Helen Koerner was born Haika Zughaft in Poland. She had three brothers and three sisters. Their father worked in business. Helen attended public school through the ninth grade. She remembers that she could feel the progression of antisemitism in school, particularly among the other students rather than among the teachers. She also remembers the strong sense of family that her mother instilled in the children; everybody took care of everybody else. This value became especially important once the family moved to the ghetto.
Early in June 1942, the Germans chased the Jews out of the ghetto where Helen’s family was living. Twelve thousand people were killed in one day. One of Helen’s brothers, his wife, child and mother in law were among those murdered, in the first big massacre in her hometown.
The Germans soon took a large group of people, among them Helen’s mother, from the community to be shipped to the camps. Helen followed the group to a train station but was chased away by the Germans, so she returned home to her brothers and sisters. For a while, they worked in a tanning factory. Eventually the area was split into separate women’s and men’s ghettos, and then divided again into working and nonworking people. Helen lived in these ghettos until September 1943, when she was taken to a camp in Krakow, called Krakow-Plaszow. Hers was the last ghetto in Poland to be evacuated. She recounts how the Polish people would watch the Jews march towards the train station and laugh. At this point she was separated from her sisters and arrived in Krakow alone. The camp in Krakow was built on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery, and the Nazis used the city’s synagogue as a stable. Although there was not work to be done at this camp, Helen remembers seeing people put to work, breaking rocks into gravel.
The inmates from Krakow-Plaszow were then taken to another camp, by train. The camp was in a converted Polish munitions factory. When they arrived, Helen was met by earlier inmates, who had all turned yellow from the materials with which they were working. Helen was not put to work with explosives; instead, her task was to find used bombshells from the surrounding fields and separate the ones that were reusable.
Helen recalls that often Poles and Ukrainians worked for Germans and were sometimes given positions as supervisors in the camps. Typically, they were much harsher in their treatment of the Jews than the Germans were. Helen recalls how frequently her fellow inmates were belittled and taunted by their supervisors.
Later, they moved out of the barracks into bunks located in an old, broken- down factory. Helen remembers that they were sometimes forced to stand outside at night for long periods of time without reason. She stresses repeatedly that the actual physical work was not the worst part of camp; rather, the true horror was in the terrible psychological treatment and verbal abuse.
While Helen was in this camp, she came down with typhus. Her legs were temporarily paralyzed from a complication of her illness. While Helen was sick, other women dragged her to work so that she would not be killed. Helen had nursed a woman back to health who had typhus before her, and this woman had a close friend in the men’s barracks that happened to be a doctor. She brought him to look at Helen. When the Germans found out that she was sick, he protected her and would not let her be taken out of the barracks and killed. The day after he stood up to the SS for her, Helen could suddenly walk again.
Shortly after,, the inmates were taken on another train. The trip lasted seven days and nights. Finally, they arrived in Leipzig. Helen remembers being selected naked, then given striped clothing. The women were quickly bathed in hot water, and left idle for a few days simply because there was not much work to be done. In Leipzig, Helen ran into two sisters who she knew from her hometown.
The inmates were taken from Leipzig and forced to march for about two weeks. They were liberated during this march somewhere along the Elba River. Helen never knew who liberated her group. They saw American planes flying low, but the soldiers could not do anything because of the sheer number of people walking along the ground. One of the two women from Helen’s home found her husband on this march, but he died before liberation.
The group woke up one morning and their SS guards had disappeared. Helen found out later that they had fled to the American soldiers because they preferred to be captured by the Americans than by the Russians. Helen then walked aimlessly with a friend, until one morning when they happened to come upon a group from the Red Cross. The Americans took Helen to a DP camp in Poland where she stayed for a short time before going to Munich, Germany. Again, she ran into the same girl from her hometown that she had met in Leipzig. They rented rooms together until Helen found a job at a Jewish newspaper doing office work.
Finally Helen found a notice posted that she had an aunt in America, and moved to be with her. Helen only knows of one of her brothers surviving the war.
Interviewed by Jane Rushefsky