Holocaust survivors share stories

By Hana Al-Henaid

Helen Freeman hid her earring in her shoe as guards at Auschwitz confiscated all her belongings, Arnold Wininger saw his mother for the last time at a train station on his way to Yugoslavia to begin a life in hiding, Eva Brettler watched from cornfields as her aunt and grandmother were marched from their home. All three spoke at one of the sophomore, junior or senior class meetings for the second Holocaust Memorial Assembly last week.

Freeman spoke to the senior class, climbing the steps of the stairs arm in arm with Paulina Shahery ’09 and her granddaughter, Jackie Feiler ’10, who introduced her.

Freeman began her story by recalling Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

“I was a teenager, like you all are,” Freeman said. “I had goals and dreams to accomplish, but my dreams were interrupted.”

Freeman was taken from her home and put into a ghetto. She ultimately was moved to Auschwitz. Although all her possessions were supposed to be confiscated, Freeman was able to keep her shoes, worn down from days of marching and without soles.

“The earring kept me going when I was depressed. I felt my family was with me, especially my mother,” Freeman said.

While speaking of her treatment at Auschwitz, Freeman took off her black blazer to reveal a faint blue tattoo on her arm, given to her upon her arrival at the camp. The mark read A24490.

“I was no more a human being; I was just a number,” she said.

In 1945, Freeman was liberated by American soldiers. Freeman ultimately returned to Poland, only to find her family gone.

“That’s when I realized I was an orphan,” Freeman said.

Freeman reunited with her old boyfriend from before the war, Joseph, whom she later married. They had two children within six years of their marraige and have been married 62 years.

She came to America in 1951, sponsored by a synogogue in Pasadena.The earring Freeman hid from the Germans stayed with her throughout her travels. Freeman passed it down on her daughter’s wedding day.

Freeman’s final words to the audience urged them to “please be good to each other, help each other.”

Freeman’s husband, Joseph, wrote two books; both have been signed and donated to the school’s library.

Arnold Wininger spoke on Feb. 4 to the junior class. He was introduced by his grandson Eli Wininger ’11.

Wininger was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1926. The Nazis took over in 1933 when he was in second grade.

After his father was arrested in 1939, Wininger was taken to a railroad station by his mother to flee; it was the last time he saw her. Wininger was trying to make it to the Italian-occupied region of Yugoslavia.

He was able to hide safely until the war ended. In 1949, Wininger arrived in the United States with an education, but no profession. He settled in Boston and married his wife of 58 years. He now has three sons and eight grandchildren.

Wininger is the sole survivor of his family. After the war, he was invited back to his hometown by the German state.

“I remember the letter said, ‘We hope you find the courage to come back,’” Wininger said. “We went back and I made peace with myself, but there was a time when I thought I would never go back.”

Before Wininger left the stage, he asked a favor of the audience.

“I want you all to stand up; hold hands and say ‘I will stand up for you!’” Wininger said.

Eva Brettler spoke at the sophomore class assembly. Shahery introduced her and explained the purpose of the assembly.

“It may seem like a random day of a random week,” Shahery said, “but it’s a day to think about tolerance, about how you affect other people in your life, because Eva has affected mine.”

Shahery first met Brettler two years ago during an interview.

“I want to thank Paulina for opening up certain parts of my life that were locked up for quite some time,” Brettler said.

Brettler remembers the war affecting her for the time when she was 7 years old. German soldiers had come for her grandmother and her aunt.

“My grandmother was baking when the knock came,” Brettler said. “I still remember the aroma of the bread.”

Ultimately, Brettler and her mother were arrested by Hungarian police and forced on a death march, where her mother was killed.

Now alone, Brettler was taken to Ravensbruck, where an elderly woman took pity on her.

“I remember when I went to sleep, she usually had her arms around me,” Brettler said. “One day, her arms were limp, she wouldn’t wake up. I wanted to die with her.”

Brettler and the rest of the camp were evacuated and ended up at Bergen Belsen.

“The first thing I saw was a huge mountain of bodies – they didn’t have time to bury them,” she said

On April 15, 1945 the British liberated Brettler and the rest of the camp.

“I never knew my birthday until I actually saw the certificate, but I considered that day my birthday for quite some time,” Brettler said.

From the camp, Brettler migrated to Sweden. She stayed there until January 1947, when she returned to Budapest to her father who had also survived.

“Chronologically, I was 10, but after two and a half years in camps, I was in many ways a grown-up,” she said.

Brettler studied chemistry and pursued her education in the United States. She arrived to America in a naval ship and remembers seeing the Statute of Liberty from the water.

“It was a new beginning for me,” Brettler said. “It was the first time I traveled by choice, not by force.”

Brettler married a fellow survivor, with whom she had four children, and is now the proud grandmother of eight.

After each of the assemblies, students were given the opportunity to sign up to interview Holocaust survivors and join the Breakfast Club, a school club started by Shahery in order to address tolerance and acceptance in the Harvard-Westlake community.