Almost 70 years after coming face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, Holocaust survivor Helen Handler still remembers his “black, shiny shoes.”
The “angel of death” was one of the first German S.S. soldiers that Handler saw when she arrived at the Nazi death camp with her mother, two brothers and her grandparents.
Handler, then only 15, was the only one to survive.
She shared her story Wednesday with students at Mesa’s Academy With Community Partners. She started at the beginning, with details of her life in her Hungarian community. Her best friend stopped playing with her one day. And soon after, the Jewish members of the city were told they had to leave.
Because Hungary aligned with Germany early in the war, the people of the country knew what was being done. They knew the stories of the rounds ups of Jewish people.
But, she said, they also knew there was no where to go, no where to hide.
“There were no countries that would take us,” she told the students.
She arrived at Auschwitz on a cattle car with her family. It would be the last time she would see them.
Mengele pointed her out from a group of five other women and girls. Her long hair was cut and she was stripped of all her possessions.
During her storytelling, Handler emphasized to the students that the Jewish women she was imprisoned with, “treated each other like human beings.”
“There was no pushing or shoving,” she said.
Handler told the students that she kept hold of the Bible story that God created humans by giving them his breath, that because of that, she had a bit of God in her.
“I tell you that because when you get desperate, you remember you carry God with you,” she said.
Each day, Handler said, she just prayed for enough strength to make it through the next.
Six months after entering Auschwitz, Handler was taken on a Nazi “death march.”
She shared the haunting details of Jewish prisoners falling by the side of the road in the snow and being shot by the German S.S.
No one dared helped them, either, she said, because they, too, would be shot.
At some point, Handler said, she and her fellow Jews were put in a barn.
“We didn’t even have the strength to open the door to see if the Germans were there,” she said.
She doesn’t know how long they were locked in the barn. But she does remember the hundreds of mice eating the dead.
At some point, she lost consciousness.
“I woke up in a gym at a school on the floor. There was bedding underneath me,” she said.
The Russians freed them, but then left to continue the war. Handler landed in a Polish hospital. She spent weeks getting to Hungary, begging for food on her way.
She spent years recovering from the tuberculosis that filled her spine. Her story, she told the students, should remind them about the human ability to survive and that, in the end, evil always destroys itself.
Amy Hargrove is the teacher who asked Handler to talk to her Freedom Writers class, as well as other English and humanities students at the school.
“I brought her in so that kids could learn first-hand the effects of hate (The Holocaust) and the power of hope, courage and love in the face of adversity,” she said.
The Freedom Writers classes focuses on tolerance. Students study the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, along with the story of the first “Freedom Writers” in California.
“My students journal about their lives and how they relate to what they are learning. Our students have faced many challenges in life, but we are an ‘at hope’ school where we teach our students that they matter, they have great things to contribute to society, that they are loved, and they will succeed,” she said. “It is my hope that my students will always remember what Helen told them that echoes these beliefs, ‘If you reach deep inside yourself, you will find the strength to move on.’”
The story did appear to hit home with students.
“It was very touching,” senior Konola Hamilton, 17, said. “She cares so much about our future.”
Fellow senior Cierra Vivier, 17, agreed.
“It was inspiring. It’s crazy to know someone can rebuild herself from nothing,” she said, noting how much Handler went through.
“Yet she’s still her to get her point across.”
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