By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha “Jewish Press” in 2005
Helena Tichauer was tempted to give up more than once. If she had, no one would have blamed her. For persecuted Jews like her and her family, reasons for despair were everywhere in Nazi-occupied Poland. Her family’s pleasant, comfortable life in Krakow had been wrenched away in the looming darkness of the Holocaust.
She’d already lost her little brother, Nathan, when he was seized by the Gestapo from the clutches of their mother in the Krakow Ghetto and sent to his death at Auschwitz. No sooner did her remaining family arrive in Plaszow, the forced labor camp and eventual concentration camp depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, than her paternal grandmother fell victim to Nazi atrocities.
“She was pulled out of line with many others and ordered to dig graves. Then, they had to go into the graves. She took her bible with her. She was a very religious person. She said to us, ‘The upstairs is calling.’ And she was shot with the others.”
After seeing this, Helena, who’s lived in Omaha since 1963, said she thought, “This is our end. I prayed to the Lord that maybe I don’t get up the next day.” In Plaszow, she watched as her mother wasted away. She knew she must do something before it was too late. “I was the one that looked after her,” said Helena, who had to fight through her own malaise. “I didn’t have any spirit. I vegetated. But I had my mother, and I had to live for her.”
The eldest of Karol and Karolina Schulkind’s three children, Helena took charge of her mother’s well-being because someone had to. Her mom was a rather fragile woman, whose delicate sensibility and privileged background ill-prepared her for the rigors of enforced manual labor and starvation rations. “She never did work before the war. She was spoiled,” is how Helena described her pampered mother, whose stately Krakow home was run by servants. Helena’s younger sister, Lola Reinglas, was at Plaszow, too, but in a different barracks. Eventually, Lola was shipped out of Plaszow altogether. Their father was in another section of the compound reserved for males. Occasionally, the family was able to visit each other before curfew, but otherwise Helena and Karolina were on their own.
As her smart, self-sufficient mother’s favorite, Helena was well-suited to be her mother’s caregiver. Except for one short interval, the two remained together throughout the entire Shoah nightmare and even for years after its conclusion. Their time together at Plaszow and, later, at the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen forged a mother-daughter survivor’s bond of unusual depth.
This symbiosis began at Plaszow. It was 1942. Helena was 19. Her mother 41. Officially a forced labor camp then, Plaszow was — for all intents and purposes —already the concentration camp it would later be designated as. Escape was useless. An electrified fence ran around the perimeter. The commandant, Amon Goeth, ruled like the despot and sadist he was. People were executed for the slightest infractions or no reason at all. Prisoners were ill, overworked, underfed.
Amid such conditions, Helena’s own survival is amazing enough, but that she pulled her mother through the ordeal with her is even more remarkable. The fortitude and fate that brought Helena and her late mother out alive is shared, too, by Lola, a fellow survivor who was not reunited with her sister and mother until many years later. Lola was the first of the sisters to come to Omaha and she still lives here.
Much of their strength came from the sisters’ father, an educated man who, despite their unimaginable plight, they recall as never losing hope. Through it all, he remained “always” optimistic. “He said every day, ‘The war is over tomorrow.’ I wanted to believe him,” Helena said. She recalls he somehow managed secreting a radio inside the camp that he kept hidden and listened to for news of the Allies’ advance on Axis Germany. “He’d come and cheer us up, telling us the war would be over soon. Sure that helped. Wouldn’t that help you if you were down in the dumps? He lifted our spirits and the spirits of others, too. It’s true.” He survived the Holocaust, tragically dying two days after liberation.
She said her father also willed himself to stay alive in order to keep an oft-repeatedvow he made — that he would live to see the day the Germans were “beaten. Yes, he had strong will power,” she said. His daughters did, too. “If I didn’t have, then I would be six feet under a long time ago,” said Helena.
Still, there were times, she said, when “I was thinking to give up. I could have. I could have thrown myself in the electrified wires and been finished with my life. But I couldn’t, because I had to live for my mother.”
Weakened by disease and malnutrition, Karolina was a pale shell of herself. If she were unable to work or if even she appeared unfit, Helena knew her mom would soon be disposable and, thus, a sure target for extermination.
“My mother was very sick. She had thrombosis in both legs. She had terrible bronchitis and TB (tuberculosis),” said Helena. “I forced my mother to work. There was not any other way. I pushed her and she pushed herself, even though it was very hard for her. I said, ‘If you’re not going to work, they’re going to kill you.’ She knew if she was not going to do it, it was going to be the end. She wanted to live.”
