His name is Joseph Hellen but from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen he was just a number, first in Auschwitz, then in the nearby Birkenau death camps.
My intent was to have Mr. Hellen pretend he was speaking to a group of youths of the age he was – 16 – when he was rounded by the Nazis from his school in Czechoslovakia. I was unsuccessful. When I asked him what you would tell a class of youths in 10th grade his reply was: “Don’t be a Jew.”
The trouble started when SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, top Nazi protectorate in Czechoslovakia, who chaired the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, which formalized plans for the final solution to the Jewish Question-the deportation and extermination of all Jews in German occupied territory, was shot by two members of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile.
Jan Kubis and Joseph Gabeik headed the team chosen to eliminate Heydrich. On 27 May 1942, Kubis threw a bomb at the rear of Heydrich’s car as it stopped. The explosion wounded Heydrich and Kubis. On 2 June, during a visit by Himmler, Heydrich succumbed to his wounds; he died on 4 June, 1942 at the age of 38.
In revenge, the Nazis, unleashed their killing machine on Czechoslovakia, not necessarily on the Jews. Tens of thousands of people, mostly non-Jews, were shot.
That same month, June 1942, young Hellen was dragged out of school and was thrown into prison for several months. In August he was transported to Auschwitz.
Joseph Hellen entered Auschwitz an innocent 16 years old youth and grew up to be a man in a matter of 24 hours. Within few hours of arriving at Auschwitz, a number was tattooed on the upper side of his arm, with a primitive needle that was used on many until it had to be replaced.“It hurt,” he said but he did not cry.
“Why they tattooed the number on the upper side of your arm instead of the inner part?” I asked?
“Straight away when I arrived to Auschwitz they inquired about the identity of the arriving. In Czechoslovakia I was incarcerated as a political prisoner and political prisoners had the number tattooed on the upper side of their arm. Jews had it tattooed on the inner side of their arm.” Only after they tattooed the number did Joseph confess to being a Jew, and it became a ‘Jewish Number’.
Hellen spent the next three years as a number. Seeing the most extreme side of life has hardened him and you can detect it in his speaking style and mannerism.
“When you see Germans killing so easily, in one day you cannot see too much,” he tells me in his heavy accented English.
“Where was your family when they dragged you out of school?” I asked?
“I do not know but what I do know is that my sisters, eleven and six years old, my brother few months pass his 17 birthday and my parents were gassed in Auschwitz.”
You do not have to pull the story out of Hellen’s mouth. He can go on for hours, telling to whoever is listening, stories about his three years ordeal in the Nazi death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau. “So that such unbelievable atrocity does not happen again you have to tell the story” he claims.
During those years, he belonged to a unit called the ‘Commando Canada,’ made of 200 men and 200 women, mostly Jews. Their job was to collect all the transported victims’ belongings of whatever they were, separate them into groups, and store them in the barracks. Each week the Nazis will come and collect the “treasures.”
“Did you steal anything?” I asked. “We did not steal, we organized,” he said, with a hint of shyness that makes it clear the job he was made to perform was categorized as revolting..
During these years young Joseph Hellen learned to protect himself in every way possible. Survival was the key word.
When the Russians set him free, he stole a bicycle from a nearby home and rode to the Slovakian border. There he encountered some Russian troops, among them a Jew who helped him with the required papers and a pass. Hellen could not return to his home town, as fighting was still going on there. So he settled in nearby Hungary, where he lived for few years and got married, before immigrating to Australia.
“What will you tell the children who listen to your story?” I asked.
“That you have to be a fighter and know that you have one chance in life, which you must take. You either live or die.”
“Birkenau was the toughest school,” he concludes. “When you are really hungry and tomorrow you know you will get the same slice of bread and you will have to perform the same hard labor you need to have self-preservation and much luck. Some are luckier than others. You can use all your faculties but luck needs to be with you,” he sums up the troublesome years.
Over the many decades since, Hellen amassed substantial assets in Australia, where he lives, in the USA and Israel. He works nonstop and loves managing his significant empire.
Mr. Joseph Hellen, Jewish Number 64463, is among the last – but not a lost – Mohegan. His story, like those of many other Survivors, must be told and remembered. At the age of 88, may he continue living a long and healthy life.