Helena Flaum

Her Personal History

My story begins with my mother’s family, the Satz family, in our hometown, Rawa Ruska.

My maternal grandparents were very special people, not only to me, but to the entire Jewish community of Rawa Ruska. My grandmother was called Leah the Righteous because of her many good deeds in the community. She called me Chayela, which meant “my life”. She and I shared a strong bond. Every Friday afternoon, I would go to her house as she prepared for the Sabbath. Our family tradition was to go to our grandparents’ house after the Sabbath ended, where Grandmother always had Sabbath fruit for us to enjoy.

Grandfather was a leader in the community and was always careful to make sure that each child was treated equally as we celebrated our traditions. Jewish holidays were warm family occasions.

Mother was a trustworthy, religious and charitable woman. We celebrated all Jewish holidays in our religious, kosher home. Every Friday night before the candle-lighting, she would remind us of the commandment of Tzedakah (literally meaning “justice”, this commandment requires all Jews to give charity to others), and each of us would place some coins in the pushka, or charity box, that hung in our hallway. When the pushka was filled, the money would be donated to charity.

Father had four other sisters, two brothers, as well as a sister and a brother from his father’s first marriage.

I remember little about my Bubbe, my father’s mother. My paternal grandfather, Israel, died before I was born, but he and his father before him had worked as managers for a nearby estate. This was a family tradition, so it was natural that my father would also be an estate manager.

This is a picture of my house on 7 Kilinskiego Street. I took the photo when I traveled to Rawa Ruska in 1994.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

My father was born in 1906 when Rawa Ruska was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Because of this, Father always considered himself Austrian, not Polish. After all, his father served in the army under the Kaiser. Father insisted that I learn German. Little did he or I know then that my facility with German would later contribute to my survival.

I adored my father who was very stern, but also kind. He was also very charitable; every Sabbath a beggar was invited to join our family for the day. He loved his five children deeply, and he worked hard to provide a good home for me and my four younger brothers.

When Poland gained its independence in 1918, Rawa Ruska became part of Poland. It was a multi-ethnic town: Poles, Jews and Ukrainians co-existed. Since my family lived in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, most of my friends and playmates were non-Jewish and I attended public school with them at the age of seven.

In 1994, when I visited my hometown, I took these pictures of the gravestones that were rescued after the war. There were two Jewish cemeteries in Rawa Ruska—the “old” cemetery was completely destroyed. Very few gravestones from the “new” Jewish cemetery remained after the war.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

In September 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland starting WWII, I saw German soldiers for the first time. They came to my house, took my father and locked him up. However, after a few days, the Germans left and the Russians occupied our town. Russia and Poland had an agreement that Poland was to be divided. The area my family lived in became Russian territory. Under their occupation, my father was able to work, I was able to go to school, and I even had the opportunity to join the scouts. Unfortunately, this did not last long. On June 21, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and it only took a few days before the Germans occupied our town again.

Life changed drastically; before long, Jewish families were forced to live in the ghetto created in our town and were denied certain rights. Jews had to cope with ration coupons, food restrictions, and many were stripped of money and valuables. Jews were easily identified because they were required to wear an armband. I was fourteen years old when I first reported for work duty. I had to replace my mother who had been assigned to the work, but had just given birth to my youngest brother. At first I was told to clean the homes of Russian officers, but later I was required to dig up gravestones from the Jewish cemetery and use them to fill holes in the roads. Often my mother would try to save extra food for me, but when I returned home at night, I was so exhausted, I immediately fell asleep without eating.

This is a picture of an undergarment that I wore while working in Greiz. I brought it with me from home. My Aunt Dobis loved to sew. She made three undershirts and gave them to me before I left Rawa Ruska. It is one of the only things that I have from my life in Rawa Ruska.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

One day the Gestapo arrived in Rawa Ruska and liquidated half of the ghetto. Those removed were taken to a death camp called Belzec where they were murdered. Bubbe was babysitting for two of her grandchildren when they were taken in the first aktion and murdered in Belzec. Shortly thereafter, a Christian friend of my father’s came to visit. He warned my father of what was to come. He offered the means to have me registered as a Christian. After careful thought and discussion with me, my father decided to accept the offer. I was registered for work in a forced labor camp. I was taken to Greiz, Germany, leaving my entire family behind.

