On June 7, the American Society for Yad Vashem had the great honor of documenting the reunion between two survivors, Helga Stern (née Zauderer) and Georgette Heller (née Traksbetryger). This all started when Nancy Powell, ASYV Benefactor, told our office about the upcoming reunion between two Auschwitz survivors who met on the death march. One of those survivors, Georgette Heller, is the mother of Nancy’s brother-in-law, Harry Heller.
Georgette Heller was born and raised in Brussels, Belgium. She was only 15 years old when her family went into hiding with the Abbeloos, a non-Jewish family. For two years she remained inside. Finally, there came a point where Georgette couldn’t take it anymore, so she snuck out one night. Unfortunately, she was spotted, turned over to the Nazis, and immediately put on a train to Auschwitz. While there, Georgette was forced to collect the clothes of those being taken into the gas chambers. Day in and day out, she sorted the clothes of innocent people being herded to their deaths. When the death marches began in January 1945, Georgette, along with tens of thousands of other prisoners, was forced to march for miles in the snow and bitter cold with no food, no water, and no rest. Those who could not keep up were shot. About one in four died on the way.
Helga Stern was on that same march. Helga was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1930. After Kristallnacht, her family fled to Belgium before trying to escape to the free zone in France. However, they were caught by the SS, and Helga’s parents were sent to Drancy, followed by Auschwitz. They perished there along with Helga’s grandmother, uncle, and cousin. After being separated from her family, Helga was sent to live in an orphanage, in hiding in Paris, and with an aunt before also being deported to Auschwitz. She remained in Auschwitz for two years until January 1945 when the camp was evacuated. Helga was forced to march from camp to camp until she was liberated by the Americans during her final march in April 1945.
On the last day of the march, Helga befriended a girl just a few years older than her. That girl was none other than Georgette Heller. Following their liberation, Helga had no surviving family and nowhere to go, but Georgette was hopeful that some of her family had survived in hiding, so she offered to bring Helga home with her to Brussels. “She said, ‘Come home with me to my house.’ I said I have no place to go. I went with her. We went to the house together.”
Helga lived with Georgette and her family until she was able to find distant relatives in London. The two teenagers stayed in touch and wrote to each other while they were still in Europe. In 1946, Georgette sent Helga a photo of herself with an inscription on the back. It was signed, “ta grande soeur” (your big sister). The two later lost touch, but Helga has held onto that photo all this time.
Decades later, Helga began to look for Georgette. She thought she might still be living in Belgium. But, as it turns out, Georgette was living in New York, a mere 40 minutes from Helga. So, on a warm sunny day in June 2021, two women, liberated together on a death march 76 years ago, reunited in the company of their families. As Helga entered Georgette’s son’s house, she held in her hand the photo that Georgette had sent to her beloved friend in 1946. She looked at Georgette and said, “You were so nice to me. You treated me like a sister.”
The Hellers and Sterns spent the day discussing memories, both good and bad, and shared photographs of loved ones lost and their families, which continue to grow. Seeing Helga and Georgette together reminds us of the profound impact a single act of kindness can have. We were so honored to be able to document this beautiful moment between these incredible survivors and their families.
BY JILL GOLTZER