In honor of the birthday and memory of Holocaust survivor Helen Colin on April 15, and in remembrance of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where she lived until liberation on her 22nd birthday, USC Shoah Foundation would like to write of Colin’s life, and her generous donations of testimony to the Institute, to readers and to students worldwide.
Colin is thought to have the distinction of being the first survivor to speak on camera, just after liberation from Bergen-Belsen. Her testimony, given to German citizens who had resided near the concentration camp, was given beside a mass grave – she testified on record, later admitting she had feared she would be silenced by, perhaps, a Nazi sniper. But her need to convey her message – that a peaceful, loving and tolerant world should be what we strive for, and is possible – kept her speaking, kept her telling her story. For 70 years, she continued to tell her story, either aloud to students at conferences, to seekers of testimony on tape or in text, in her book “My Dream of Freedom; From Holocaust to My Beloved America,” from which all proceeds go to the Holocaust Museum Houston’s Helen Colin Speak Out For Tolerance Scholarship.
Colin’s donation of testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in 2016 came after the Institute’s Executive Director Stephen Smith came across a black-and-white film of her being interviewed after the war. He reached out to speak with her, at her home in Texas. It was her second time being interviewed by the Institute – she was among the 53,000 survivors and witnesses to give testimony in the 1990s. Her testimony was recorded in 1996.
She also recorded her testimony for Holocaust Museum Houston in 1991. That testimony is now also viewable in the Visual History Archive.
Born Hela Goldstein in Lodz, Poland in 1923, Colin described her childhood as one filled with affection and love: “[My mother, Miriam,] was my closest confidant, my closest friend...I didn’t need anyone but my mother;” her father, Joseph, was a builder and the town’s unofficial mediator and peacekeeper. She got along well with her sister Stefa, brother Romek and baby sister Selinka. She remembered, in testimony, of the decoration throughout her home: “I had a very warm home...I remember one of the corners in the bedroom, my mother’s bridal bouquet – dried flowers, wrapped in chiffon. I always admired it so much...Everybody who walked in was welcome with open arms, my mother was a person who liked to entertain.”
When initial signs of Nazi takeover emerged – troops entering Colin’s schoolyard and burning Jewish students’ possessions, banning them; similar instances in town with Jewish-owned businesses – Joseph tried to apply for visas to take his family to British-ruled Palestine. They sold everything they owned, apart from their small summer home – but the night before they were meant to leave, Stefa got sick with appendicitis. They missed the ship to Palestine, the government wouldn’t refund the money and Joseph had a nervous breakdown.
All would have been lost had it not been for Miriam’s ingenious thinking, according to Colin. Her mother turned the summer home into a coffee parlor, and its success brought Colin’s father back from the brink. But this peace would not last long.
In 1942, Colin’s family was taken to the Lodz Ghetto, to share a tiny room without running water, and ration out very little food. In the ghetto, survivors were forced to work for the Nazis, make their supplies with no complaint and for almost no pay – they were starved and terrorized. One night, when their father did not return to the room after work, Colin and Stefa went out looking for him, fearing he had collapsed in the street of malnourishment.
They found him amongst stacks of corpses in the morgue and formally buried him in a makeshift grave dug by hand. In testimony, Colin said of this time: “To wipe out such a beautiful family, such warm, affectionate, totally devoted to one another – it’s sad, it’s very sad.”
After her father’s death, Colin married a man she had come to love in the ghetto – Kopel Colin – in a group ceremony. Following the liquidization of the ghetto, she, Kopel, her mother, brother and two sisters were sent to Auschwitz, where she was separated from her husband and brother in one line, and her mother and youngest sister in another. There, Colin said she lost her mother, with the memory of her pleading to stay with her youngest sister; and there, Colin would remember pleading with her husband to protect her young brother. He would do his best.
Colin and her sister were selected for work and moved around several camps before they ended up at Bergen-Belsen, where they found Kopel’s brother. She was not at the camp long, and although she contracted typhus, Colin lived to see the liberation of the camp on April 15, 1945 – her birthday.
After liberation, Colin and Stefa – who married Kopel’s brother – were sent to a displaced persons camp in Germany. She reunited with Kopel, who had scoured lists of survivors and escaped a hospital bed to come find her, and went with him to America, where they had their first daughter in February of 1947. After living in New York briefly, the Colins and their, now, two daughters, moved to Houston in 1950. There, they opened a jewelry store and raised their family. In 1952, Colin attained her American citizenship – a feat she was immensely proud of in her testimonies to the Institute.
Colin, a woman of extraordinary strength and valor, passed away on July 22, 2016. She is remembered by daughters Muriel Meicler and Jeanie Goldman; grandchildren Emily Quinn, Michele Meicler and Philip Meicler; great-grandchildren Zaia, Moriah, Naomi, Ethan, Zoe and James; and by her nieces and nephews.