When Helena Weinrauch dances, she forgets.
In the arms of her trusted partner, she feels no fear, twirling in her gown across the floor as she waltzes, rumbas, tangos and foxtrots. At age 95, she feels free — and, for a moment, not like a Holocaust survivor.
“There was no time for dancing in my life, because my life was tragedy and losses and heartbreaks,” she said during a telephone interview from her apartment in Manhattan, where she has lived for the last 55 years. “I always wanted it — I always loved music and listened to music — but dancing, there was no time for it.
“When I was 88½, I said, ‘My life has been very sad. My life has been very, very, very full of tears and heartaches. I owe it to myself, before I leave this world, to have a little joy, a little pleasure,’” she said. “And what is it? Music.”
For five hours a week, sometimes more, dance becomes her sole focus. There, she separates herself from the hell she survived — the beatings, the torture, the destruction of her family, the firing squads, the black smoke billowing from the crematoria, the three concentration camps.
There, she is simply Helena, as she always wanted to be.
“I danced last night for two hours,” she said gleefully, her Polish accent still thick. “Dance keeps me going. I tell you, living alone all these years, having lost everybody I ever loved, from the time I was 15 until I was 95, the only joy I have is dancing. Why? Because when I dance, I forget everything.”
After years of sharing her story at schools around the country, Ms. Weinrauch does recognize its importance and no longer minds revisiting it, she said, ahead of her upcoming Q&A on Sunday afternoon at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, following the screening of “Fascination: Helena’s Story” by filmmaker Karen Goldfarb.
“I really do believe in the power of story. It’s so important that we listen to each other and that we tell these stories of Holocaust survivors because they’re not going to be around forever,” Ms. Goldfarb said. “It’s unbelievable to me that there’s actually a resurgence in anti-Semitism right now. That’s why I feel so strongly that these stories have to be told. Even though it was 70 years ago, it’s not that long ago, and it’s happening again. We’re seeing it happen again.”
The Nazi Occupation
In 1924, Ms. Weinrauch was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, to an engineer father, a concert pianist mother and an older sister, who created a home rife with culture, beauty, art and, of course, music.
“So from the time I was an infant, music was in my life,” she said. “When I was a child, I was traipsing around before I could walk, and according to my mother, I was traipsing around in her stomach when I wasn’t born, when she was playing the piano. So I had an early start.”
By the time she turned 15, Ms. Weinrauch had moved with her family to Poland, which would become the heart of the German and Russian occupation in 1939 at the dawn of World War II. Nightly raids began soon after, banks closed and their possessions were taken. Those who were considered “capitalists” were abducted and transported to Siberia, never to be heard from again.
Living under stress, her family went into hiding. But Ms. Weinrauch stayed behind to continue her schooling, she explains in the film, and found a part-time job in a salt mine office to support herself.
When the dust finally settled, her family returned — though their reunion only lasted one year.
In the fall of 1941, the Nazis reentered the city, imposing a curfew and restrictions on Jewish-owned businesses. And one day, while Ms. Weinrauch was at work, the regime rounded up 300 Jewish families without warning.
She ran home through the mayhem — bloody sidewalks and bodies left for dead in the streets — to find her front door was already open, dishes from an interrupted meal abandoned on the table.
She walked from room to room, calling out for her parents and her sister. Silence met her pleas. She spent the night sitting on the stoop, crying, waiting for them to return.
They never did. And she would never see them again.
“I lost my mother, I lost my father, I lost my sister, I lost 16 relatives,” she said. “In one day, they were murdered, executed, cold-blooded executed. Rounded up from the house, taken to the woods nearby the city, stripped of their clothes, having to kneel in front of a ravine, naked, and being shot in the back of the head. In one day, mother, father, sister and 16 relatives. Gone.
“I was left alone, orphaned, without family, without house, without money, without support, with guidance. Lost in the world, under circumstances that were more than critical and terrible. From the time I was 15, I had to be on my own. That is what teaches you about life that no book can teach you.”
At 5 a.m., Ms. Weinrauch put a few belongings in a bag, wrapped herself in her mother’s sweater and walked back to the office. The streets were deserted, a new day had started and she decided she would turn herself into the Gestapo, the secret police of German-occupied Europe.
But her boss would not allow it. “Child, you have so much to live for yet,” he told her, she recalls in the film. “Don’t do that.”
He swiftly obtained false identity papers in the name of a 19-year-old German woman — because she was fluent in the language — and arranged for her transport to Kraków, Poland. Through the risk of his own life, he convinced her to save her own.
“The will to live has kept me going under circumstances that were not livable, that were not worth my fighting to live because they were so horrific,” Ms. Weinrauch said. “Nevertheless, I never gave up. That is what keeps me going. I don’t know why do I have that very, very, very strong will to go on.
“Even today, my health is not good. I can hardly move my back straight. I have problems: I live alone, I am lonely, I am at times very, very, very unhappy by being alone and not having family and not having someone to share whatever happens,” she said. “Even when I don’t feel well, even when I can hardly manage, I still don’t give up.”
