- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

The 88-year-old woman still remembers the day of the week that Germany invaded Poland. Friday. She remembers the time on Sunday when German soldiers came to her town. Eleven a.m.

And she remembers the words of the Germans as they entered the city. “All the Jews out!”

As Helen Breitowitz, at age 18, stepped out into the courtyard to face the Nazis, she stepped into a world in which she can no longer imagine how she survived.

The clock ticks loudly as Mrs. Breitowitz sits in her Rockville apartment, slowly and patiently recounting her life and Holocaust survival. Though she became an American citizen in 1955, a thick accent still steeps her words. Photos of family - some killed in the Holocaust, some kept alive, some born after it - line her walls.

She recounts the time before the war, when she dreamed to have a dozen nylon stockings. And she recounts the time during the war when all she wished for was a piece of buttered bread with cheese.

On Aug. 9, Mrs. Breitowitz and other Holocaust survivors will share their experiences at a luncheon sponsored by the Progress Club at Ring House in Rockville. About 20 survivors live in the retirement community. The club will invite young volunteers, club members and survivors’ guests to gather and learn from the Holocaust experiences.

Mrs. Breitowitz says she and her family want the next generation to remember those years.

“In the beginning, we never talked about it. And in the later years, we never stopped talking about it,” she says. “I don’t know [why]. Maybe we wanted to forget. And now we think it’s very important to talk about.”

‘Very much in love’

In 1935, Mrs. Breitowitz’s best friend introduced the 15-year-old to David Breitowitz, who was then 18. He had come to Sosnowiec, Poland, to work and live with his brother.

They became neighbors. She lived in house No. 9, and he lived in No. 11. As she walked home every day from work, he came outside to talk to her.

Soon she called him “boyfriend.”

As the Germans entered Sosnowiec in September 1939, Helen, her family and David hid in their cellar. They came out at the sounds of Nazi screams, and the soldiers arrested the men. The Nazis eventually released Helen’s father and brother, but David remained in prison.

Meanwhile, the Nazis gradually were emptying the city of Jews, especially young women. Helen’s parents sent her to Russian-controlled eastern Poland to live with an aunt and uncle and their two daughters. She thought she would never see David again.

“I was really, really, very much in love with him,” Mrs. Breitowitz recalls. “It was a terrible time. We didn’t know what to do. It’s just impossible to imagine what was going on. People were running this way and that way.”

Then one day, the doorbell rang. She opened the door. It was David.

“I was standing with my mouth open,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. And he said, ‘Helen, aren’t you going to invite me [in]?’ ”

Mr. Breitowitz had escaped prison by making friends with one of the German guards. He was renting an apartment with his brother in another city. After showing up on Helen’s doorstep, he traveled four hours by train to see her, every day, for two months. He wrote to her parents for permission to marry her. They agreed, but she couldn’t leave her young cousins, for whom she helped care.

Then one day, the children were out.

“So he gave me an ultimatum. … ‘You have to go with me, and we’ll elope.’ ”

So she did.

“Life is so strange,” she says. “He really saved my life, my husband. Because I would have gone back with my aunt. And they didn’t survive.”

Her aunt, uncle and two cousins perished during the war. Her parents died at Auschwitz.

Darkness and cold

Five months after they married, Russian soldiers came in the night and arrested the young Jewish couple. It was May 1940.

The Soviets gathered the Breitowitzes and 1,000 other Jews who refused to become Soviet citizens or Communists or fight in the Soviet army. The soldiers loaded them onto cattle trains.

“We didn’t have anything, just the clothes on our back,” Mrs. Breitowitz remembers.

They traveled for six months by cattle train, trucks, large boats, small boats. The train rolled to a stop every night, and their captors gave them hot water, maybe soup, maybe bread. The soldiers forced them to walk for about a day to their final destination, a wood deep in Siberia.

“It was nothing. It was just a jungle with trees. No houses. Nothing, nothing. They gave us an ax and they said, you build your own houses.”

The Jews had no knowledge of house-building, but it was November and bitterly cold. They eventually managed to build log cabins. Thirty people slept in a single cabin, kept warm by a large makeshift stove in the center of the room. The Russians gave them rations of wheat and barley. Some prisoners died from lack of nutrition.

“We suffered terribly,” Mrs. Breitowitz remembers.

They washed themselves with snow. They cut ice with an ax and melted it for drinking water. There was no work for them to do other than daily to survive each day.

“All day long the women were talking about food, what we used to have, what we used to eat,” she says.

The men played cards and dominoes.

Nine months of the year in Siberia were winter and constant darkness; three were summer and constant daylight. The prisoners fought bedbugs in summer.

The local Russians were kind to them, teaching them how to pick summer berries to supplement their diet. Occasionally the Russians would give them candy. Mrs. Breitowitz would eat hers right away, but Mr. Breitowitz would save his and give it to her later.

“We had such a good marriage. He loved me so much, and I loved him, too,” she says.

The first winter, Mr. Breitowitz took his gloves off in the cold. His hands turned black with frostbite - “Just like coal,” she says. She walked about 10 kilometers every day for several months to a nearby Russian clinic to bring him medicine. Yet he stayed sick, unable to move, until a Russian paramedic came and peeled away the blackened skin with tweezers.

“When he started to take off the skin … I fainted in the room,” she says.

Three years passed in the Siberian prison camp. The Jews were then moved to the Siberian city of Yakutz and then to central Russia. In 1946 - a year after the war ended - the Soviets finally freed them, gave them Polish passports and put them on a train back to their homeland.

“I cannot believe it, that we lived through, we made it,” Mrs. Breitowitz says. She can now see the benefit of the suffering in cold Siberia - they were saved from German concentration camps.

“That was our salvation, that they sent us so far away,” she says.

They returned to Poland to learn that her brother had survived Auschwitz but most of the rest of her family had been killed. Seven of her husband’s siblings had died and also his mother.

“I came back to the city where I came from, and nobody was left,” Mrs. Breitowitz says.

A life continued

In 1949, the Breitowitzes came to New York City

“I kissed the ground,” Mrs. Breitowitz recalls, beaming while she speaks about America. “I am very grateful to America. I’m a big patriot.”

She found work as a seamstress, and her husband, despite not knowing any English at first, became a salesman. He once sold two lamps to a woman who had no table.

“He literally could sell you the London Bridge,” Mrs. Breitowitz remembers, smiling.

She says she thought her husband more handsome than Clark Gable. They stayed in love - she remembers how he even would clip her toenails and care for her calluses.

“I never went to a podiatrist, because no one could do it like him,” she says.

He died in 2003.

The couple had two sons, both of whom are rabbis, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

As the World War II generation ages, Mrs. Breitowitz wants her grandchildren to remember what happened during those years as the voices of Holocaust deniers speak louder.

“It’s very important to me that the grandchildren should know how we survived. Because if it had not been for the survival, there would be no grandchildren,” she says. “The Holocaust didn’t start with the killing. It started with just words.”


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