Gena Turgel

The bride in parachute silk who told mil­lions her Holo­caust story

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITS -

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.

GLO­RIA TESSLER

Gena Turgel: born Fe­bru­ary 1, 1923. Died June 7, 2018

PHOTO: PA

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