Times Past

Dan Krieger: Path through hell leads survivor to SLO

The Plaszow Camp for Slave Labor was a living hell for the Jews rounded up from the nearby ghettoes of Krakow, Poland.

The prisoners were forced to remove headstones from Jewish cemeteries, throwing the decaying bodies into mass graves. The stones were used as paving on the camp’s main streets. Amon Goeth, the villain of “Schindler’s List,” was in charge of the camp.

Helena Weinrauch experienced much of the worst that Plaszow had to offer and lived to speak of it.

Sixteen-year-old Helena was living in the small city of Drohobycz in southeastern Poland, now Ukraine, in September 1939 when Hitler’s armies invaded the country at the start of World War II.

Her parents were fairly prosperous German-speaking Jews. A German officer and his orderly were quartered in the family’s six-room apartment without incident.

Two weeks later, the German army withdrew from the city and the Soviet army entered under the terms of the brutal Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact, which gave the eastern third of Poland to Stalin.

Her parents were regarded as decadent capitalists by the Soviets. To escape being deported to a labor camp, they went into hiding. Helena had to support her family by menial labor and selling off family possessions on the black market.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded his onetime Soviet ally. Drohobycz once again was under Nazi occupation, but this time the anti-Semitic laws were quickly enforced. All Jews were to be rounded up and sent to ghettos, to be held there until they were “selected” for the death and labor camps.

With her excellent German, Helena was able to pass for some time as an “Aryan.” She was staying with a non-Jewish family when one of the women insisted she accompany them to a reception for an aide to Hans Frank, the Nazis’ governor general of occupied Poland. Helena had to dance at the party with a tipsy German major.

Later, when her identity was uncovered, she was nearly executed. The major said that he would “make her regret” having her life spared.

She was sent to labor in the “punishment” rock quarry at Plaszow. Anyone who stopped work however briefly was severely beaten or shot.

Helena witnessed Amon Goeth fire randomly at prisoners from the terrace of his villa at Plaszow.

She drew back as he paraded on horseback with his two dogs, Ralf and Rolf. Many people lost their lives after being attacked by these dogs.

She survived brutal beatings after her initial arrest and in the camps at Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. She was at Bergen Belsen, the camp where Anne Frank died of typhus, when a combined British-Canadian unit liberated the camp on April 15, 1945.

Her “skeleton like” body was discovered in an abandoned barracks by some British soldiers loading corpses onto trucks.

On Thursday at 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth David off Los Osos Valley Road at Foothill Road in San Luis Obispo, Helena Weinrauch will tell her story.

This Holocaust Remembrance Program is a reminder of the terrible price paid by nearly six-million human beings for the intolerant beliefs of a self-avowed “Christian” Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI as a young man witnessed the horror of the Holocaust from outside the camps. In 2005, he admonished those Christians who think that they alone will be saved: The “earthly city called Babylon ... has in it people who, prompted by love for it, work to guarantee it peace ... Even those who do not know Christ may be touched by his love so that we are all together on the pilgrimage to the definitive City.”

The Passover Meal or Seder, sacred to Jews, is also the origin of Christian Liturgy. The last toast always ends with the statement “next year in Jerusalem.”

We should all come to know that the Holy City has many gates.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.