When I attended synagogue services for the first time in Texas, Helene Levi Shiver was doing what she had long done — speaking publicly about the Holocaust.
By chance, I’d come to Yom HaShoah services, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which often falls in May. Helene, I discovered, frequently spoke to civic groups and school assemblies. That day was my first encounter with her story.
Helene’s English carried a unique accent, her voice echoing her childhood in Bulgaria and years in Austria, blending with decades in Birmingham and then time in Texas. She was 13 when she and her extended family were rounded up at her great-great-grandfather’s large birthday party. After soldiers shot dead four people who didn’t immediately comply, including the maid and an uncle’s baby, the rest — more than 100 — were herded to the train station and loaded into one small box car. She had been given wallet-sized photos of her mother and father that day, and they were in her coat pocket.
At 13, she didn’t understand blind hate, scapegoating, speaking of people as if they were animals, so-called “good people” just looking away.
At the end of the three-week trip to Dachau, another aunt clutched Helene’s baby cousin Jacob, dead from starvation and harsh conditions. The soldiers emptied the car of people, then pulled Jacob’s body from his grief-stricken mother’s arms, tossing him in the air for shooting practice. But the three years of horrors Helene would yet endure were worse.
New arrivals were stripped naked in the snow, all but for their shoes, to get their striped uniforms. Discreetly, Helene slipped the photos of her parents into her boots. Younger children were taken away never to be seen again.
Tall and developed for her age, Helene passed for 16 at her mother’s instruction. The men were taken in another direction, and that was the last she saw of her father. Camp soldiers shaved her head, pulled her gold-filled teeth with pliers, and put her to work.
Daily, Helene accompanied her mother to shovel coal for an ammunition factory. Grimmer tasks awaited still, and they complied. When Helene’s mother fell too ill to work, soldiers came to drag her to the gas chamber. She kissed Helene and shouted, “Tell them! Tell them!” Her mother’s last words. Helene returned from work duty to find her mother’s naked body on the pile of dead.
Only Helene among her family survived. The boots she didn’t remove for three years disfigured her growing feet. She’d salvaged two photos, but lost everyone. Eventually, once she could speak of the horrors — long after she’d married Jack, a liberator of Dachau, and had her tattoo removed — she told.
Helene raised an American flag in her yard almost every day, immensely proud of our nation. And she was a voice to raise consciousness, to prevent future atrocities. She passed away in 2002.
Now we must each be the voice.
To watch Helene address students in Texas, visit youtube.com/watch?v=7GYIVl0UfI4.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English.