Helen Kugelmas — As told to Mrs. Chaya Feigy Grossman

Please tell me your name and where you were born.

I, Helen Kugelman, was born in Novardok, Poland, where the famous Novardok Yeshivah was established.

What memories can you share with us about your family?

I lived with my parents and one brother, who was four years younger than me. My father owned a small textile store and my mother was a midwife.

What kind of education did you receive?

I attended a Polish school. I also went to Hebrew classes where I got a Jewish education. When I was of high-school age I went to a gymnasium. My brother went to a cheder like the rest of the boys in our town.

Did you feel anti-Semitism in the town prior to the onset of the war?

Plenty. The Polish people on the whole were tremendous anti-Semites. However, in school and amongst the children it was not as noticeable.

When did you begin feeling the pressure of the war?

Before the war actually broke out in our town, rumors had spread that there was going to be a pogrom. Ten days after the outbreak of the war, the Russians came into town and took over. The Russians opened their own school and we had to transfer to it. From September 1939 until June 1941 the Russians were in charge; then the Germans took over.

The Russians weren’t any different than the Germans. They wanted my father to sign a paper stating that I would attend school on Shabbos, but he refused to do so. We were restricted from doing all religious activities. In private, my father and brother assembled men to join them for a minyan.

Can you describe the changes that occurred when the Germans took over?

Prior to the establishment of the ghetto, many new edicts were enforced. All Jews had to wear a yellow star. We were no longer allowed to walk on the sidewalk; rather, we had to walk in the gutters.

When were you taken to a ghetto?

A ghetto was formed in December of 1941, when I was 18 years old. The Germans were very aggressive and they would go around during the night snatching Jewish girls. My mother was afraid for my safety. She had a sister living on a farm in a little town called Siroof, a few miles away. My mother was able to make contact with my aunt. My aunt sent a gentile to pick me up, since Jews were not allowed to travel. I took off my yellow star and, against my will, I went with him. Although it wasn’t too far, it took quite a number of hours to get there. Upon my arrival, my aunt immediately registered me as a citizen in the government offices.

When the first aktion took place in Novardok, I was not there. My mother and my brother were killed in this first round of murder; my father remained alive. While I was at my aunt’s house, a few Jews escaped from the ghetto, looking for a place to hide. They reported to us what had happened in the ghetto. At that time I didn’t receive any news about my parents; however, a short time later, a gentile brought me a letter sent from a friend of mine with news about my family.

When I heard that only my father was living, I made the decision to join him in the ghetto. Travel was impossible. However, a transport was being taken from a town close to where my aunt lived; it was headed for work in Novardok, right outside the ghetto. I joined them on this transport. From there I smuggled into the ghetto. I stayed with my father for another eight months until the Germans made the next aktion in August.

Did you have to work in the ghetto?

Since I had an education I was given an important job in the office of the German officials. My job was to keep track of the workers in the ghetto, where and when they worked and what their job consisted of. We were privy to the secret information of when the second aktion would take place.

My father was working in the bathhouses inside the city. I knew that the bathhouses would not be affected by this aktion. The bathhouses were close to my place of work, so I went to see him and reassure him that he would not be affected by this aktion. However, this information was not correct because they ended up taking the workers from one of the bathhouses; father was one of them.

Two or three other girls and I were still in the office while all this was happening. We asked one of the other workers to take us to the courthouse since we were sure that those working in the courthouse would survive.

The only workers who were kept alive were those whom the Germans needed, such as tailors. These people hid their small children between the bolts of material. However, someone reported them to the authorities and the Germans came with big dogs and discovered all the hidden children. I will never forget the sight of these young children as they hurled them onto cattle cars and encouraged them to wave good-bye to their parents. We stood frozen to our spots as these children were taken to their death.

We were then taken back to the ghetto where I received the news that my father had been taken from the bathhouses out to the forest, where he was shot in a mass grave. I remained all alone. We received food rations and we were given different small jobs each day.