Holocaust survivor chooses love and happiness over hate
Mrs. Heller, you have led a remarkable life. Of all the interviews we’ve had to date, I want most to learn from you. So let’s begin. Family — you are the only child?
And you have how many grandchildren?
Only 10, but 18 great-grands.
You were raised and educated in Vienna until the age of 15?
Well, I went to gymnasium and for four years from 10 to 14, and then I started a school for commerce actually. My parents had stores, but that wasn’t the reason I chose commerce. It was because my best girlfriend went there. So I decided to go with her.
Your mother and father, they were merchants, mercantile?
Yes. They were in the merchant business. They had two stores, and they were selling things to tailors because very few men in Europe would buy a ready-made suit at that time. So they sold to all suit makers — there were a lot of people making suits. Even today here in this country, most tailors come from Europe, you know. These tailors shopped at my parent’s store, and there were I think 36 ingredients in one suit.
When you were 15 years old, what happened?
I always was a little hefty, and I was taking a gym course in the city, in the inner city of Vienna. Never by myself. Somebody came with me. On the way there, people were shouting for their party. It was Friday before they were supposed to say whether they wanted to be part of Germany or not, and there wasn’t one swastika in sight. Not one. There was only like the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, and the Social this, and I forget all the names already. They were all yelling for their party when I went into this hour-long gym class. When I came out, this is in this movie that I saw: the entire city was full of swastikas. Every policeman had a band. Every building had a flag. All swastikas everywhere, when there wasn’t one when I went in.
And what had happened?
They marched in. They didn’t have the road. The Germans just marched in.
And what transpired from then until you came to America?
Well, many Jewish buildings were burning. I went home, and my mother said, “What are we going to do?” My father said, “We’re going to leave,” and she said, “What do you mean, ‘leave’? Everything we have is here.” And we didn’t leave.
Was that a mistake in retrospect?
I don’t know because, by some miracles, we lived. So I can’t say what would of happened otherwise.
Can you please tell me about your grandmother and Auschwitz?
My father’s family lived in Krakow, Poland. You know, they came and Schindler wanted, needed a factory. So he took one, without asking, from one of my relatives. So my relative said, “If you do that, will you save some of my family?” And he said sure. He took in 14 of my family. One of them was my grandmother, who was already 80 years old. Schindler took them into this factory. He was good, but his wife was better. She was amazing. She helped a lot more than he did. He was a real lady’s man. He wanted to move them to another factory later on, and he did. But they took the women and sent them to Auschwitz by mistake, and he said he needed them back for the war effort. But before they could do that, my grandmother took a piece of bread from the table. One of the women guards beat her to death in front of the family.
That’s how it happened.
When they went to Auschwitz by mistake, do you know how long they were there?
No. No, I don’t remember that. You know, everything is so long ago. I’m 94 years old, but I do remember some things very clearly, and I see myself at that age in a dream I had. I was a little girl when we lived in the third-floor walkup until I was 15. It was cold out, and my mother had to go pay somebody and walk down the three floors, and she didn’t come back, and I got nervous. I was a little — I saw myself a little girl. So I went down the steps, and I thought it was cold. I put on a coat. I actually put on a coat, and I woke up. I turned on lights, and I woke up. This dream has never before or since happened to me.
That is some dream.
Some dream. I was going to save her, my mother.
You were married to Mr. Heller for how many years?
And did you love him from the second you saw him?
Did he love you from the second he saw you?
I don’t know, but he proposed to me when I was 14.
The first night that you danced?
No, no, no, no. Well, we, you know, we danced many evenings, and one evening they were selling flowers, and the girl with the most flowers was the Flower Queen, and he bought them all. So that’s when I knew.
Tell me about the dictionary.
He was still working. He was 17, but he decided to get a job and go to school at night. He always wanted to be in business, and he had a week off, and that’s when we met. But before the week was over, he decided to go to the city on Thursday and come back with his father on Friday, and his mother said, “Why are you doing this?” And he said, “I really don’t know. I don’t know.” He went back to the city, and he met a friend of his on the way, and the friend said, “What are you doing tonight?” And he said, “I really have no idea what I’m doing here.” And the friend said, “Come on, let’s go dancing,” and thank God he did. He saw a whole table of five young women who were four years older than he, with a chaperone. They were celebrating their college graduation, and they were in Vienna. They didn’t speak a word of German. He didn’t speak a word of English. But he asked one of them to dance, and he said he went to the chaperone and clicked his heels and said — and she understood a little bit of German, and he asked her could he dance with one of the girls, and she said sure. So then he — they danced but couldn’t speak, and then he asked could he take her for a walk the next morning, and she said, “Yes, but we’re leaving at 12:00. We’re leaving Vienna at 12:00.” He bought a little dictionary, which is now in a museum in New York by the way.
The Jewish Museum.
So please finish the story.
So this girl that he danced with, he asked her to give him her name and address in his little black book, and she did. One year later — Hitler marched into Austria that day that I told you, and he called me and he said, “You remember I met those girls from America,” but I wasn’t too impressed, you know. But he said, “I wrote one today with a dictionary.” He translated and asked her to help me come to America, and he didn’t hear from her for six weeks, but when he did, she had taken that letter that is completely wrong constructed, and she took it to the only Jewish man she knew in town. She didn’t know, but her father did. Her father made an appointment and his name was Shep Saltzman, and he had a big wing shirt factory in Greenville, and she showed him the letter, and he said — he wrote a letter that’s also at the museum. How could I, a Jew, not help when she, a Christian, wanted to help? And he sent papers, and that’s how he ended up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s such a story of a miracle that you can’t make up.
So that was your husband’s story. Now I want to hear your story.
