“Yes, Mother, I will not go too far,” Helen Freeman — then Chaja Borenkraut — promised her mother as she left their ghetto apartment in Radom, Poland, on a Thursday afternoon in July 1942. But, suddenly, only a short distance from the apartment, a truck stopped and two SS officers jumped out, grabbing Helen and throwing her into the back of the vehicle. Helen, then 21, sat in total darkness, sobbing and recalling her mother’s warning. “I was just frightened,” she said.
Helen was born in Radom on Sept. 2, 1921, to Israel and Leja Borenkraut, the fifth of seven children and the only daughter in the very observant, middle-class family.
Israel operated a farina factory and also managed Radom’s Chevra Kadisha (burial society). Leja ran a small grocery store, and her mother — Helen’s grandmother — lived with the family.
Helen attended public school from age 7 to 14. She then enrolled in a private business school, where she learned German, bookkeeping and other business skills.
The Germans bombed Radom in early September 1939, occupying the city on Sept. 8. They soon began terrorizing the Jewish population and taking away the men.
On several nights, hearing German soldiers on the staircase outside their second-floor apartment, Helen’s father and brothers, who slept in their clothes, scurried behind wardrobes and under beds. Each time, the soldiers entered, looked around and left.
In spring 1941 Helen’s family was relocated to the ghetto. Eleven people, including Helen’s grandmother and her brother Herman’s wife, were squeezed into two rooms with two other families.
Food was scarce in the ghetto, disease rampant. But because her family was together, Helen believed everything would be all right.
Then, early one morning, SS soldiers herded the ghetto residents into the marketplace. Helen’s brother Abraham, 11, and her sister-in-law were selected for deportation. “We told them to write,” Helen said, believing they were being sent to work.
When she was taken from the ghetto, the SS delivered Helen and others to a construction company, where they cleaned and served breakfast and lunch to the workers. “I missed my family terribly,” she said.
A month later, the prisoners were transferred to Wolanów, a labor camp outside Radom, where Helen repaired German soldiers’ uniforms. Later, as rain and colder weather set in, a typhus epidemic broke out, closing the camp and quarantining the prisoners. Still, the Germans forced the young women, even the sick ones, to go outside and run back and forth, shooting guns in the air to scare them.
Helen contracted typhus after caring for an ill friend, becoming delirious from the disease. She asked a Jewish policeman she knew to deliver a letter to her brothers in the Radom ghetto: “I have typhus. I’m dying. But you have to go on with your lives,” she wrote.
When Helen woke up weeks later, she was in a hospital bed in the Radom ghetto, surrounded by her brothers. (Her parents had already been deported.) She learned that her brother Fishel had bribed a German soldier to help him kidnap Helen and bring her back.
The incident, however, was reported to the SS, and Fishel and Helen were brought to the ghetto police station. But the ghetto commander, joyous over his daughter’s impending wedding, sent Helen back to the hospital. “It’s a miracle, always a miracle,” Helen said.
After several weeks, Helen joined her brothers in their ghetto apartment. There she met Joseph Freeman, a friend of Fishel.
Then, on Nov. 8, 1943, Radom’s small ghetto was liquidated and the prisoners marched to the Szkolna labor camp. Fishel secured Helen a job outside the camp in a clothing warehouse serving the SS and Wehrmacht.
One day, the obersharführer (senior squad leader) politely asked Helen to assist his wife by baby-sitting their two small children in the afternoons. She accepted the job, even sitting down to dinner with the family one evening. “I was shocked,” she recalled.
During this time, Freeman, who had taken a liking to Helen, announced to Fishel, “She’s going to be my wife.”
In August 1944, with the tide turning against the German army, the Szkolna prisoners were marched into Tomaszów, in southeastern Poland, and, the next day, loaded into boxcars. Helen and Harriet, her brother Sam’s girlfriend, stuck together.
The train arrived at Auschwitz on Aug. 6. From the platform, Helen saw green grass, heard an orchestra playing and believed that the soldiers greeted them kindly. “I was impressed,” Helen recalled. “I didn’t know.”
Soon, however, Helen and the other young women were taken to a room and ordered to disrobe and relinquish any jewelry. Risking death, Helen took a small earring of her mother’s, which Fishel had given her, and secured it in the ripped lining of her shoe. “This kept me,” she explained. “It gave me a little hope.”
The women were tattooed and shaved, though, for some reason, Helen’s hair was spared. They were then given ill-fitting black dresses and assigned to a barracks. During the day, Helen moved rocks, in the summer heat, from one side of a field to the other.
One evening, Helen found herself last in line for rations. The kapo ladled out her portion of watery soup and then disappeared. Spotting more soup in the pot, Helen helped herself. The kapo then yanked her by the hair and threw her on the ground. As punishment, Helen had to kneel by her barracks the entire night.
In November 1944, Helen was among 100 young women, including Harriet, selected to work at the Siemens Motor Works plant in Ober-Altstadt, Czechoslovakia.
The girls lived in a heated barracks with bunk beds and blankets. By day, Helen worked in a factory, making parts for airplane engines. The German civilian in charge asked Helen to clean his food containers after lunch, always leaving extra food for her.
But the Allies were moving in, and, by late April, the girls remained in their rooms, hungry, ill and frightened by bombs exploding in the distance. Then, on the morning of May 8, 1945, American soldiers liberated the camp. Helen was 23.
Helen returned to Radom, bringing Harriet with her. She headed straight to her family’s apartment, expecting to see her parents. But when she knocked on the door, a strange man opened it and immediately slammed it in her face. “I wanted to disappear from the world,” she recalled.
The young women moved in with Helen’s Aunt Frania in Zamosc. Helen’s brother Morris returned in late June, and she learned that her brothers Sam, Jacob and Herman had also survived. She was heartbroken, however, to discover that Fishel had been shot in Dachau a few hours before liberation.
In early July, Helen returned to Radom for a visit. Out walking one day, she heard a man calling, “Chajale.” When she didn’t recognize him, he added, “I’m Joseph.” She soon, in her words, “awakened”; she hadn’t expected that he’d survived.
Helen and Joseph were married in a civil ceremony in the Feldafing displaced persons camp on Nov. 25, 1945. A Jewish wedding followed on March 19, 1946.
In the spring of 1946, Helen and Joseph moved to Munich, where their daughter Lillian was born that October, and their daughter René in September 1949.
In 1951, sponsored by Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Pasadena, where temple members found the family lodging and Joseph a job at a Formica company. Joseph later opened a furniture store. Their son, Louis, was born in October 1954, and daughter Cece in October 1958.
Helen began speaking about her Holocaust experiences around 1981. She is a founder of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and, with daughter Cece and granddaughter Jamie, a founder of The Righteous Conversations Project, which brings together Holocaust survivors and teens to create awareness of modern injustices.
At 92, Helen works out five days a week, attends Shabbat services at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center and enjoys her family, which now includes eight grandchildren.
Helen credits God with her survival. “I didn’t ask for food. I asked for strength that I could make it,” she said.