The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Helena Jockel

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Born
October 23, 1919 Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1988 Halifax, Nova Scotia

When the Nazis invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, elementary school teacher Helena Jockel thought only about how to save “her” children as she accompanied them all the way to Auschwitz. Her account of living and surviving in the camp is clear-eyed and poignant, sometimes recording the too-brief moments of beauty and kindness that accompany the unremitting cruelty.

About Helena

Helena Jockel (née Kahan) was born in Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia, on October 23, 1919. After the war, she returned to Czechoslovakia and in 1948 married her widowed brother-in-law, Emil Jockel. They remained in Czechoslovakia until Helena retired. They then moved to Canada in 1988 to join their daughter, Jana. Helena Jockel passed away in Halifax on November 4, 2016.

Photos and Artifacts

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    The gate to the Mukačevo ghetto, 1944. (Photo courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House Museum.)

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    The brickyard where the Jews of Mukačevo were assembled before being deported to Auschwitz. (Photo courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House Museum.)

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    The Hebrew Gymnasium in Mukačevo, where Helena went to school. (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

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    Helena (front row, holding handbag) with the faculty of the Gymnasium in Znojmo, where she taught for more than forty years. Date unknown.

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    Helena and her husband, Emil, at the Spa Marianske Lanze Film Festival, 1948.

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    Helena, 1948.

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    Helena's sister Agneszka (Agi) with her family after the war. From left to right: Agi; daughter Vera; husband, Josef Soffer; and daughter Ruzena.

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    Helena's sister Agi. Date unknown.

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    Helena and her husband, Emil, with their children, Pavel (left) and Jana (right), in Jubilenji Park, Znojmo, circa 1955.

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    Helena's daughter, Jana, and husband, Emil, circa 1956.

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    Helena with her daughter, Jana, age seven, and son, Pavel, age four.

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    Helena, 1956.

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    Helena with her daughter, Jana, and granddaughter, Jolana, in Halifax in the 1990s.

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    Helena and her husband, Emil, preparing strawberries for jam. Halifax, 1992.

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    Helena visiting her sister Agi and her family in Znojmo. From left to right: Agi with her great-grandson, David, on her lap; Agi's granddaughter Vendulka; and Helena. Znojmo, 1999.

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    Helena's sister Agi, with her great-granddaughter, Sofinka, circa 2004.

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    Helena's son, Pavel, daughter-in-law, Klara, and grandsons Tom (front) and Dan.

The Book

Cover of We Sang in Hushed Voices
2015 Living Now Silver Medal Winner

We Sang in Hushed Voices

In Auschwitz I was told that in two hours they could kill two thousand people…

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We Sang in Hushed Voices

Survival

The small acts of courage were what made it possible to survive. One evening, for example, we were made to stand for hours and hours in the Appellplatz for roll call. When we were finally released, some of the women who needed to go to the bathroom went straight to the barracks to relieve themselves in the latrines. When they got there, however, the doors were locked. A few of the poor women were truly in agony after holding it in for so long. Not being allowed to empty their bladders was torturous. This was the last straw for some of us, and we began to shout in resistance, “Let us pee!” over and over again. “Don’t let them suffer!” I called out. “Don’t torture people so much!” One of the female SS guards heard us yelling and came to the barracks.

The guard must have recognized my voice because she came directly over to me, as if I were to blame for the rebellion. The other women were sure that I would be killed. Then, something unexpected happened. A friend of mine from Mukačevo, a woman named Hilda, came to my aid. I had known her before the war, and she was normally very quiet and reserved. Yet, she rallied everyone together and encouraged them all to shout. All seven or eight hundred women in the area began shouting so loudly and with such intensity that the female SS guard grew afraid and left.

There was another way that we could resist – with hope. As we sat on the hard wooden bunks in our barracks, with only our thin, torn dresses to cover us, we still hoped that we would survive. Some of us even tried to learn new languages. By that time, I had already learned some English and spoke it quite well. I also still remembered Hebrew from high school and taught Hebrew words to my friends. It was a time of emptiness, pain and desperation, a time when it was impossible to imagine a way out. There was no way out. But I often thought about miracles.

An extremely important part of our resistance was singing. Although it seems paradoxical to talk about music and Birkenau in the same breath, singing was a key part of our existence. When our work was done and the guards weren’t present, we could find safe moments to sing Hebrew songs. We had to be careful never to sing in front of the SS because they would have beaten us to death. I couldn’t sing well, but it didn’t matter. None of us were really singers. I would teach my friends the words to songs I had learned in school and the women with good voices would figure out the tune. Together we combined words and voices, our voices hushed so that no one would hear us. It gave us encouragement and lifted our spirits; in those moments, we didn’t speak about death and killing.

These were not the only music events in the camp. There were also concerts organized by the SS – although these were hardly happy occasions for the Jewish prisoners. I recall one concert that was spontaneously arranged under orders from the camp administration. We were called out to the Appellplatz and commanded to sit on the ground. What we saw in front of us was a group of men in their filthy, striped prison uniforms, emaciated from hunger, each one holding a violin, a cello or a wind instrument. They were told to take their places on a platform and began to play – and, oh, how beautifully they played. Starving and ill, the musicians played waltzes by Johann Strauss II while the SS guards danced to the music.

I began to cry. I cried inconsolably because those musicians were playing music that had been created to make the world a more harmonious and beautiful place. Yet, these men, imprisoned and starving, were forced to play through suffering and humiliation. Strauss’s waltzes and operettas, which brought joy to listeners for a hundred years, had nothing in common with Hitler and his ideology.