My Holocaust Experience by Iby Heller
Presentation Notes

Kehillah Jewish Day School
Holocaust Memorial Assembly
April 25, 2006

I would like to thank Shira for interviewing me. And thank you Dr. Harrison for inviting me to join you this morning.

My story is not as devastating or as terrible as many of the survivors’ stories that you have heard. This is the story of how my Father’s wisdom, courage, and guts to take action helped our family escape from the Nazi occupation in 1940 when Germany attacked Belgium. We were among the lucky few who succeeded in running away from Nazi brutalities.

I was born in Brussels Belgium. My Mother came from Hungary and my Father from Czechoslovakia. The reason they left Hungary in the late 1920’s was due to a anti Jewish law passed in 1920 in Hungary that only a small percentage of Jews would be admitted to the Universities. My Father decided that he wanted to study engineering. He and his new bride went to Brussels Belgium. My uncle wanted to study medicine. He went to Vienna Austria.

I always knew that we were Jews, but I also knew, without having to be told, that this was something you did not go around boasting about. You try to be inconspicuous – blend in and not make waves. It took me many years to get over this, and a little bit of it is still there. Our Jewishness consisted in observing Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and one Seder. We also sent weekly care packages to the remaining family members in Hungary who needed help. During the high holy days, my excuse for not going to school was that I was celebrating a Hungarian national holiday.

We were aware of what was happening in Germany, Austria, and Cechoslovakia. In 1938 my Father and I went to visit my grandparents in Czechoslovakia and begged them to leave everything behind and come with us to Brussels. They were quite shocked at the suggestion; they would have to leave their beautiful home, their furniture, china, silver and all their possessions. Besides they told us; their neighbors loved them and would never persecute them. For many people it was just beyond their imagination that anything bad could happen to them. I then decided at the age of nine that I would never become a slave of me possessions. Our youngest son asked many years later,” how come, we do not have fine china or silver?” I told him the story.

When Germany invaded Belgium in early May of 1940, my father said, “Into the car, we are now leaving”. I was reminded of this a few days ago as we were reading the Hagadah. This is what happened to the Israelites in Egypt, and this in 1940 was my exodus. Again, many thought that the Germans could never reach Brussels. My Father was very smart. He understood what was happening. We left with barely a change of clothes. I don’t remember taking any toys with me.

We got to Paris, and then as the Germans kept coming south, we again got into our car and went to southern France, where the free army forces of all the allies were gathering. Shortly after, we were evacuated from there and ended up in England going through the straights of Gibraltar.

In England I started school again, and to my surprise, history had taken a new twist. The heroes of the battles I had studied in Belgium and France all of a sudden became the villains. I realized at the age of ten, that everything depended on how you looked at it. We had to learn English. No one really cared what languages we spoke, English was the language of the land and it was for us to make the effort to learn it.

When the blitz started in London, school was suspended. To protect us against the nightly bombings we sought shelter in the underground subway stations, many of which are very deep underground so that the bombs would not reach us. Our ritual every night was to go down the many steps of the subway station, put down our blankets on the floor and sleep on the narrow platform as the trains would go zooming by. It was noisy and dirty. In the morning we would go home and see the results of the bombing during the night. Air raids were on and off during the day as well. For me the worse types were the time bombs. They would go off any time. I still jump when I hear a balloon pop.

You know, how when children see something laying on the ground in the street, they either pick it up or kick it around. We as children knew we could not do this as these innocent looking objects were usually some kind of explosives dropped from German planes to tempt children. Even though we had the constant bombing and rationing of food and clothing, we were free, and no one persecuted us for being born Jews.

While in England, at one Seder I was the youngest and was asked to say the Ma Nishtanah. I did not know it; I was ashamed and vowed that my children would have a Jewish education.

At the age of 16 back in Brussels, I became more interested in Judaism. There were camps of young Jews waiting for opportunities to be smuggled into Palestine. I enjoyed the Israeli dances. I loved the young people’s zest and excitement about their going to Palestine. In 1948 my family decided to go to Paraguay and start a new life there.

In 1952 I came to the United States. Relatives from Los Angeles sent me an affidavit. They lived and breathed as knowledgeable Jews. Here again my Judaism blossomed. The state of Israel now was a reality and I felt proud to be a Jew. In my native French I could not say the words, “je suis Juive”. But now I say with pride, “I am a Jew.”

After my second baby was born, at the age of 30, I decided to study Hebrew, so that I would at least know when to turn the page of the sidur.

In the early 60’s we joined a Synagogue in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Our whole family was very much involved in our Temple’s activities. Eventually I became the first woman president of our Conservative Temple. Our four children can not only say the Ma Nishtanah, but can also conduct services, and they are very much involved in their own congregations. Our oldest grandson Sam will be called to the Torah as a>bar mitzvah this November.

What did I learn from all this? Three things: Resiliency, Flexibility, and Acceptance.

  1. Resiliency – When you come out of the subway station after having survived the bombing there, you just go about your day and do what has to be done.
  2. Flexibility - Things can change, and you may need to be able to do things differently from what you were used to.
  3. Acceptance - once you have done all you can to improve on a situation, accept it without remorse. I now identify with the Jewish people, take pride in their achievements, and a strong believer of tikun olam, that we are here to make this a better world.

And my greatest lesson is that possessions are not important, people are.

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