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Lifestory of Holocaust Survivor Gena Turgel MBE
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Friday 24th April 2015

Gena Goldfinger was born in Cracow in 1923, the youngest of 9 children.  She had a happy and contented childhood and, although her father, Samuel, died when she was 7yrs old, the family was well-off and lived in a large apartment in the centre of town.  Her mother, Estera, was a member of the Women’s Society (a forerunner of WIZO) and many of its meetings were held in their home.  Gena, herself, was a member of Hanoar Hatzioni and the whole family were Zionist supporters. 

All this changed when Gena was 15 and the Nazis entered Cracow.  Within a few days high ranking Nazi officials came to their apartment, made lists of all items with any worth, and ordered her mother to deliver them to Nazi quarters by 12 noon the following day.  With no car or other means of transportation, Gena’s mother had to borrow a horse and cart to carry her treasured possessions to the named place.  It was only later, during the harrowing times that lay ahead, that Gena and her family gradually learnt that possessions had no meaning – it was survival that counted. 

Living within the cramped Cracow Ghetto food was in short supply and starvation was rife.  Gena could use a sewing machine and earned some money for food for her family by mending torn German uniforms that had been worn at the front.   Soon men and women were separated and the transports to Auschwitz began, with the women and children being the first to be sent onwards. 

Gena, her mother and sisters were sent to Plaszov concentration camp where they lived in overcrowded barracks with straw mattresses.  Prisoners were shot for no reason and inmates were forced to watch hangings on the gallows built in the Appelplatz (the square where they all gathered for roll call).  Nobody was able to keep track of Shabbat or the festivals but went by the sun and the climate. 

Amidst all this sorrow and degradation Gena clung to her faith.  Every morning she said the Shema, and every evening she didn’t dwell on her troubles but thanked Hashem for keeping her alive.  

Any jewellery the family still retained was bartered for food (the Germans getting the better deal) and, although starving, Gena often gave her own ration to her mother.  Women were used for shift work (day shift/night shift) sewing in the camp factory.  It was in Plaszow that one of Gena’s sisters was experimented on (resulting in her death) and another shot for attempting to bring food into the camp.  (To this day Gena feels a constant chill down her left arm as this is the side on which her sister used to sleep.) 

Together, Gena, her mother and other prisoners were forced to walk to Auschwitz where they were selected (by Mengele) for extermination in the gas chambers.  Inside, naked and crushed against others, one woman questioned Gena, ‘Do you still think Hashem will save you?’ to which she responded in the affirmative.  As the doors were closing Gena saw an old friend outside but could not move to contact her. Suddenly, instead of the expected gas, water entered the chamber – the water was freezing but nobody cared, it was a real shower and not the promised death. 

Outside again her friend embraced her crying, ‘You’re alive’.  Gena was struck dumb, but once again felt that ‘Hashem had saved her’, that a miracle had occurred and her faith was not misplaced.

From Auschwitz-Birkenau Gena and her mother were put on trucks to Buchenwald and it was here that she discovered that humanity had not died completely, as the prisoners already there shared what little food they had with the new arrivals. 

The temperature was freezing and the ground covered with snow, but still Gena, her mother, and other prisoners were marched through the woods toward Belsen – the ‘Finishing Camp’ – where on arrival they were greeted with the sight of mountains of skeletal bodies.  In these barracks there were no bunks, no blankets and the windows had no covering but were open to the harsh weather.  Typhus and dysentery were rife. 

Once again Gena’s indomitable spirit rose to the surface and she said to herself ‘I’m not going to die like that’.  She knew that the camp had a hospital, so one night she smuggled herself from one barrack to another, avoiding the searchlights, until she reached the hospital building.  Gena could speak German so she offered to work as a nurse asking the doctor if she could bring a friend as well – the friend being her mother – and her offer was accepted.  She had to smuggle herself back to her own barracks before the guards discovered she was missing – one false move and she would have been shot with no questions asked.  

Working in the hospital Gena felt something inside herself, a kind of power, that helped her give injections and perform her other duties despite having no formal training.  Yet again she felt Hashem was looking after her. 

One Sunday Gena was sterilizing equipment when she saw tanks driving into the compound.  The soldiers on the tanks said ‘we are British – we have come to liberate you’.  The date was 15 April 1945.  The only English Gena knew was ‘The sky is blue and the sun is shining’ which she had learnt from her brother’s tutor.   Nonetheless, one of the British sergeants, Norman Turgel, came to see her everyday and within a short time she was invited for dinner in the officers’ mess. 

The sight that awaited her was something she had not seen for 6 years – white tablecloths covered the tables and there were flowers on each one.  When the commanding officer came to congratulate her she did not know how to reply as she had no idea what he meant.  It was only then that she discovered that the kind English sergeant (who was Jewish) intended to marry her and take her back to England to start a new life. 

Although Gena was amazed and took a few weeks to respond to this suggestion, she and Norman were indeed married, in Lubeck, by Reverend Leslie Hardman, Gena wearing a white silk dress fashioned for her by a local dressmaker from a silk parachute (her only regret being that her mother was too ill to travel to be at her wedding).  The young couple settled in Hendon (North-West London) and after six months Gena’s mother was able to join them.  They shared many happy and memorable years together before Norman sadly passed away. 

Now living in Stanmore, Gena is blessed with three children (Hilary, Bernice and Harris) grandchildren, and an increasing number of grandchildren.  She is a member of the JIA, is an ‘Honorary Life President’ of WIZO and a continuing supporter of its efforts to help the less fortunate, over the years raising almost £1,000,000 towards its work.  

She continues to feel it a ‘miracle’ that she survived the camps and gives lectures to schools, universities, clubs etc up and down the country in order to broaden public knowledge of what occurred during the Holocaust so that, as she says, ‘It Never Happens Again’.  Because of her long-term educational work, in 2011 Gena was awarded a well-deserved MBE. 

When Gena Turgel arrived in London after her marriage to Norman she had three aims:- 

  1. To adopt a British way of life.
  2. To learn English
  3. To write a book about her experiences to leave for young people to read. 

She has achieved all three of these aims and so much more and we are honoured to have her amongst us. 

Ida Dyan 

(I Light a Candle by Gena Turgel MBE is published by Valentine Mitchell, ISBN 0 85303 315 3)