Hela Goldstein’s testimony given to the British Film and Photographic Unit on April 24, 1945 is believed to be the first-ever audio-visual testimony given by a Holocaust survivor. As a 22-year old victim, she spoke from Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp where she was imprisoned upon liberation. Standing at the foot of a mass grave with her killers before her, Hela recounted what she experienced. By telling her story in the face of death, she became a foremother of testimony. As Stephen Smith of The Memory Generation says, “Her testimony was an act of courage so great that she thought she would die in order to be able to tell the world what happened to her.”
For Helen (Hela changed her name to Helen when she came to America), telling her story has always been with intention. “I'll be very honest. I was scared. I was shaking,” she told Smith in 2016, over 70 years after her liberation. “But I wanted to tell them [the Nazis] the horrible thing they did to us and the only way I can tell them is by speaking out. If you hide it, you won't accomplish anything.”
Since that first testimony in April 1945, Helen recounted her story again and again; she gave her testimony twice to USC Shoah Foundation. The first time was in 1996 and the second time twenty years later in 2016, just shortly before she passed away. (You can find both full testimonies on YouTube).
Her story of surviving the Holocaust begins like many Jewish survivors. Neither rich nor poor, the Goldstein family were a hardworking, assimilated and deeply loving household in the sweatshop of industrial Poland, Łodz. Antisemitism was present, but there were so many Jews there it was hardly the narrator of her childhood. She heard whispers from her parents who discussed the growing threat, but for the most part slurs, like “dirty Jew” were ignored by the older family members and that method of protecting oneself was passed from one generation to the next. When unkind words were spoken at them, Helen and her relatives turned a blind eye. “Nobody reacted,” she said. “We just assumed it's ignorance on their part that they call us that way… And it was a lack of belief that people can be cruel to others.”
Helen was the second-eldest of four children. She remembered her father as being the center of her world. He played with the kids often and came to their classrooms to witness their accomplishments. She shares moments of childhood that every child should have - plays for Jewish festivals like Purim and Passover and family gatherings; that’s how she learned her Judaism. She remembered her mother as her closest friend -- her confidant.
Helen was 16-years-old when the war broke out and like many Jewish European families, hers desperately tried to leave their country to no avail. Upon the Nazi occupation, the Jewish residents of Łodz were driven into a ghetto at the northeastern edge of the city. More than 160,000 Jews, over a third of the city’s population, were imprisoned “They chased us all out of our homes,” Helen recounted. “They announced that everybody has to leave. Those that did not obey would be shot.” The boundaries of the Łodz ghetto were marked by barbed wire and police units. There was little running water nor a sewer system. The ghetto was overcrowded and there was no food. It was a life of squalor, deprivation and hard labor.
Throughout the war most of Helen’s family would perish. Her father was the first in her immediate family who died of the lethal conditions. That happened in 1943 when he was forty-nine years old. “All over the streets and the sidewalks were bodies from starvation,” Helen remembered. That is where she found her father one day, as a corpse in a pile of bodies. Using broken tree branches, Helen and her sisters dug a shallow grave for him. Hysterical then went home questioning how and who would tell her mother that their father would never again come home.
Shortly after her father’s death, Helen met a man named Kopel Kolin and fell in love. She was 19-years-old. During the years she had been enduring life in the Łodz Ghetto, Kopel had been imprisoned in a concentration camp. He was brought to the ghetto shortly before the two met. “I still remember the table,” Helen said thinking of her wedding day. “My mother made a reception for his family and my family and the reception consisted of coffee grinds. She made little patties like cookies and covered it with something -- some white seeds that looked like sugar... mother had a knack of doing things that were so elegant. It was with nothing, with really nothing she prepared a [wedding] reception.”
The backdrop of Helen and Kopel’s love story was not only poverty, starvation, disease, and random acts of killing, but the implementation of systematic murder. The Final Solution -- the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people -- was put into motion in 1942 continuous, unexpected deportations of the Jews to concentration camps and death camps continued until the ghetto was finally liquidated in 1944. Helen’s family was on one of the very final deportations; they were transported to Auschwitz like animals sent to slaughter.
In the overcrowded cattle car, Helen along with her husband, mother, and siblings awaited death. Helen held Kopel as the train transported them East; his head burned with a fever. Helen recalls that lipstick stained the boxcar walls with the message, “You’re going to die.” She turned to her mother to question if the warning was true. “You don’t say that!” her mother exclaimed. “The Germans are very cultural, very fine people. Nobody kills other human beings!”
As the train came to a standstill. Helen begged her husband to take care of their younger brother; she was sure they would be seperated.
The Nazis were deeply intentional. They were meticulous in their record-keeping and made calculated choices about who would be murdered. They kept Helen and her older sister alive. And chose Helen’s mother and younger sister for death, sending them immediately to the gas chambers.
For the following year (the last year of the war), Helen and her sister moved together from one concentration camp to the next. The two existed amongst the slaves who lay bricks and welded railroad tracks. They scraped concrete, carried heavy buckets of water and moved dead bodies into mass graves. “It was impossible to be human and act human,” said Helen about her time in the concentration camps. “Not being able to express yourself, to say something, to ask, to talk like a human being.”
The first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated was Majdanek in July of 1944 by Soviet forces which was even before Helen was shipped to Auschwitz. Six months later on January 27, 1945, the Soviets liberated the Auschwitz complex -- the largest of the Nazi killing centers. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British three months after that on April 15, 1945. That is where Helen was.
As one member of the British Army Film and Photographic unit recalled of Bergen-Belsen, “The bodies were a ghastly sight. Some were green. They looked like skeletons covered with skin—the flesh had all gone. There were bodies of small children among the grown ups. In other parts of the camp there were hundreds of bodies lying around, in many cases piled five or six high.”
Helen was one of the alive amongst a scene of death. And, it was standing there by a mass grave containing 5,000 corpses that she first spoke her story in front of a camera. “Today is the 24th of April 1945. My Name is Hela Goldstein… I arrived here under horrible circumstances. We were 1500 in one room. We were very dirty and very crowded and there was no food and no water for us… We thought we will not survive this…”
It is because of Helen and and the choices made by the cameramen of that time that we not only know how the Holocaust unfolded at Bergen-Belsen and many other places of mass incaceration and murder, but also have the eyewitness perepctive to prove it was all true. In the first episode of The Memory Generation podcast, we explore this idea of intentionality with filmmaker Jane Wells whose father, Sidney Bernstein, was at the forefront of documenting these war crimes. His dedication to proving the inhumanity in its rawest form came from an understanding that the final step of genocide is denial. And Helen’s story and her choice to speak it while fearing that her words would lead to her death, tells us that the final act of survival is often telling one’s own story.
The first episode of USC Shoah Foundation’s newest podcast, The Memory Generation, was released on April 15th, the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen as well as Helen’s birthday. The show is co-hosted by Finci-Viterbi Endowed Executive Director Stephen D. Smith and inaugural Storyteller in Residence Rachael Cerrotti. You can listen wherever you find your podcasts. Learn more about the show at: www.memorygenerationpodcast.com
** This article was researched with the help of Kristen Gianaris **