The bride in parachute silk who told millions her Holocaust story
EVEN ON her wedding day, wearing a dress made of parachute silk, there is a hint of sadness in the bride’s glowing eyes. And yet the story of Gena Turgel, who has died aged 95, is one of the Holocaust’s great tragic-romantic legends. The Krakow-born Shoah survivor married her British rescuer, Norman Turgel, six months after he helped liberate Belsen.
Turgel, then a sergeant working for British military intelligence, was one of the first Allied soldiers on the scene and fell in love with the hollow eyed, gaptoothed, ragged and starving girl, while rounding up the SS guards for interrogation. Stunned, she accepted his proposal and three days later, they celebrated their engagement. They married in October 1945 and came to England.
But the joy of love in the dying days of a concentration camp could not disguise personal tragedy and the loss of most of Gena’s family.
Later she would use her terrible experiences to tell her Holocaust story to schoolchildren all over the country.
With her elegant, European Blue Angel looks, she may have reflected the glamour of Marlene Dietrich, but her mind and her emotions were hard-wired to make sure her experiences would never happen again. More, that the lies of Holocaust deniers would find no place in history.
Her own history turned Gena Turgel into the Bride of Belsen. That was how the British media first saw her. It was a sentimental and somewhat superficial soubriquet for an attractive woman who had survived the worst that life could throw at her.
At the age of 22, she had nursed the dying young diarist Anne Frank in her last hours. She told the BBC in an interview: “I washed her face, gave her water to drink and I can still see that face, her hair and how she looked.”
Gena remembered her mother telling her “about this Dutch girl in the barrack who had apparently written a diary”.
It was one of the many images that Gena would carry with her for the rest of her life, and which honed in her a relentless dedication to telling her story.
She told The Independent in 1995: “The agony grew deep inside me and I became like a stone.”
She saw people disappear, transported to Auschwitz. A mother who put on her daughter’s clothes and calmly went to Auschwitz in her place.
Gena Goldfinger was born into an affluent family, the youngest of the nine children of Samuel and Esta Goldfinger, who ran a small Krakow textile business. Samuel had fought with the Austrian Army during the First World War, but, troubled by war wounds, he died the year before Hitler came to power.
She was 16, with dreams of becoming a doctor, when the Nazis bombed Krakow in September, 1939, and in 1941 she and her mother, with four of her nine siblings, moved to the ghetto with few meagre personal possessions.
But tragedy pursued the family. One brother was shot by the Nazis in the ghetto, another fled and was never seen again. Her married sister with her husband were both shot after trying to smuggle food into the Plaszow labour camp on the edge of Krakow where they were eventually sent. Then in the winter of 1944 she, her mother and sister were forced to join a death march to Aushwitz leaving her surviving sister Hela behind.
Gena described the experience: “The temperature was about 20 degrees below freezing. I had to go exactly as I was, the clothes I was standing in: dress, coat, boots, a thin pair of knickers and stockings.
“The snow was deep and thick, and we were flanked by guards and Alsatian dogs on both sides. We must have been walking for about three weeks and it snowed all the way. Sometimes we were made to walk overnight.”
As they approached Auschwitz and the German border, people threw buckets of water on the ground in front of them. But they experienced compassion and humanity, too, which gave Gena “faith that there is some goodness in people”.
In January 1945 mother and daughter spent four weeks on a death march to Buchenwald, before being taken by cattle train to Bergen-Belsen.
There Gena worked in the hospital where she nursed Anne Frank, who was dying of typhus. “Terrible, burning up. I gave her cold water to wash her down,” she said. “We did not know she was special, but she was a lovely girl. And then she died.”
Gena’s wedding dress, made from a British army parachute, is now in London’s Imperial War Museum.
The Turgels spent their lives in north London, where Gena was said to be obsessive about maintaining a perfect home. Her mother survived until the age of 99 and attended her grandson’s barmitzvah, grateful that the family line had not been ended by the Nazis.
The story of Gena and Norman Turgel was told in What did you do in the war, Auntie?, a BBC Two series in 1995, and in Gena’s book, I Light a Candle.
The journey took her to thousands of schools and educational establishments across the country, sharing a testimony, as Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Education Trust, says “was difficult to hear and difficult for her to tell, but no one who heard her speak will ever forget”.
Gena attended a Holocaust remembrance event in Hyde Park in April in a wheelchair and called for a better future “where antisemitism and all hatred should be demolished.
“My story is the story that six million others cannot tell. I was, and I am, and I always shall be a witness to the mass murder and systematic destruction of a civilization.”
Ms Pollock, said Gena was “the most beautiful, elegant and poised lady. Her strength, determination and resilience were unwavering, her powerful and wise words an inspiration. A shining light has gone out today and will never be replaced”.
Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks described her as “a blessing and inspiration”.
Gena Turgel is survived by her three children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Norman predeceased her.
Gena Turgel: born February 1, 1923. Died June 7, 2018