My friends at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Clifton, N.J. chose the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht – "the night of broken glass" [November 9, 1938] – to observe their annual remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust by inviting Helen Paktor, who survived that experience, to speak to us.
The talk was introduced by Dr. Jacob Lindenthal, who serves as professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Dr. Lindenthal interpreted for us a series of photographs he took at Auschwitz. Coming from a family who lost loved ones in the camps, he recalled shaking with emotion when seeing the railroad tracks leading into it, to the point where he dropped one of his cameras, a vintage Leica. He described meeting Helen Paktor, the guest of honor, during the last year and developing a strong kinship based on their mutual experience of loss.
Helen Paktor was born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1925. Her parents worked in the dressmaking industry for which the area was known. She was 14 when German troops invaded her town, rounding up her family among the other local Jews and herding them into the city's ghetto. There they were subjected to forced labor and unprovoked violence, while their homes were pillaged. Her father was killed, and she and her mother were separated from her brother and sent to the first of three concentration camps.
Helen told us matter-of-factly about how the prisoners were treated. Brutality was a daily occurrence, and there was the constant white smoke from the crematoriums. They were forced to work 10-12 hour days on just crumbs of bread and "soup" that was little more than hot water. Helen and her mother were lucky to be together, as they helped one another survive. She told us of sleeping top-to-toe so they could warm one another's frostbitten feet under their arms. On their third encounter with "Doctor Death" Josef Mangele, who personally inspected prisoners' left arms to see if they retained enough muscle tone to be fit for work, Helen was worried her frail-looking mother would be singled out for execution, so – by prior arrangement – she "stumbled" forward and pushed her mother, creating a distraction.
The ploy worked, and both women lived to see the day Soviet troops liberated the camp. The guards had actually abandoned it ahead of the advancing army, but electrified the gates to prevent the prisoners from escaping.
Helen and her mother returned to their hometown and she tried for years to locate her brother, traveling as far as Italy, only to discover that he, too, had been killed. They emigrated to America in the 1950s, her mother first, then Helen a year later. She married and had two children, and lives in Livingston today.
The range of questions people ask Helen is amazing, and unfortunately in some cases reveals the ignorance that many Americans have about this dark period in human history. She does not mince words in her replies. When asked how she responds when she learns about Holocaust deniers, Helen pointed at the numbers tattooed on her arm and asked "Why would any sane person do this to herself?" A young man once asked if that was to help her remember her address. She said no, it was to help him remember what the Nazis had done. She was also asked if she'd consider having the tattoo removed since it was a constant reminder of the horrors she had witnessed and endured. "As if I needed a visual to be reminded." Someone else asked, "Did you ever consider suicide in the camps?" She looked at us for a long moment before replying firmly, "No. I wanted to live."
Understandably, there is still much anger in Helen's voice when she talks about the Nazis. She testified at a trial in Munich for some camp officials, but said very little was done to punish them. According to Lawrence Rees, author of Auschwitz, A New History (2005) only 12% of the camp's 7,500 staff were ever brought to justice, and many of the sentences were trivial.
Helen brightens when discussing the heritage and contributions of the Jewish people. She shared that – despite being about 1% of the world population – Jews have won 22% of all Nobel Prizes. It is important to her that this history and heritage is passed down. She spent time last year with a young man named Andy Antiles as part of his preparation for Bar Mitvah. Andy writes about his experience at http://www.jfedgmw.org/april-2014/shining-light-into-darkness.
Helen's daughter Jeanette Mahler was with her at today's event, and they both expressed profound gratitude for the expression of humanity offered by the people of St. Peter's. They were moved to tears by the choir chanting the ancient Hebrew prayer "Ani Ma-Amin" ("I Believe") during the morning's Eucharist, which was Helen's first time attending a worship service in other than a synagogue.
In conclusion, Helen read aloud from an essay "Concerning the Jews" written by Mark Twain and published in Harper's in 1897. Twain who – having just spent time in Austria – perhaps saw the signs of what was to come.
"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
At age 90, Helen's continued strength of spirit is a clue to that secret.
This article was originally published by Christian Paolino as a longer post on his blog, The Verge of Jordan. This slightly abbreviated version is reprinted with permission.