Author’s note: Helga Luden’s daughter, Anita Greenwald, provided many of the details of her mother’s portion of this story, as excerpted from her original article entitled “Miracles and Survival.”
On Monday, April 9, New Rochelle Hadassah and Beth El Sisterhood presented a stirring Holocaust Remembrance Program at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle. The afternoons speakers included Helga Luden, 84, and Helene Wolloch, 92, who shared stories of their lives during and after World War II.
For Wolloch, the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 changed everything in her life. Wolloch was born in Krakow, Poland, to a Zionist family. Her neighborhood was a mixed, cosmopolitan area of Jews and Poles, where it was easy to find kosher food and for men to go to shul, but was not easy socially. The Germans took over the city in 1939, imposing new ordinances and government expectations; schools were closed. Children continued to study underground, but food was rationed and Jews were forced to wear yellow Magen David armbands.
In 1941, all the Jews had to leave their homes and were forced to live in the Krakow ghetto. Wolloch recalled, “We left everything behind. I remember that we had two valises for the four of us.”
Her life took a dramatic turn when her mother was able to purchase forged papers for her two daughters that stated they were Christian. This meant that the sisters could leave the ghetto to find work. They had already lost their father. Now, with papers in hand, they had to say goodbye to their mother. Wolloch truly believed she would see her mother again.
“We were young and believed in the future, we did not think it was the end. The survival spirit was so strong, it motivated us and kept us going no matter what,” she said.
Her mother died in Auschwitz in 1943.
Wolloch, age 16, was now without both parents and had only her sister and a cousin for support and companionship. In early 1945, she and her sister left Poland for Vienna, where a refugee aid agency arranged for her to live in a modest hotel for refugees and she enrolled in nursing school.
Life in postwar Vienna was exciting and Wolloch was exposed to culture, literature and art, though she knew she ultimately could not stay there. She chose to come to America, where she had an uncle, arriving in New York City in 1947.
Wolloch met her husband, Zygfryd, in New York; they were married for more than 55 years and raised four sons, all of whom received their religious educations at Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle. She is the proud grandmother of nine grandchildren.
Wolloch stated, “I feel gratitude to God that I have had the opportunity to raise my family in America and I hope that I can impart to them my desire that each of them will be a credit to the Jewish people and this country.”
Helga Luden’s story is one of miracles and survival. Luden was born in Ulmen, Kreis Cochem, where the Rhine river and the Mosel river intersect in Germany. Her family was the only Jewish family in town, where her papa and grandma were innkeepers and cattle traders, with an attached butcher shop. Life was good for the Luden family. They were liked and respected by their neighbors.
Luden was 5 when the knocks started coming in the middle of the night. Those knocks scared her because they meant imprisonment. After her papa was imprisoned on several different occasions, the police chief warned him to leave town with his family. Climbing on their druschky (horse and buggy), they said goodbye to the rest of their family and Luden and her parents headed toward Luxembourg, thinking it would be safer there. However, it wasn’t long before Luden’s papa was sent to Camp LeMille and Luden and her mother to Camp Gurs.
In the Gurs work camp, the German officers asked each woman if she had useful skills. Luden’s mother replied that she could play the piano and sing and was assigned to entertain at the Officer’s Club since she knew all the German beer songs from singing for guests at the family’s inn. Luden was told to make herself very small, to be very quiet and not bring attention to herself. At the Officer’s Club, Luden’s mother overheard the plan to take away all of the children. Taking Luden onto her lap, her mother explained that if she stayed in the camp she would be harmed, but if she climbed under the fence, no one would harm her. Her mother explained that she would find mushrooms and grass and flowers to eat in the forest and that people would find her and take her into their home. She was instructed not to tell anyone that she was Jewish.
Six-year-old Luden listened to her mother; she climbed under the fence, ate mushrooms and grass and slept in the woods. Upon awakening, feeling very ill, she found a group of French men surrounding her. The French Jewish partisans took her to a Catholic convent and asked the Mother Superior to care for this Jewish child. Luden still remembers the Catholic prayers, the French National Anthem and other French songs and the cross that the nuns placed above her bed. In time, two people arrived to take Luden to an orphanage in Aix-en-Provence, where she remained very quiet and stayed to herself. A miracle occurred when Luden was in the orphanage when, seemingly out of nowhere, she was reunited with her mother. Luden never found out how her mother escaped from Gurs or how she found her daughter.
Much like the story of Anne Frank, Luden and her mother were taken by Righteous Gentiles and hidden in an attic in France. At some point, they were told to hurry to the port in Marseilles where they were to board a boat, the Serpa Pinto, a Portuguese freighter, that was leaving Europe. There were 650 Jews huddled together for the long, arduous trip. Luden’s mother was drawn to a group of very sick men who needed help. Another miracle occurred when one of the sick men turned out to be Luden’s papa.
The Serpa Pinto pulled into the Ellis Island harbor in 1942. All hopes were quashed, however, when President Roosevelt would not allow the refugees to enter the United States. Country after country refused to take in the Jewish refugees. Finally, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee arranged for them to go to the Dominican Republic, where an enclave in the town of Sousa, on an abandoned banana plantation, was established for the Jews.
Luden’s mother eventually decided that the Dominican Republic was not the right place to raise proper Jewish-German girls and the family relocated to America. They settled with family on the Lower East Side of New York, and ultimately moved to a bigger apartment in the Bronx. When the family had time to relax, they would visit the Bronx Zoo or Orchard Beach, which reminded them of their home on the river in Germany. On one such outing, Luden was introduced to Mayer, an immigrant from Tomashev Lubelski in Poland, who became her husband. The couple was married for almost 61 years and was blessed with three children and 12 grandchildren.
Listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors is always an emotional experience. One is humbled by the dignity and bravery of people who managed to survive inexplicable atrocities and continue to live a life of gratitude and faith in Hashem while raising families and making contributions to their new homeland.
By Yvette Finkelstein