At first, Auschwitz looked beautiful

By Lara Sokoloff

Nazi persecutors stripped Helen Freeman of everything. Her family, friends, every belonging, and even her identity were taken by the Nazi regime, reducing her to only a number: A24490.

In 1939, the Nazi Germans occupied Freeman’s hometown of Radom, Poland. She was 18. The earliest steps of the Nazi’s systemized extermination of an innocent people began with taking the men, Freeman, grandmother of Jackie Feiler ’10, Jamie Feiler ’12 and Jake Feiler ’13, said. Eventually the Germans moved the Jews into a contained ghetto, closing them off from the outside world. Forced to identify themselves as Jews, they were required to wear arm bands with Jewish stars on them. They were given minimal nutrition and forced to work, but the Nazis generally left them alone, Freeman said. Freeman’s mother often warned her to not walk far from their room, for it was known that the Nazis would abduct unsuspecting Jews.

“One day I went a little too far, and they grabbed me,” she said. “It was a truck, it had a curtain on the back, and it was dark.”

Freeman was sent to a camp where an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out.

“They used to come in everyday to see if someone was sick, and if you were, they took you and killed you,” she said. “My fever got high, and I thought they were going to kill me. At night I didn’t sleep, and I was thinking about my family, not knowing where they were, or if they were alive.”

In desperation, Freeman gave a letter she had written to her family to one of the Jewish guards who traveled in between camps, and the guard delivered the note to her brother. Her brother, desperate to save Helen, bribed the guards to rescue his sister.

“He came out with a truck to my camp,” she said. “And while the guards were changing, I could get out and he could grab me.”

Upon their arrival in her brother’s ghetto, they were immediately arrested. Freeman and her brother were sure they would be killed immediately, she said. However, by some miracle, they were spared. Freeman spent the next few months recovering.

“They put me in a hospital with a bed and white sheets, which I hadn’t seen for years,” she said. “But no doctors, no medicine. I was laying there, and I guess I was strong enough to get over it.”

Eventually they liquidated her ghetto, sending the Jews on a death march. They then boarded the trains to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

“When we arrived, I thought it was beautiful,” she said. “It looked like paradise.”

Upon their arrival, the German guards explained to the Jews that they understood they had been traveling and they must be exhausted, and thus they would take a shower and then relax, Freeman said. So they asked the women to proceed to the showers, and the men stayed behind.

“The men were just waving the finger, to the right or to the left,” she said. “No choice … you go to this side, or this side.”

At the showers, they were stripped of whatever minimal belongings they still had and given the uniform dress. They were then assigned to their barracks, where they were tattooed. A24490.

“They put a number,” she said. “We had no name anymore. We had a number.”

In the mornings, they were given dark coffee and a thin slice of bread and a small cup of soup at night, and that was all.

“It was horrible, it was horrible,” she said. I knew that I couldn’t get out, and I was weak. The only thing that kept me going was faith in God. Nothing else, just that I could be strong enough, and that maybe, I could survive.”

Freeman and her roommate were chosen to work in a German factory in Czechoslovakia. In the factory, she worked with the machines making parts for the German army. Freeman would intentionally make the parts inaccurately, she said.

“I knew I risked my life,” she said. “But I didn’t care. I felt dead.”

On May 8, 1945, they were liberated by the Russian and American armies. She returned home, filled with anticipation at seeing her family. However, she found no one. After some time, she found her brothers and her boyfriend, and were reunited, she said. She and her boyfriend married in November 1945, and later had two children.

Freeman and her husband, Joseph, were forced to wait six years to emigrate to the United States. In 1951, they arrived in Pasadena. They started a business, learned English, and expanded their family. They had four children, and now have eight grandchildren.

However, Freeman didn’t always speak about her horrific experiences.

“I wanted to raise my kids normally, and I knew that what I went through wasn’t normal,” she said. “So I put away everything, like in a Pandora box.”

She never spoke until her son attended a Holocaust lecture at Northwestern University by a professor who had written a book, “Denying the Holocaust.” Her son called home and spoke to his father, asking who was lying.

“So my husband said, Helen, you better go to the telephone,” she said. “And I started crying. I said, ‘I’m a traitor.’ I didn’t talk, I couldn’t, it was hurting too much. But I told him he should go tell his professor he’s a liar, he’s a liar.”

From then on, Freeman openly spoke about her experiences. She implores the young people to stand up, to speak up, she said.

“I hope that you kids never, never experience what I experienced. You young people are going to carry the torch, to make it that something like that never happens again.”

“The German people, they started to do something, but too late, and Hitler was too powerful. If they had stood up earlier, Hitler couldn’t have succeeded,” she said.