Survivor Maintains Faith At Yom HaShoah Service

Survivor’s story spellbinds record crowd at MJE.


Helen Stechler knew that it could be a slow death or a quick death. Hiding from the Nazis in a barn, and covered in hay, the Holocaust survivor told a crowd of more than 320 young Jewish professionals on West 86th Street how she made a dangerous move.

“I don’t know how long I was there, two nights, two days,” she said. “I couldn’t take this anymore because I knew I would suffocate, I will die anyway…I just wanted to know if it’s daytime or what’s going on.”

She did not want a slow death, which would have been suffocation. After opening a window, someone spotted her and German police were on the scene slamming pitchforks in the hay.

“Hashem was helping me,” she said. “They were around me and they never touched me and they didn’t find me.”

Stechler, who spoke at the Yom Hashoah event run by Manhattan Jewish Experience and the Young Friends of The Jewish Heritage Museum, was one of a few Jews from her town selected for labor camps rather than being sent to death camps like Auschwitz, which was less than two miles from where she was in Poland. Black Wednesday featured Jewish men forced to lie on the ground in a circle. Stechler and other were forced to watch them be shot after a countdown.

When her tooth became infected, a dentist ripped it out.

“Five minutes later, I had to go back to work,” she said. “It wasn’t a picnic.”

Stechler got fake ration coupons as well as get extra bread to give and sell only to Jews she knew because being betrayed could mean death. One day, a man from a different town begged for bread. Stechler gave it to him but he was caught by police on the way back to where she lived. But using her connections and a bribe, she was able to be in the clear. Stechler got choked up was when she described the death march and how five Czechoslovakian girls tried to run away while the Nazis were eating.

“They didn’t go after them,” she said. “They sent dogs after them.”

In another instance, when she posed as a gentile, a German soldier demanded her papers. She said her parents had them but the city had been under attack. He told her to come with him and she had no idea what would become of her. But he took her to a farm and an 11-year-old boy helped take care of her. The family didn’t know she was Jewish.

Stechler interjected her humor saying that she told the family she knew how to clean but when she used the broom one person asked if she was sure she’s cleaned a house before. Stechler was No. 47532, known as a hanging number, because tattoos were not put on at the labor camps, she was at from lack of machinery.

Stechler told Blueprint she wasn’t surprised by waves of current anti-Semitism in Europe and said many in France have been notoriously anti-Semitic.

MJE West Side director Miriam Leichtling, who interviewed Stechler on stage, said it was the largest turnout the organization has had for Yom Hashoah and added that Stechler’s humor stood out. Right on cue, Stechler said of her own age, when asked: “I’m older than I used to be.”

Rabbi Mark Wiles of MJE praised Stechler’s spunk.

“It was inspirational and adorable it almost helps explains how she somehow made it. I think it’s incredible that she maintained her faith.”

Leichtling, showed a picture and defiant quote of Stechler on the Facebook page of Humans of New York, which garnered more than 496,000 likes. Her quote describes being put in a ghetto and finding out her father had frozen to death. It goes on with her having children and grandchildren. The ending reads:

“Look at everything that came from just one person who escaped. Just goes to show that you can never kill a people with hate. There will always be someone left to carry on.”

yom hashoah




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