Gena Turgel was a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who, having endured the ghetto, three different concentration camps, forced ‘death marches’ and even a trip to the gas chamber, devoted her life to educating people about the atrocities she had seen and experienced.
Born to a Jewish family in Krakow in 1923, Gena Goldfinger was the youngest of nine children. Her parents owned a small textile business which her mother continued to run following the death of her father. She was just 16 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and banged on her family’s door, demanding the keys to the their business. In 1941 Gena and her family were forced out of their home and into a squalid ghetto. The family were later moved to the Plaszov camp on the outskirts of Krakow.
Gena lost four members of her family during this time; her eldest brother was shot by the SS, another brother fled, never to be seen again, and her sister and brother-in-law were killed, having been caught trying to smuggle food into the Plaszov camp.
In the winter of 1944, Gena and her surviving family members were moved from Plaszov to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, being forced to walk there through deep snow in sub-zero temperatures. It was on arrival at Auschwitz that she had what was probably her closest brush with death. She was forced to strip naked and sent to what she was told was a shower block. Together with around 100 other people she was crammed into a windowless, stone-walled room with vents in the ceiling. They stood in silence for over an hour. Nothing happened.
When they were finally released from the room, a group of women embraced them and shouted for joy. Gena could not understand the reason for their joyful reaction. They explained that this was the gas chamber. For whatever reason, perhaps a mechanical failure, the fatal Zyklon-B gas had not been released and Gena survived what millions of other people had not.
A few weeks later Gena and her mother were moved once more, forced to leave behind Gena’s sister, Hela, whom they never saw again. They went first to Buchenwald, then to Bergen-Belsen, enduring another lengthy and treacherous ‘death march’ between camps. At Belsen, Gena worked in a camp hospital and cared for 15 year old Anne Frank, then extremely sick with typhus, nursing her as she died.
When Belsen was finally liberated in April 1945, Gena met a young Jewish man, Norman Turgel, who was a soldier in the British Intelligence Corps and one of the first liberators to enter the camp. The couple were married six months later and Gena was dubbed ‘The Bride of Belsen’. They married in one of Germany’s few surviving Jewish synagogues, a building which had been used as a cattle shed during the war. Gena wore a wedding gown made out of the silk of a British Army parachute and her dress is now on display in London’s Imperial War Museum.
When Norman Turgel brought his new bride home, the couple were greeted by journalists who were keen to tell their story of love triumphing over horror. They settled in England and later had two daughters and a son.
Gena was determined that the horrors of the concentration camps must never be forgotten. She dedicated her life to educating people about the atrocities she had seen and endured. She concentrated particularly on telling her stories in schools and, during the course of her life, shared her testimony with hundreds of thousands of school children.
Karen Pollock Chief, Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, described Gena’s story as being difficult for others to hear and difficult for her to tell. “Her strength, determination and resilience were unwavering, her powerful and wise words an inspiration”.
Gena published her memoir, I Light a Candle, in 1987. She continued to speak publicly about the extreme loss, pain, suffering and deprivation she had suffered at the hands of the Nazis well into her 90s. In April 2018, only two months before her death, she spoke at Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event in London.
In an interview following her death, former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said of Gena: “She was a blessing and an inspiration to our community. Her work to educate generations about the horrors of the Holocaust was as powerful as it was tireless.”