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‘That number is a part of me’ says Auschwitz survivor

The Story

Helena Jockel loved the bright, friendly students she taught at a Jewish elementary school in occupied Hungary. But her world ended when the Nazis evacuated the town's Jewish ghetto in 1944. In this CBC Television clip, the Halifax resident says that, a half-century later, she remembers the names of all 28 students who rode with her in a cattle car to an uncertain fate. "I hoped that I would be able to help them," she says, pausing, "And I never, ever was." Arriving at Auschwitz in Poland, Jockel and others were herded on to a ramp. There, Dr. Josef Mengele, "the chief selector," decided with a wave of his finger who lived and who died. It was humiliating to be reduced by a tattoo to number 16505 in the Nazi death machine, she says. "It never, ever came into my mind to get rid of that number. That number is a part of me, a part of my experience." Jockel also describes an encounter with a female SS soldier, the "beautiful music" of the Allies bombing the camp, her eventual liberation and why she will never return to Auschwitz. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: Jan. 27, 1995
Guest: Helena Jockel
Reporter: Rob Gordon
Duration: 8:29

Did You know?

• Helena Jockel was in Auschwitz from 1944 to 1945. She moved to Canada in 1988. Jockel told CBC News in 1995 that, for many years, she kept silent about the horrors she had witnessed. "I didn't want my children to know what I went through," she said. But now "it is our duty to talk, to tell the decent people of the world to respect life."

• At a human rights celebration in Halifax in 1998, Jockel told the Daily News that, when she arrived at Auschwitz, her head was shaved and she was given a tattered dress with a cross on the back. She was told it was a target in case she tried to escape. Jockel also described hearing gunshots and screams as guards fought to take her aunt and her sister's baby to the gas chamber.

• Josef Mengele, who marked arriving prisoners for life or death the day Jockel arrived, is often called "the angel of death." A doctor and officer in the SS, he liked to personally screen arrivals. Some prisoners, especially twins and dwarfs, were sent to a laboratory where he and other doctors conducted sadistic experiments upon them. Watch a clip about a Canadian twin who survived Mengele's lab.

• Mengele was a cultured dandy who could charm, or brutally beat, those whose fate he held. His bizarre experimental surgeries on children included amputations and castrations without anesthetic, and trying to change eye colour with injections of painful chemicals. According to Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, in their 1991 book Children of the Flames, "Although there were Nazis at Auschwitz who held higher ranks, none was as hated, or as feared, as Dr. Josef Mengele."

• When it was obvious Auschwitz would fall to the Soviets in January 1945, Mengele shed his SS uniform and blended into a field hospital unit that later surrendered to the American army. His identity hidden, he was released from a POW camp in August 1945 and worked as a farmhand in Germany. He then escaped to South America. Mengele lived in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil before dying in 1979 - hunted but never found - of apparently natural causes.

• Male and female arrivals were herded into separate lines. They were quickly marched to Mengele or another SS officer who looked them over. The majority, including the old, the young and the infirm, were sent for execution, usually the same day. The others, considered strong enough for slave labour, were tattooed, had their heads shaved and were given striped prisoners' uniforms.

• In this clip, Jockel talks about being forced to march to Dresden toward the end of the war. Known as the "death marches," these processions of prisoners from Auschwitz toward camps in Germany started in January 1945 as the Red Army pushed into Poland. The Nazis hoped the march would kill many of the 58,000 prisoners during the last gasps of war. Thousands were murdered, or killed by the brutal conditions, en route.

• Jockel also said she couldn't return to Auschwitz because the exhibits of remnants of the prisoners, including shoes and mounds of hair, would make her wonder if they belonged to her own beloved family. The display behind a glass wall of two tonnes of human hair - collected by the Nazis for use as stuffing and to make clothes - remains one of the most disturbing and controversial exhibits at the Auschwitz museum. Some feel that, as human remains, the hair should be buried.


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