Well, my father said we have to leave. We always had our passports ready. Only no country wanted us. No country gave us visas. Plus, at that time, you couldn’t leave. They wouldn’t let you leave. The gas chambers started to come about from Germany, but only for men, and the reason I’m still here is that they weren’t ready for me. I did — I was called with my mother to wash a building that had Hebrew lettering on it, and we did. There were a lot of women, and it was the brown shirts, which were the young ones. They were the worst Nazis, you know, the teenagers, and, all of a sudden, they made everybody go upstairs but me. They started to surround me and touch me. And I had no — and the — I had no help, but another miracle occurred. Two German officers walked in and stopped them. I cried for that day and for a whole night. I had to have a shot to stop crying. But I considered that another miracle.
There’s a joy about you. So many people go through horrible things, and they come out very angry, filled with hate or fear. How did you not have that?
Well, I felt so full of miracles that happened to me. It’s true we lost 90 people between us, but, when we came here to Greenville, we decided to be happy and have a happy family. I didn’t tell my children any of this till they were teenagers. Now they, you know, they know all about it
So you feel you live life through a conscious choice you make for happiness?
Yes. Definitely. You know, they tell stories about people that come here, that come to other countries and are never happy. They just — what they lost, and they talk about what they lost and how picky they were over there, and we never did that. We were so grateful for everything, you know. My parents came by another miracle and my — Max’s parents came by a miracle, and so we’re very lucky.
Did you ever feel guilty that you all made it and so many did not?
No, what I feel is I cannot figure man’s inhumanity to man, which is still happening. When I hear somebody’s neighbor has killed somebody, and they always say, “But he was such a nice man.” So I worry can that happen to everybody … because very often you hear that.
And what do you think causes that, the shift in a seemingly normal person that makes them evil?
That’s what worries me — that I don’t understand. That is beyond me, and I always taught my children, you know, love and don’t hate. I get lots of letters from kids saying that, and it makes me happy to see it. I call it the Echo Effect. My children, who are grown and old in their 70s, they still use it and they call me each time it works.
Now, what is the Echo Effect?
It’s how you talk — my daughter is a travel agent, and she says sometimes, when you make reservations, people are kind of tired and grumpy, and she says, “Then I talk real sweet, and, all of a sudden, they talk sweet to me,” and they call me to tell me this. I had another Echo, you know, and it works.
So the moral of that story is, whatever you give out comes back to you?
Yes, not always, of course, but more times than not.
Your father left first and then your mother, and you went from Vienna to Antwerp, Belgium.
First we had to walk. We usually walked four or five hours. I was in many a ditch with a gun in my ribs, and they’d take away the men and leave the women. They didn’t know what to do with us cause they couldn’t — they did not kill us yet. So I always wonder what happened to those men.
When you were going through that, did you think these men will be killed, or did you just turn your brain off to survive?
Both. I would say both. But, you know, it was winter, February. It was ice and snow. Every time we heard a car come or something, we’d jump into a ditch if there was one. Then finally one of the people found us with a gun. They would send us back as far as our money would go because they didn’t know what to do with us. It took six attempts to reach the border.
Yet you always knew you would be okay?
Yeah, and I was grateful for everything. For awhile we lived under the eaves of this hotel, and the waiter really liked me. My mother was hysterical because I went through the streets, and I saw a cheese shop, cheese and bread shop. I looked in, and the proprietor had a big belly and a long beard. So I went in and I said, “Hi, I’m hungry, and I don’t have any ration cards.” He sold me cheese and bread and stuff like that every time I needed it. And so he saved us that way, you know.
So there were so many small acts of kindness?
Not so many. Three or four. Not enough, really. But my father met a man in Belgium who had a brother, a German, who wanted money outside, and he was helping us to get over the border so that we could pay him in Belgium.
What made you push forward?
I was a young girl. I wanted to live, you know.
When did you arrive in New York?
I was in New York for a year and a half, and then I came here, and I was married that year in Greenville, 74 years ago.
That’s a long time.
Today was your anniversary?
What a wonderful way for us to spend your anniversary with you.
Thank you. And Greenville was wonderful to us, I must say.
You and your husband have done a lot of wonderful things for many people. Why?
Maybe because we were helped at the end. Maybe because I think that you come here for that. You should. My husband was extremely charitable. Once I’d saved some pennies and nickels to buy some chairs, and he gave it to charity, and, from that day on, I knew what to do.
What is the most recent movie that you watched that you liked?
“The Lady in Gold,” I think. Because in it they had that day that I experienced of the Germans marching in. I was right in the middle of it. Plus, they took all their stuff and didn’t want to return it, and that happened to me. And they never returned it. I was a little worn out after the movie was over.
Do you have a lesson that you would want to tell other people that you experienced but don’t want them to have to experience?
Of what I went through from Hitler, yes. Unfortunately, there are countries that have so many problems, and who are the people that can do these things? Where does ISIS come from? I can’t understand it because I’ve seen the picture of where they bring their little boys to become bombs. What kind of human beings are these?
Do you think that everyone has a potential for evil?
I’m afraid of it. I don’t — I hope not, but I said that before, you know, how did this man kill so many when he was such a nice man? That is the thing that we will never know, you know.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Just that I loved my family, and I had a wonderful life after all the bad stuff.
So you’ve seen so many really traumatic things. How do you find hope?
I don’t know, but we decided, when we were alive, both of us, and started a family, that our children would have a lot of hope and that we see to it that we do the best we can for it. And, you know, it works when you set your mind to something. We had nothing. We were refugees, but we — I don’t know how to put that. We were happy. We were thankful for things rather than bemoan what we didn’t have.
So gratitude is a big part of hope for you?
Yes, yes it is.