Dankner, Helen

Dankner, Helen

Mukacheve (Ukraine), Auschwitz, Geislingen, Dachau

Dankner was born in 1930 in a small town near Mukacheve, which was situated in the region of Carpathian Ruthenia and before World War II belonged to Czechoslovakia. She was brought up in an Orthodox home and lived there with her parents and her three younger brothers. Before the war the Jewish community and the Christian population lived together in peace; Dankner cannot recall any anti- Semitism.

The situation changed tremendously in 1939 after this part of Czechoslovakia became part of Hungary, which was an ally of Nazi Germany. In order not to be deported, Dankner’s father had to buy Hungarian citizenship for his family. In August 1941 those Jews who could not afford to buy a Hungarian passport, so-called “alien Jews,” were sent to a site near Kamenets-Podolski, where about 17,000 were massacred by SS troops. All male Hungarian Jews of military age, including Dankner’s father, were forced to serve in a unique labor-service system, the so-called Munkaszol-Galat. They worked on war-related projects, such as building and repairing roads and tank traps on the Ukrainian front. Dankner never saw her father again.

In March 1944 the German army occupied Hungary. Jews were then forced to act against their religious beliefs, and were the targets of humiliation and discrimination. They lived in constant fear and had to wear a yellow star on their clothes so they could be easily identified as Jews. The relation to the Christian population changed for the worse, as Gentiles faced punishment for helping Jews. In April 1944 Dankner, her mother, and her two brothers, as well as the other members of their Jewish community, were rounded up by Hungarian Gendarmerie and shipped to a ghetto near Mukacheve, where they stayed for three weeks under terrible sanitary conditions.

In May 1944 Dankner and her family were taken to a railway station and locked into cattle cars, in which there was not even enough space to sit down. After three days they arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp. There the camp’s physician, Dr. Mengele, selected those prisoners who the Nazis could use as labor. Dankner was advised by another prisoner to pretend to be eighteen so she would be considered useful, although in fact she just was thirteen. She and her aunt were the only ones out of her extended family who survived the selection. The rest of her family was immediately sent to the gas chambers and executed although Dankner was not at the time aware that this is what had happened.

All prisoners who had been selected for work had to undress and all of their private property was taken away from them. Dankner and her aunt worked in a road construction brigade. Every day in the morning and in the evening, all inmates had to line up naked and another selection took place. Those women who were pregnant or ill were sent to the gas chambers. One day Dankner was selected, since she was obviously not an adult. Her aunt convinced the SS guards that Dankner was a very good worker and so she managed to survive. Dankner also mentions the sadism and brutality of the Kapos, who were inmates who assisted in the administration of the camp in return for extra food rations and better living conditions. After some time as an inmate of the camp, Dankner became aware of the fact that all selected prisoners, as well as her family, had been exterminated.

In July 1944, Dankner and her aunt were transported to a labor camp in Geislingen near Stuttgart, Germany, to work in an ammunition factory. As the American troops approached, all inmates of this camp were taken in March 1945 to the Dachau concentration camp. After another three weeks Dankner and her aunt were again locked into a train, which was liberated after eight days by the American army. U.S. soldiers took all the survivors to a sanatarium to recover. After three weeks, Dankner and her aunt were allowed to leave and returned to their hometown. In May 1948, Dankner emigrated to the United States.

Interview Information:
Date: Nov. 23, 1983
Interviewer: Prof. Randolph Braham
Length: 1 hour
Format: Video recording