A few years ago I was on assignment covering a piece on a woman telling her story as a Holocaust survivor. I can vividly remember the tears pouring down the audience’s faces and the sound of my shutter echoing throughout the building. After a few shots I took a moment and sat down to listen to her encounter. Helene Siegel, from Belgium, stood at the podium with great courage as she told her story for the very first time.
The small church nestled off of a county road brought an intimate setting for Helene with about 60 people in attendance to listen to the story that she had to tell. For all of her life she has carried a burden, a burden that haunted her, but also made her stronger. She never discussed her experiences with her family and as a single mother she raised her children and put them through college.
In 1942, Helene was separated from her family when Germany invaded Belgium. She was taken in by a Christian farming family who took in children. Later these children would be known as ‘Hidden Children’ of the Holocaust.
For years as a child, Helene was carted numerous times to farms all over Belgium living with different families connected through the same network and a lot of them belonged to the diamond trade. At times taken away in the middle of the night from her bed — through snow, forests and rain — and beneath the shadows of the night a stranger would take her to the next farm to keep her out of the hands of harm. She was always told to say nothing and to speak to no one as she was a Christian girl and bad people were coming. Each and every farm home told her the same thing that they were going to protect her, because their were people that would tell the ‘Gestapo,’ (Nazi Police), about farms that housed children.
Helene grew up confused during a time when time didn’t have much meaning to her at all. She would go to bed clothed each and every night because she may have to leave at any moment. Her life at times was a nightmare, having to hide between floor boards and through bedroom walls as the Gestapo walked through homes screaming and yelling in search of families that housed ‘Hidden Children,’ that were Jewish.
Frightened, sad, lonely and at times misunderstood, Helene endured situations that no human should ever have to face. She was once placed in a bedroom wall with some other children and as one of them started to scream while the Gestapo entered the home, shots were fired. The children were pulled out of the hidden spot in the wall and killed. They didn’t see Helene. She said that she waited what felt like days before she left the spot that she was in. Climbing out of her spot in the wall to a lonely silent home, she described walking through pools of blood to a massacre of innocent children and the people that died to keep them all hidden.
Helene’s story is one of great despair. As a child she learned to grow up fast as there were times when she was alone and had to fend for herself when there was nobody to turn to. She survived through a life-long nightmare that has haunted her even as she raised her own children. Her soul was tormented and for many years she was afraid of the world because of what she has lived through. Helene also lost family in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
That evening Helene looked fear in the eyes and with great courage, determination and heart she rose above her fears and shared a story that will forever stay with me.