In Greiz, I worked as a machine operator in a German factory from 1942-1945. I was careful not to let anyone know my true identity. If someone found out, I would have been instantly killed. Of the 17 girls who worked in the camp, I was the youngest at fifteen. We were underfed, poorly clothed and ill-equipped for the cold winters. I was lucky; my foreman took pity on me and tried to help. From time to time, he would let me sleep a few hours on a bench in the locker room or would slip me extra bits of food.

This individual photo was taken on the same day as the group picture. The pictures taken because we were the first foreign women to arrive at the camp. German propaganda identified us as volunteer workers. The truth however, was that we were forced laborers.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

Every now and then, I would receive a letter from my father. He always signed them with my uncle’s name. One day, however, I received a letter from my father’s friend, the man who had provided my false identity papers. At this time, mail was delivered directly to the factory floor. I panicked and asked my supervisor if I might use the bathroom. 

The letter stated that there had been a very bad harvest and everything was destroyed. I knew what this coded language meant—my entire family had been killed at Belzec with the rest of the Jews from Rawa Ruska. I sat in the bathroom for a couple of minutes and tried to regain my composure so I could return to work. I could not show the pain that I felt. I immediately destroyed the letter, afraid that if someone read it and understood it, my true identity would be revealed. To this day, I still feel the pain of the loss of my family and friends.

My employment document is pictured here.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

Towards the end of the war, the American forces liberated my forced labor camp. After liberation, I signed an affidavit testifying to the kindness of my foreman at the factory in hopes that he would not be punished.

After a few weeks, I traveled with the Red Cross to an American military camp in France. There I helped care for wounded and sick soldiers.

Once my work at the military camp ended, I traveled to Paris. The Red Cross helped me find the address of my uncle who lived in the US. He sent me the address of a family in Paris who had lived in Rawa Ruska before the war. I lived with them for a while. While there I met and fell in love with my first husband, Szlomo Mardyks. We were married on August 7, 1948.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

Together, we moved to Israel where I gave birth to my first son, Harvey.

Shortly thereafter, we moved to the United States and settled in Newark, New Jersey, where I gave birth to my second son Raymond. In 1960, my family moved to Farmingdale where we purchased a farm. Tragically, two years later, Szlomo died in an accident. I remained in Farmingdale, raised my two sons and married Reuven Flaum on February 28, 1965.

In 1994, I returned to Rawa Ruska to see my hometown which, in some ways, had not changed much. I went to see my house. The Ukrainian woman who lives there let me inside. There in the corner was the old tile heater, just as we had left it. I placed my hands on it to feel its warmth as I had done as a child.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

Then I visited the remains of Belzec Death Camp so I could say goodbye to my family and friends. I have always felt that I never had the chance to say goodbye. That day, the sky was very overcast. Before I entered the grounds, I stood for a while outside the gate. As I pushed open the gate, the sun came out and warmed my back. As I walked, I felt light and calm, almost as if I were out of my body. Suddenly, I had the sense of being surrounded by my family and all the Jews of Rawa Ruska. I felt as though they had been waiting all this time for me to tell them they had not been forgotten. It felt like a celebration, a liberation from the past and my time to tell them goodbye. With the pleasant warming of the sun, the pain I had felt for so many years began to heal. The weight of all those years was lifted from me. When I left Belzec and closed the gate, the sun disappeared.

Although my visit to the camp had a serious impact on my health, when I returned to my home in Farmingdale, my nightmares stopped. I was calm, and now I could face the past that I had hidden for so long.

I began to speak publicly about my life. Now I often sit and remember my life in Rawa Ruska and my family there. My memories have come back to me, and they are rich, comforting and calming.

Image courtesy of Helena Muller Flaum

Sometimes when I speak, I am asked why I came back to Judaism after living as a Christian for three years. When I was in the forced labor camp, I promised myself that I would never again tell anyone that I was a Jew. If I were to have children, I didn’t want them to suffer as I was suffering. But later, I realized that by denying who I am, I am also denying my heritage and my family whom I loved. They were my life; I had to honor them, not just by being a Jew, but by telling others who I am.

When asked how I feel about the Nazis and the Germans, I always have the same answer: hate brings hate, and it destroys you. Forgiveness leads you to love and hope. It is the process of healing. Hopefully, when others learn about the Holocaust and understand that we, the survivors, can forgive, they will learn to forgive.

Today, I enjoy life. My family is a great source of pride and I truly love spending time with my grandchildren. Often, when I am alone or feeling sad, I find comfort as I sit and remember life the way it was in Rawa Ruska. Only a few photographs survived the war, but I have gathered them and placed them in this album to help me share my life story with you.

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