Once in Kraków, she connected with the ex-girlfriend of her former boss, who agreed to house her, albeit under false pretenses. She was an outgoing, friendly and social woman who, unfortunately, began introducing her to all her friends — almost exclusively high-ranking Gestapo, Soviets and Nazis, due to her husband’s position in the financial sector.
At her friend’s insistence, Ms. Weinrauch even attended a ball at a casino, where she found herself surrounded by the enemy and unwillingly waltzing with a Nazi officer, the evening’s guest of honor and “head of the Jewish solution.” She would soon meet him again, after a former classmate recognized her in the streets and reported her to the Gestapo.
They beat, tortured and interrogated her for three days, until she confessed to being Jewish. But when she refused to give the name of her former boss who provided the papers, they burned cigarettes into her chest and arms, applied electrical shocks and, finally, scheduled her execution.
The next morning, two guards blindfolded her and carried her out into the cold, dropping her on the ground against a wall. As they waited for the order to kill her, they amused themselves by shooting around her body when the Nazi officer from the ball happened to pass by.
Outraged that he had not given the execution order himself, he tore the blindfold off her swollen eyes and immediately recognized her, she says in the film. Humiliated by her deception, he spat in her face and slapped her, sentencing her to a fate worse than death: a concentration camp, he’d said.
“A bullet is too good a punishment for you,” he told her, Ms. Weinrauch recalls in the film. “Where I am going to send you, you will regret every single moment of your life that you were not shot.”
Over the next three years, one concentration camp would become three — first Płaszów, then Auschwitz and, after a 500-mile death march through freezing temperatures, Bergen-Belsen — and she would remain there until the very end of World War II.
Dehydrated, starved and sick with typhoid and dysentery, she was lying in a barrack of 300 dead bodies when the British army liberated the camp on April 15, 1945 — her 60-pound body saved by a captain at the last moment, when he realized she was still alive in the pile of corpses.
Finding Joy Through Dance
After receiving a blood transfusion from none other than the man who saved her, Ms. Weinrauch was moved to Sweden, where she began to slowly recover and trust in humankind again. It was a “wonderland,” she says in the film, with access to basic necessities — a bed, a toothbrush, soap and running water — for the first time in three years.
“The only thing that made me trust people again was the Swedish people, because in Sweden, where I spent the time after the war where I recuperated, I found kindness,” she said. “People were selflessly helping me, trying to restore me to health, try to restore my mental health, trying to do something to make me halfway normal again, and that was done with dedication, selflessness, love, and caring. And the Swedish people restored my faith in humanity.”
In 1947, Ms. Weinrauch moved to New York, found work as a doctor’s assistant, married a German Jew who had helped his family escape the war, and they had a daughter — whose death she has described as worse than her Holocaust experience. When her husband died in 2006, she was left alone, again.
“I had dreams,” she said. “Of course, I could not realize them because the war, and afterwards, I couldn’t afford them. And I still cannot afford to do things that I like. So, I have learned to compromise.”
Taking up ballroom dancing at age 88 — after following up on a promotional flyer from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio that arrived in her mailbox one day — was part of that compromise, she said, reconnecting her with the music she always loved.
“I hired this gentleman, who is a professional champion dancer, and we have been dancing every since. I am very proud and grateful to have him as my partner for the past three years,” she said. “He is my steady partner, and although I am more twice his age — I’m 10 years older than his grandmother — we have a very loving relationship because he likes me a lot and I like him a lot, platonically of course, but we like each other a lot and we have fun.”
Another part of her compromise is sharing her story with high school students across the country and reliving her place in the Holocaust, which ultimately claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.
“I don’t ask myself, ‘Why did these horrific things happen to me?’ I cannot answer that,” she said. “Whether it was meant, or it was just history that I happen to be part of, or the wrong place to be, or the wrong time to be born, I cannot answer that. It is out of my hands. It is life, and we have to, if we can, try to make the most of it. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don’t know how.”
To the students, who are typically 15 to 17 years old — the same age Ms. Weinrauch was when Nazi Germany shattered her life — she explains the evil consequences of bigotry, discrimination, blind obedience, prejudice and hatred. She explains the danger in ignoring history, as seen in today’s headlines.
“For me to live, and to read in the paper that it’s happening again — that anti-Semitism and anti-black and anti-Muslim and anti-all-the-races exists — that hurts,” she said. “I can’t read it. When I see articles like that, I just get sick to my stomach.”
To this day, the word “hate” does not exist in her vocabulary, Ms. Weinrauch said. And while she has found a way to forgive Nazi Germany for its sins, she cannot forget.
“I never learned from books as much as I learned from life,” she said. “Today, I am not an old, bitter woman. I still say that every day I am still here is a gift. And every day, I wake up and I’m able to walk, and talk, and sleep, and eat, and able to enjoy the very little I have left.
“I am very sad sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, that I am at the end of my life because I still have a lot to give and I’m not really finished. And that time is running out on me, and I cannot stop it.”
She paused. And with a lighthearted sigh, she said, “C’est la vie.”