An elegant lady of 95 walked into my friend's Upper West Side apartment on the second night of Passover. She had an aristocratic air. All eyes were on her, coiffed in auburn waves, wearing strings of pearls above a vibrant sapphire blue sweater. "What a beautiful sweater!" I told her. She was quick to tell me she wears it every Passover. The sweater also came with a story. Little did I know that Helena's story--a tale of persecution, survival and liberation--echoed the story of Passover. Fortunately, both have happy endings.
The story starts in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1924, when Helena Weinstock Weinrauch was born to a pianist mother and an engineer father. The family moved to Poland a few years later when her father accepted a position offered by the Polish government. For the next decade, life was good and they prospered. But all that changed in 1939.
After a brief occupation by the Germans, the Russians arrived. Well-to-do people, suspected capitalists, were threatened with exile to Siberia. Helena's parents and older sister were forced into hiding. But 16-year-old Helena stayed to get her diploma while working part-time in an office. She'd get up at 5 a.m. to wait in a food line, go to work and then to school until 9 p.m.
A year later her parents returned and the Weinstocks were reunited, though it would be short-lived. The Nazis marched back in and restrictions on Jews got harsher. One day, while Helena was at work, 300 Jewish families were rounded up--including her parents and older sister. Helena never saw them again.
It was her boss who became her savior, risking his life to get her counterfeit German papers. According to her new documents, she was a purebred Aryan woman, with a fiance fighting on the German front. With a new identity, she left for Krakow and the home of her boss's friends. To them, she was simply a pretty, young German girl. They even included her in a social event, where she found herself nervously dancing in the arms of a Nazi officer--a dance that would later save her life. But her German disguise didn't last long. Hurrying down a street one morning, she was recognized by a former classmate who turned her in to the Gestapo.
And so began a terrifying chapter. The Gestapo, desperate to know the source of her fake papers, beat and tortured her almost to death. But she didn't yield, and soon faced a firing squad. Fate intervened when the Nazi officer she had danced with recognized her on the firing line and halted...