A tiny earring hidden in the lining of a worn-out shoe was Helen Freeman’s connection to her family and her past.
The number on her left arm reminds her every day of the atrocities she has seen and survived.
The reality of war hit then 18-year-old Freeman as fast and with as much impact as the German bomb, which destroyed the house next to hers.
It was 1939 and Germans were attacking the Polish city of Radom.
“I don’t want to stay here, let’s go away,” she told her mother.
Although the family went to friends’ house, it was no escape from the Nazis.
The Germans did not waste time.
They closed down local businesses and schools, deprived people of their beautiful apartments, took away the furniture and moved the inhabitants to the ghettos — where 10 families crammed each apartment, not always equipped with a bathroom.
Twenty-five thousand people were forced to occupy three square miles.
“Why can’t I go back to school?” Freeman kept asking her mother.
Freeman’s mother tried to calm her daughter, reminding her that Poland had been temporarily occupied by Germans and Russians before and this was not going to last long either.
“I guess she didn’t expect what kind of plans the Germans had,” Freeman said.
The Germans had been lying from the beginning to avoid mass panic, she said. They told people they would be sent to the east to work for the army while they actually sent them to work at death camps.
The execution of the Nazi plan was systematic.
They got rid of community leaders so that the ghettos remained filled with confused, scared people who were disappearing without a trace.
During the first random selection, Freeman lost her younger brother and sister-in-law.
“My brother was about 11-years-old and my oldest brother was already married, so they took away his wife. My grandmother, who was 76-years-old, remained,” Freeman said.
She still believed at this point that her family members were taken to work and she would eventually see them again.
Freeman stayed with the rest of her family in the ghetto, where their lives were filled with tension and fear.
The ghetto was surrounded with barbed wire and going outside required a permit.
All the Jews had to wear white armbands with a David star. The food supplies were running out quickly. People stood in long lines in front of bakeries until there were no more ingredients to make bread. The ration system was introduced but the portions were inadequate.
Freeman’s family tried to sell off whatever they could, including clothes and her mother’s jewelry to be able to buy some food from Polish people who lived on the other side of the fence.
Every day Germans came in to look for people to work or to humiliate them and break their spirit.
One day, Freeman was walking down the street when German soldiers came up to her and told her to go with them.
She followed them, terrified.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do,” Freeman said. “I didn’t say goodbye to my parents, my family didn’t know what happened to me.”
Freeman was taken to the outskirts of Radom and later to a work camp in Wolanow, where she fixed German army uniforms.
Her life was bearable under the circumstances until a typhus breakout, an infectious disease that can cause pneumonia. The camp was closed and all the women were quarantined.
However, rather than receiving medical attention, the women had to run to the men’s camp every day and back to prove they were healthy. Failure to pass the test meant immediate death.
When one of Freeman’s roommates got sick, she helped her as much as she could and became infected as a result. To hide it from the Germans, Freeman got dressed with the help of her roommates and sat behind a big table pretending to sew. She still found enough strength to go through the daily run, but her energy was quickly diminishing.
“I got more sick, the fever got higher and I felt that this is going to be the end of me so I wrote a note to my family, not knowing where they are,” Freeman said.
She passed the note to a Jewish policeman who found Freeman’s brother.
He planned his sister’s escape from the camp. Unfortunately, the plan did not work out and they were all caught and sent to the police station where they awaited execution. While they waited for their final hour, a miracle happened.
The German officer in charge was in a good mood and spared their lives.
Freeman was taken to a hospital where, with no medication, she eventually got her health back.
Later, her brother helped her regain her strength. Throughout that time they had to periodically hide in the attic from the Germans. They sat silently until they could hear the sound of soldiers’ boots fading away.
During one of those times, Freeman met her boyfriend, Joseph.
After the liquidation of the ghetto, Freeman was transferred to work at a weapons factory outside Radom.
Later, she worked as a clerk at a German warehouse where — surrounded by unimaginable atrocities — she encountered rare acts of kindness.
She worked as a baby sitter, helping the warehouse supervisor’s wife raise their children. She even had dinner with the family, an unthinkable act for a Jewish woman during the war.
“He was very nice even though he was a Nazi,” she said.
In 1944, when the men and women’s camps closed down, Freeman and other male and female prisoners were sent on a march to Tomaszow.
During their eight-day march in the middle of July, the prisoners did not have enough food or water and many of them died on the way.
They stayed in Tomaszow for the night while the soldiers prepared a cattle train to transport them to Auschwitz. The next day, men and women were separated and crammed into the cattle train. When they reached Auschwitz, the men remained on the train while the women were told to get out.
The prisoners entered the camp through a gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes freedom) above it.
“I thought at the time it was paradise,” Freeman said. “It was so beautiful. The grass was kept so beautiful and the orchestra was playing and the Nazis have been so kind.”
The soldiers told the prisoners not to worry. They would take them to the showers to get comfortable after their trip. Freeman saw an aristocratic-looking man who pointed his finger dividing the newcomers into two groups.
“Just by waving his finger he decided who should live and who should die,” Freeman said.
The group on the right went to take a shower and never came out. When they entered the shower room, deadly gas came out instead of water.
The group on the left, with whom Freeman was sent, was told to remove all their clothing and give up any personal belongings. The soldiers shaved some of the women’s heads and took their shoes and gave them wooden clogs instead.
Freeman did not have to give up her own shoes because they did not have soles. Then soldiers then tattooed the prisoners. From that moment, Freeman became known as A-24490.
While she was giving up all her personal belongings, including pictures of her loved ones, Freeman kept thinking about her family, whom she never said goodbye to.
“It was scary for me, so I took away one earring and I pushed it in the lining of the shoe inside and I was hoping they don’t notice,” Freeman said.
The earring was not worth a lot of money, but it was Freeman’s connection with her family.
The Germans took her shoes and put them in the water to make sure she was not hiding anything. Had they found anything, Freeman would have been shot instantly.
The earring remained in the shoe.
“I was so happy it did not come out,” Freeman said. “I was lucky. If not, they would have killed me.”
Freeman kept the earring during her time at the camp and whenever she felt depressed, hungry and hopeless, she remind herself of her family with her keepsake.
“I touched the shoe and I felt the connection with my mother and this kept me going,” Freeman said. The earring and prayers to God was all she had.
Life at Auschwitz was miserable.
The prisoners slept on boards, locked in the barracks. Their food rations consisted of a thin slice of bread, liquid reminiscent of coffee and watery soup.
During the day they were forced to carry bricks from one side of the camp to the other. The smell of burning flesh constantly lingered in the air.
The Germans did medical experiments on the prisoners, including male and female castration. They also used prisoners’ blood when they needed it for transfusions for the soldiers.
Freeman was in Auschwitz from July until November 1944. In November, she was moved to Czechoslovakia to work in a Siemens factory.
On May 8, 1945, Russian soldiers came to tell the prisoners the war was over, but after being lied to for so many years, they had a hard time believing it. Americans had to confirm the Jews’ freedom when they believed they were being lied to.
Freeman returned to Radom to look for her family. She wandered the streets confused when she saw a man. It was her boyfriend, Joseph, who was looking for her.
“I will never leave you,” he said.
They married and immigrated to the United States and have been together ever since. After losing her parents, brother, grandmother and sister-in-law, Freeman considers herself lucky compared to other survivors. Her husband lost his entire family.
She has kept the earring for many years after the war.
When her three daughters grew up, she took it apart and put stones from it into three rings, which she gave to her children.