For Holocaust survivor Helen Terris, dredging up old memories is a painful, yet extremely important, exercise in remembrance. The Oakhurst resident will tell her extraordinary story of endurance and survival in a program on Sunday morning, Nov. 21, in Freehold.
Terris, who was born in 1935 in Lida, Poland, now part of Belarus, was among the 1,200 Jews saved by the Bielski brothers, whose partisans group and role as rescuers were dramatized in the 2008 film Defiance.
An idyllic childhood came to a sudden halt for Terris in June 1941, when the Germans invaded Lida and forced the Jews into a ghetto. During a roundup, Terris’ father was shot and killed. On May 8, 1942, most of the ghetto’s Jews were made to assemble in the town square, where Terris, then six, and her mother were among those chosen for execution.
But as they were being forced to march through the woods to mass graves, her mother suddenly grabbed her hand and the two of them ran to a house they were passing. Inside were three dead men. Her mother wiped their blood on herself and her daughter and they lay down next to the bodies. “We didn’t dare breathe,” said Terris.
Two German soldiers approached and stood, smoking, nearby. When Terris moved slightly, one of the soldiers took hold of her and placed a gun to her head. “Then they said, ‘Why waste a bullet,’ since I was going to die anyway,’” she said. The soldiers finished their cigarettes and walked away.
Mother and daughter continued to hide in the Lida ghetto, but in September 1943, they were caught in an action. They escaped again, this time as they were being sent to a railroad station for transport to the death camps. They ran to the woods near Lida, where they found refuge in the Bielskis’ bunker village.
For Terris, the key to her survival during the war was a mantra her mother made her repeat over and over: ‘We must survive! We must survive!’” she told NJJN. “We had a one-track mind and we did whatever it took to survive.” In case she was ever separated from her mother, she wore the names and addresses of her only surviving relatives on a piece of paper sewn into a necklace.
Terris, her mother, and the partisans endured brutally cold living conditions and a constant nagging hunger. Once, a huge pot of boiling water used for washing clothes toppled over onto Terris, searing the hair off her head and the skin of her hand to the bone. She remembers immersing the hand in buckets of snow to numb the pain. “My whole survival was a miracle, so that was just one more glitch,” she said. “Overall, my memories of the Bielskis were wonderful. Each morning when I got out of my bunker I felt a tremendous sense of freedom, compared to the ghetto where we were surrounded by barbed wire and German soldiers with guns ready to shoot.”
After the war, Terris and her mother spent three years in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria and came to the United States in 1949. For 50 years, Terris rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, not even to her children.
But nine years ago, when her granddaughter asked her to talk about her life to her middle-school class in Clark, Terris at last broke her silence. Since then she speaks often to groups and at memorial services and was a contributor to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Project. Her aim, she said, is to keep the memory of the events of the Holocaust and its victims alive “so that people are aware and on guard so that history is not repeated.”