To fool the guards into thinking her mother stronger and ruddier than she really was, Helena used a ruse that, if discovered, could have meant death for both of them. “Everything was taken from me. Everything,” she said, except for one item she hid from the humiliating strip searches conducted in camp — a tube of lipstick.
“I carried the lipstick here,” she said, indicating between her bosoms. “Mother was very white, like no blood was left in her face. She was very frail. Each morning, I tried to put on my mother’s cheeks the lipstick, so that she would look healthy for the Germans. Every day…I made her look healthy. I saved my mother this way.”
It was not the only time she saved her mother’s life. Once, she said, her mother left the barracks to use the latrine, which wasn’t much more than a hole in the ground. “She fell down the hole and she was drowning in shit up to here,” Helena said, gesturing to her neck. “Somebody called me, and I had to pull her out and wash her off. It was a terrible thing.”
How different things were only a few years before — before the German invasion and occupation of Poland began in 1939 and, with it, the ethnic cleansing campaign the Nazis called The Final Solution.
The Schulkinds were a family of prestige in the largely Gentile district of Krakow they resided in. Their history in Krakow went back more than a century. Karol, the father, was a highly respected and successful electrical engineer and the owner of his own company employing several people. A World War I veteran, he attended university in Austria. He was, Helena said, “a brilliant, eminent, handsome man.”
Karolina, the mother, was a pretty, porcelain doll of a woman who was the picture of refinement in the house she decorated and in the artistic pursuits she favored.
The family vacationed together, with swimming and hiking-filled summers in the country and winter skiing treks in the mountains.
Helena was a smart, lively 16 year-old with two years of “gymnasium” (high school) under her belt and a dream of becoming a physician. “I wanted to study medicine,” she said, but her fondest “desire was shattered” by the outbreak of hostilities.
September 1939 is when it all changed. An eerie quiet fell over Krakow the first few days after war was declared. “Nothing was happening, but then the Germans began bombing Krakow”, she said, using the blitzkrieg strategy that overwhelmed Polish defenses, if not Polish resistance. “We spent most of the time in the basement bunker in our house. I was terribly afraid something might happen to my mother and father.” The Schulkinds and their house survived the attack unscathed, but neighbors were not so lucky. Then, the German Army marched in and life as the Schulkinds knew it stopped. No more work. No more school. No more freedom.
Everything the family once took for granted was stripped from them, including their possessions, as Jews were made official outcasts in their own land. In March 1941, the city’s Jewish population was ordered to gather up no more than five pounds of belongings per person and marched across the river into an abandoned Gentile district that became their ghetto prison. The stone wall and barbed wire enclosed Krakow Ghetto would be their grim dwelling place the next several months.
The Schulkinds shared a two-room flat with another family of five. Fear ruled the ghetto occupants’ lives. Beatings and killings were widespread. Once, the inhabitants were gathered in a public square and those ordered out of the ranks, some 1,500 men, women and children, were machine gunned. Enforced labor, which was mandatory for all able-bodied persons, regardless of age, provided some relief. Each Schulkind worked except for Nathan, who was too frail. Karolina, the mother, repaired military uniforms. Karol, the father, plied his trade as an electrical engineer inside and outside the ghetto. Lola was transported by truck each morning to clean at a Krakow hospital. Helena swept dirt from the street and sidewalk in the summer and cleaned snow in the winter.
Food was in chronic short supply and the only way to get more was to barter or trade. In a bold and dangerous move, Helena’s father defied authorities and held onto the family’s jewelry and silver, which he kept hidden. Helena said she used these valuables for procuring food on scavenging missions outside the ghetto that she planned and executed herself.
“I tried many times to get out from the ghetto,” she said. “Not to escape, but to organize food supplies. And I did. My mother said, ‘You know, if you’re going to go, you’ll be killed.’ I said, ‘I’m going to take my chances.’ I was frightened. But, you know, in a situation like that I took the chance.”
She said that while the ghetto was barricaded by heavily guarded wall and wire, there were entrance-exit points where one could dare sneak past or bribe the guards, who were often directing traffic in and out of the ghetto. Her preferred method was to position herself near the passage way and bide her time for a guard to turn away or occupy himself talking with someone, and then, when “the opportunity” presented itself, she “slipped out. I went where I could get food. I can’t remember where, but I bought it somewhere” with the forbidden treasures she carried. Then, food in hand — “a loaf of bread maybe or whatever I could get” — she had to repeat the process and “slip back in. I thanked God nobody ever caught me. I would probably have been shot.”
Months later, at Plaszow, Helena said she employed a similar artful dodger routine. “There was some kind of opening there, and I looked for the opportunity and I went out,” she said. This time, however, she had nothing to barter with. “I went to some homes where Gentiles were living and I begged them for food.”
