Nightmares and Margarine

May 6, 2011

The following is an excerpt of an article published in the Austrian magazine die Presse:

Philip escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Palestine, Helene was working at a hunting lodge owned by Goering. However, that could not save her from being deported to Auschwitz, nor did he manage to escape the war. After the end of the war, Philip and Helene met in a bar in Brussels – and the love story of two Austrian Jews took its course.

Philip became a soldier in 1943; not out of passion, but rather because living conditions and opportunities for Jews 70 years ago were very limited. Helene grew up in Steyr, Austria In the 1910s, her father Otto Popper lived in Berlin as a poet with his wife and sons. He was good friends with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. When Rosa was murdered in 1919, he was expelled by the German authorities. So the family moved back to Steyr into his wife’s parents’ house.

Philip’s parents lived in a part of Vienna that was mainly inhabited by Jewish families. Philip was born in 1920 as the sixth of eight children. At the age of 16, he took off to travel for the first time, at 17 he hitchhiked all the way to Paris and was about to volunteer for the Spanish civil war.

Philip always admired Hely. She was able to read books in four different languages – English, French, German, and later on even in Hebrew. At the end of 1945 when they first met, she was working for the British secret service as a translator. Comrades back at the barracks had already told him about the pretty Austrian girl who frequented a certain bar in Brussels. Philip introduced himself to her in that bar one day. Being able to converse in their mother tongue was very trust-inspiring for both of them. Helene wanted to dance. Philip wasn’t able to so he let her lead and had her show him the steps.

When Helene was born in 1924, her parents were already quite old. Her two elder brothers, Fred and Willi, were more than 20 years her senior and had both emigrated to Belgium after losing their jobs in Steyr. In Belgium, they found jobs in the steel industry and made enough money to financially support their family back in Austria. Otto Popper often read to her from his works, but her mother hardly knew what to do with her vivacious little girl.

Helene was a wild and stubborn girl. She climbed on trees and would not come down again until it suited her. Just before her 10th birthday, her world abruptly changed. Political tensions rose. Otto Popper felt that Austria was getting close to a civil war and was expecting to get arrested. In the interest of his daughter’s safety, he sent Helene to Wallonia to be with her brothers. Living in this francophone part of Belgium, Helene quickly learned French. When her parents joined them two years later, she had gotten so used to living with her brothers that she did not want to leave them again.

Philip’s life changed on March 15, 1938, when he saw Hitler pass by his father’s store. Several days later, their family’s store and flat were Aryanized, so they had to move in with relatives. Mother Seinfeld knew that there was no future in Austria for her Jewish children, so she sent them away. One of her daughters made it to England and so did her son Egon. Two of her other children made it to Palestine. Philip joined two of his siblings in the Netherlands in September 1938. After the horrors of Reichskristallnacht, his sister came back to rescue little Rosa from Vienna. Their parents stayed behind.

The Seinfelds did not feel safe in Holland, however. Germany was still too close. Philip got in touch with the Zionist organization Joint and was transported to Palestine with 550 other Jewish refugees. On September 1, 1938, he reached the Palestinian shore.

Helene was 14 at the time. On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Since the Poppers were seen as Germans, the authorities considered her brothers to be potential collaborators and arrested them. Helene tried to flee Belgium together with many others who tried to flee the European continent at the time. Her brothers had vanished, so Helene tried to support her parents all by herself. She did not know at the time that Fred and Willi had managed to escape.

Her father’s store had been marked with the star of David. But even some German soldiers ignored the order not to buy from Jews. One of those soldiers was Gerhard Wilke. Every now and then, he left a piece of bread or a can of food behind on the counter. Due to his influential position, he heard that an act of retaliation against Jews for the murder of two soldiers was imminent. So he urged Helene’s parents to hide their daughter or to take her away. Her parents, however, did not know what to do, so Mr. Wilke did everything he could to save her. He issued a new ID for Helene, leaving out the piece of information that she was Jewish, and he allowed Helene to work on his wife’s farm in the Lüneburg Heath. Four days later, in January 1941, Helene arrived at the farm, where she was able to seek refuge in the18 months that followed.

Philip had been living in a Kibbuz for one and a half years at the time. Although he himself was out of immediate danger, he was very concerned about his relatives in Europe. More than six decades later, an eye witness contacted Philip. As a child, Hans Wobben had witnessed the deportation of his neighbors – Philip’s family. He talked to Philip about his on the phone in 2004, and they both cried.

Black curls among tall blondes

In the summer of 1942, Mrs. Wilke suddenly became aggressive towards Helene and told her that she had to leave. Mrs. Wilke had gotten her another job as a maid at the nearby hunting lodge Göhrde. Everybody at the WIlke farm knew that the hunting lodge was full of members of the League of German Girls (BdM), the girl’s wing of the Nazi party youth movement. Furthermore, the lodge was run by Hermann Göring. Helene, who was short and had black hair, was now surrounded by tall and blond girls.

