Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) Begins At Sundown

By Rebecca Granet
1010 WINS Reporter

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — It took Holocaust survivor Helen Terris 50 years to talk about the unspeakable horrors that destroyed her childhood, but she endures the pain of recounting those harrowing days.

She feels there’s no choice.

“The Holocaust took place [over] 70 years ago and a great many of the survivors are gone, and many other’s memories are no longer viable, so it is now up to us, the children survivors, to keep the story alive, so that it is not forgotten and never, ever repeated,” she said.

In June of 1941, Terris was six years old, living in what was then, Lida, Poland. When German soldiers invaded, all of the approximately 12,000 Jewish people in the area were put into a ghetto. Terris says there was terrible overcrowding, starvation, and widespread disease. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers with guns guarded the area.

Holocaust survivor Helen Terris with her mother. (Credit: Helen Terris)

Holocaust survivor Helen Terris with her mother. (Credit: Helen Terris)

“There was a feeling of disbelief that they were really after us, because we were good, law-abiding citizens,” the 79-year-old said.

An only child, Terris saw trucks periodically come into the ghetto to round people up. Terror would ripple through the ghetto when they heard the trucks roaring down the road. She says those picked up were never seen or heard from again. The pain of those roundups tore through her heart the day she saw her father taken away in one of the trucks.

“It was a very traumatic thing because we knew once he was gone that we would never see him again,” she said.

They never did.

Terris and her mother continued to live in the shadow of death, even enduring a shooting in the ghetto. Although there was no survival plan, she remembers her mother would repeat one piece of advice.

“Because she had four sisters and a brother in America, she said that we must survive so we could go to America,” she said. “It became a mantra that she kept drumming into my head, we must survive, we must survive, no matter what it took, we must survive.”

The two continued to live under the conditions in the ghetto until May 8, 1942 when the Germans ordered everyone to report to the city square. Terris recalls three German soldiers sitting behind a long table, organizing the ‘selection process,’ as the Jewish people were placed into two groups.

“When it was my mother and my turn, a woman and a scrawny little girl, they figured we would be of no use to them, so they sent us to the right,” Terris said. “The right was death, the left was life.”

Walking the few miles from the ghetto to the mass graves, Terris remembers seeing streets strewn with the dead bodies of people who had tried to run from the death march.

“We knew exactly where we were going,” she said. “As soon as they sent us to the right, my mother said, ‘that’s it, we’re going to die.’”

Their immediate fate echoed louder with each step through the forest, as they got closer to the mass graves. The Jewish people’s screams mingled mercilessly with the sound of the gunshots. It was then that Terris’s mother made a move to save their lives. She grabbed Terris by the hand, and when one of the German soldiers turned his head, they made a dash for the closest house. Once inside, they found three men lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood.

“They could not have been dead very long because their bodies were still warm,” Terris said.
Her mother drenched both of them in their blood and told Terris to pretend she was dead if any German soldiers came into the home. They stayed on top of the dead people and heard the sounds of the mass slaughter until two German soldiers walked into the house.

“I don’t recall breathing, but I must have,” Terris said. “With that, one of the Germans bent down, picked me up by the scruff of my neck and held me at arm’s length because I was dripping with the blood and he didn’t want to get it on his uniform- his uniform was impeccable. He pulled out his revolver, put it next to my temple, and I actually heard him cock the pistol.”

Less than seconds away from death, she heard the soldiers speak.

“They said something to each other, to the effect of, ‘Why bother? She’s going to die anyway, she’s bleeding so much,’” she said.

Disgusted, they threw her back on top of the dead bodies.

She says over 5,000 people were killed that day.

“The only thing that kept us going, the only thing that gave us a glimmer of hope, was the knowledge that no war lasts forever,” she said. “That sooner or later, all wars do end, and if we could only hold out for one more day, one more hour, one more minute, maybe, maybe this madness will stop and we would survive.”

But the fight for her life was far from finished.

Terris and her mother went back to Lida and lived there until September of 1943 when the Germans came back into the ghetto and said that everyone would be taken to a different location.

“By then, rumors had reached the Lida ghetto about what was going on in the concentration camps, but nobody believed it,” she said. “How could human beings put other human beings into ovens? It’s preposterous. No person could do that.”

But her mother believed it. As they were marched to a railroad station, she told Terris to run to a Christian couple’s house who happened to be friends of the family. But when she arrived, the woman of the household refused to keep her out of fear. Seething with anger, Terris returned to the railroad station. While looking for her mother, she ran into her cousin who told Terris that she could find her mother when they got to the next destination.

And then she received a piece of information that saved her life.

A man, whom she had never remembered meeting before, came up to her and said that her mother had run away.

“When I heard that, I knew I couldn’t get on that train,” she said. “What was I going to do at this new destination without my mother?”

At the last second, Terris slipped away from her cousin and ran to the home of another family friend who allowed her to hide in their barn.

According to Terris, the Jewish people of Lida were taken to the Majdanek concentration camp. When they arrived, they were removed from the train, put onto trucks, and taken directly to the crematoriums. She says not one single person from Lida survived Majdanek.

Terris had escaped death’s grip once more.

Several days later, her mother arrived at the barn and they were reunited. They knew their best chance for survival was to join a partisan group, and they wandered around for about a week, until they stumbled upon a lookout from the Bielski partisans in the woods. He was from Lida, and knew them.

They followed him and became part of the group. Terris endured extremely harsh conditions that included days without food, lice, and bitterly cold weather. The experiences of the Bielski partisans inspired the 2008 movie, “Defiance.”

“We were 1,200 Jewish people that were saved by the Bielski partisans and it was the largest rescue of Jews by Jews during World War II,” Terris said.

She stayed with the group in the swampy Naliboki forest until July of 1944 when they were liberated by the Russian army. It wasn’t until 1949 that she was able to arrive in America.

“I came face to face with terrible evil, for no reason,” she said. “Who were we hurting? I was a little girl, whom could I have hurt? Why was I punished like that?”

Today, Terris’s home is filled with symbols of her faith. A sign with the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ sits by her front door and a Seder plate is displayed in a clear glass cabinet in her living room.

“It makes me feel better, because I’m free to exhibit it,” she says. “There was a time when I couldn’t exhibit all of that.”

But over seven decades later, the pain of those years still sears her memory every time she relives it.
“People should be vigilant, and people should not be complacent,” she said. “Hatred and prejudice are detrimental to everyone, and we have to guard against it.”

Terris’s mother passed away in her late 80s of natural causes. She remains married to her husband Harry, with whom she has two children and two grandchildren. They are an everyday reminder of what she fought so hard to protect.

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