Helena’s family was severed the first time when the ghetto was emptied and its occupants assembled in preparation for marching to the nearby Plaszow camp. The Gestapo began pulling the old, the young and the sick out of line, including her brother Nathan. Her mother pulled him back. That’s when the Gestapo told Karolina she and her son would be killed right then unless she let him go. He was taken away, never to be seen again by his family. He died at Auschwitz.
She soon lost another member of her family, when her grandmother was shot before her very eyes at Plaszow. The misery of Plaszow ground prisoners down. Degradation and torture were all they could expect. Death, their only release. Once, Helena was picked at random and beaten. “They chose me — I don’t know why — and they put me on a table and gave me 25 lashes on my bottom with a leather crop,” she said. “No reason at all.”
Camp commandant Amon Goeth would “shoot people, line the bodies up” and force prisoners like Helena to “look at them. This was Goeth. He was terrible.” At the opposite end of the spectrum was Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist well known among prisoners for doing “business with the Nazis” in the camp, where “his Jews” were protected and where he operated a pot and pan factory. Helena’s sister, Lola, believes a fateful encounter with him saved her life. Caught bringing food to their father after curfew, Lola said a man she now recognizes as Schindler beat her unconscious rather than let her be shot by the SS.
The only relief from all this despair was in the scattered moments Helena and her family stole with each other. Their work — pounding rocks into gravel at a quarry — was pure drudgery. What passed for meals — a slice of bread and cup of coffee in the morning and a rutabaga broth at night — offered no satisfaction. The starvation diet forced prisoners to make awful choices. “I asked my mother — What should I do? Should I eat bread now or keep for tomorrow? I kept for breakfast.”
In 1944, Lola was shipped out of Plaszow to work in the first of two munitions factories. Then, Karol was transported to another camp. This left Helena to fend for herself and for her mother. “My sister was gone. My father was taken away. And I had to care for my mom. It was very hard. I was just a young person. I didn’t know from life.” Then, Helena’s worst fears were realized when she was separated from her mother and shipped to the Tarnow Ghetto. Strangely, she said, she was sent back to Plaszow, where she was gratefully reunited with her ailing mom. She believes her father played a role in getting her returned. “My father was still alive, and people told me he had some influence with higher officials.”
Helena, her mother and others were taken by train, on cattle cars, to Auschwitz. They knew evil was there. “I was terribly sad when I heard the word Auschwitz. I was afraid they took us to die,” Helena said. However, they were spared in the short time they were there and, later, at Bergen-Belsen. As the war neared its end, the Nazi killing machine was disrupted. She and her mother were among those liberated by American soldiers at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.
“When the war ended, people cried from happiness” at having survived, she said, “and from sadness, too. The first words were, ‘I don’t know what happened to my father’ and ‘I don’t know what happened to my brother.’ It was very emotional.”
Liberation found Helena and her mother drawn down to maybe 65 pounds each. Her mother was quite sick. Their recovery began in Germany and continued in Sweden, where the International Red Cross found them passage. Helena’s mother recuperated in a sanatorium. “The care was excellent,” Helena said.
It was in Sweden Helena learned Lola was alive. By the time they exchanged letters, Helena and her mother were bound for Uruguay, where relatives lived. Meanwhile, Lola married Irving Reinglas and settled in Munich, Germany before coming to America with their first born child in 1949. It was in Uruguay Helena met and married Walter Tichauer, a gifted glazer who fled Germany after Kristallnacht. Their two sons were born there. He did glazing work and she was a nurse’s aide.
Years later, Lola prevailed on her mother and Helena and her family to relocate from Uruguay to America. They came to the U.S. in 1963. Just as Lola and Irving made a good life here, so too did Helena and Walter. Helena had her own hardware store in north Omaha, where she survived being held-up at knife-point, and, later, she had a gift shop in the Westroads. Walter applied his craftsmanship to new building projects. In 1967, Helena and her sister lost their mother. She was only 63.
Today, these survivor sisters are longtime volunteers at Methodist Hospital. They love America and appreciate the way the country has embraced them.
A grandmother of five and great-grandmother of two, Helena rarely talks about the Shoah. When she does, she says, “I don’t wish on my worst enemy” what occurred. “That’s why we have to remember. Not because it just happened to Jews. Because it’s happened to many nationalities and religions. They’re humans. They are people. They have a soul. They have feelings. And this is what counts.” Now writing her biography, she’s proud of how she’s carried on and started over, first in Sweden, then in Uruguay and then in America. “That’s the story of my life. I’m still alive. I still go on. Maybe this was destiny for me. I believe in destiny.”