On a fall day when they were expecting Göring’s arrival at the lodge, she almost panicked. Mr. Wilke tried to remove her from the premises, but without success. On the big day, all the girls had to get in line, the smallest one in the front. Helene was shivering and trembling all over when Göring’s car drove by. Over the next few days, their paths crossed several times. One time she was just dusting of the bookcases in the salon when he entered. He hardly noticed her, and said: “Don’t worry about me, girl, just carry on.” He then sat down to read a book.

After one year of work Helene was to go on a vacation, just like all the other girls at the lodge. The administration handed out train tickets to everybody so that they could go home and see their parents. In the summer of 1943, Helene was standing in front of her parents’ flat in Arlon, Belgium. Neighbors told her that the Nazis had deported all the Jews that were living there and that she should leave as soon as possible because the Gestapo was looking for her.

While Philip had volunteered for the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and was watching German prisoners of war close to mount Sinai, Helene had to find a new job quickly that would allow her to stay in hiding. She presented her vacation pass from the hunting lodge to the authorities in Brussels and did not fail to mention that Hermann Göring was the owner of the lodge. Due to the fact that Helene knew several different languages, she was given a job with Dynamit Nobel on the outskirts of Bonn, where she worked in the kitchen and occasionally acted as an interpreter between German foremen and French forced laborers.

Once again Helene had managed to get a position which paid good money. However, something happened which forced her to leave her new hiding place. New forced laborers arrived who had been brought there from Arlon. The danger of somebody recognizing Helene and turning her in was great, so Helene invented an excuse. She told her supervisor that her aunt’s husband had been killed on the battlefield in Russia, and that she immediately had to join her aunt in Berlin.

It remains a mystery why, of all cities, Helene Popper chose to go to Berlin. Maybe she thought that she would be more difficult to find in a big city like that. However, the authorities discovered that the Jewish girl they had been looking for was working at Siemens in Berlin. Helene was served a summons from the Gestapo. Since Helene was one of the last Jews in Berlin to be deported and due to the fact that prisoners were always deported in groups according to their country of origin, Helene was taken to the concentration camp Groß-Rosen near Wroclaw by two SS men in a car because she was the only Belgian Jew there. From Groß-Rosen she was transported to Auschwitz in a cattle car.
Helene survived two selection procedures carried out by Josef Mengele. During the final one, she was completely exhausted and had scabs. She really had to pull herself together to convince the camp doctor that she was still a valuable laborer. In January 1945, the prisoners were sent on a death march to Ravensbrück. Helene survived.

When the camps were liberated on April 23, 1945, she was 21 years old and weighed 33 kilograms. Suffering from typhus and paratyphoid fever, she was first taken to Denmark, then to Malmö. After she had recovered in the hospital, she wrote a letter to the Swedish queen, thanking her and the Swedish people for their help and kindness. The letter was published in daily newspapers and Helene received a large number of presents from people all over the country. When she returned to Arlon, she found that her parents’ apartment had been looted. Helene found out that her parents had been murdered in Auschwitz and that her brothers had managed to flee to Portugal over the Pyrenees. Fred now lived in Congo and Willi resided in Palestine. Philip, too, was informed of his parents’ assassination when he was back in Belgium; he also heard that his brother Hermann, his little sister Rosi, his favorite sister Regi, her two babies, and her husband had been killed, as well.

After Philip and Helene had made each other’s acquaintance in the bar in Brussels, they continued to see each other. One day, when he was walking through Brussels with her, he was thinking out loud about marrying her. Helene reacted saying “but you know that I can’t have any children.” Josef Mengele had performed medical sterilization experiments on her in Auschwitz in 1944. As a consequence, she was convinced never to be able to have children. Philip, however, did not let that stop him. He already had one child that was the result of a short marriage in Palestine. Helene joined him there and they got married. And as fate would have it, Helene gave birth to two children; to her son Arie in 1947 and to her daughter Nurit in 1949.

Helene died on May 5, 2005. Philip remembers her lovingly, saying “you know, we’ve had rough times, but we’ve still had a nice life together.” Hely’s health problems and her nightmares were among the worst. She never got rid of her terrible fear of doctors. When prisoners in Auschwitz received their bread, they were sometimes also given a little ball of margarine onto their bare and dirty hands. Since then, Hely associated the smell of margarine with the concentration camp. Therefore, Philip bought butter for her instead even during the years of financial hardship. Philip remembers many stories of when he met Hely for the first time. They helped each other through the difficult times, and they helped each other remember and forget, both of which was more difficult for her than for him. Today, Philip is 91 years old. After hip replacement surgery he is still a little unsteady on his feet, but he has not lost his laugh nor light-heartedness despite everything he and Hely have been through.