “Not only were these innocent lives lost,” he said. “We must also recall that these children never had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah in the Torah, the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply.”

Raskas referred to Elie Wiesel’s description of the “specter of this murder of potential.”

“How many benefactors of humanity perished when they were a month old, or a year,” Raskas said. “There could have been among them a scientist who would have discovered a remedy for AIDS, a cure for cancer. And there could have been among them great Torah scholars and leaders of Jewish communities.”

With music from local cantors and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and readings by descendents of Holocaust survivors, six Holocaust survivors, surrounded by their families, lit six candles in honor of the six million lives lost during the Holocaust.

A seventh candle, to represent genocides occurring after the Holocaust, was lit by Imam Muhamed Hasic of the Islamic Community Center, representing the Bosnian community, and Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Sign up for Your Morning Light