Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California
It was a moment of quick thinking on the part of 15-year-old Herbert Heller. He was at Auschwitz, standing before the man who would decide whether he lived or died, a man he was told went by the name of Dr. Mengele.
“I can work,” Heller said in German, and flexed what he now calls “nonexistent muscles.” He may have been scrawny, but it was enough, and he was sent not to the gas chamber but to the barracks of the camp.
Heller, 91, said that moment has never left him.
“I still wake up at night and see the black boots in front of me,” the San Rafael man said.
It wasn’t the first time Heller’s quick action and ability to speak German would save him during the horrifying years he spent during the Holocaust.
Heller was born in 1929 and grew up in Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, the son of an engineer, Karel, and his wife, Melanie. For the first 10 years of his life he lived like an average, urban Jewish boy. The family had an apartment in Prague and a series of cars. But the Germans invaded Prague when Heller was 10, at which point new restrictions — like the wearing of yellow stars — began to close in on everyday life. Then one day, there was a knock on the door of the apartment. Heller was 13.
“They introduced themselves that they were from the Gestapo and they were going to take us to the train station later,” he said. “They told us, ‘One small piece of luggage.’”
Their destination was Theresienstadt, the so-called “model camp,” about 40 miles from Prague, where the Nazis attempted to show how Jews were being interned in a humane way. It wasn’t so bad, Heller recalls. Though they were in barracks, his family — mother, father, Heller and his older brother, Heinz — were together. He got a job as a gardener’s apprentice and was able to bring tomatoes to his family. There were Jewish doctors in the camp who could treat the sick.
“We were able to stay together as a family,” he said. “Life was totally interrupted, but it was bearable.”
That strange life went on for two years. But then one day, in 1944, they were rounded up and put on trains, packed so tightly they could hardly breathe.
“When the doors slammed shut and you heard them nailed down, you just knew that the next stop was not going to be good,” he said.
Their destination was Auschwitz, where Heller and the others were forced off the train and lined up for selection. A Jewish inmate near Heller pointed to a faraway rooftop, saying, “You see that chimney over there? You’re going to be going before Dr. Mengele, and if he doesn’t think that you’re strong enough for some hard labor, that’s where you’re going to wind up.”
Said Heller: “That was the first time we had a little inkling that we may be put to death.”
But Heller’s adroit thinking saved him.
“We had to all undress naked and I was 15 years old, a skinny kid, and I went before Dr. Mengele, and I said in German, ‘Ich kann arbeiten,’ and I flexed muscles I didn’t have, and with that he pointed to the door on the right,” Heller said. “The door on the left would have led to the ‘shower.’”
Those selected for work lined up to be tattooed.
“The fellow that did the tattooing was a Polish Jew himself, and he just had a job,” Heller said. “My dad was in front of me and he was number A2108 and I was next. I was A2109.”
Heller was alive, but life at the death camp was unimaginably cruel and brutal. In an oral history Heller gave as part of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, he described the numbness that settled over him as he got used to the starvation and desperation around him. A hint of that is still in his voice today when he talks about Auschwitz.
“People starved to death, or [were] beaten to death. They were so sickly,” he said. “The place we stayed was surrounded by high electricity wires and sometimes some of our people were just so desperate and sick that they ran to touch it and they were electrocuted. They just wanted to end their life.”
He remembers in detail the hanging they were forced to witness, the cold they felt during winter, the lack of food and clothing, and the Nazi uniform colors — green for the Wehrmacht and black for the SS, who he said “were the cruelest. They’d just as soon kill you as do anything else.”
Heller was given a job as a runner for the first-aid station, which could only dispense aspirin and bandages. Any more serious problem had to be dealt with at the hospital, but the inmates knew that the Nazi doctors there, like Mengele, experimented on those admitted.
The next months were made bearable only by the fact that, although his mother and brother were in different barracks, Heller shared a bunk with his father, who kept his hope alive.
“My dad just gave me so much strength by telling me that the war will end, and we’ll go back to Prague, or we’ll go back to wherever, and we’ll have a car and life will be good again,” Heller said. “And I really wanted to believe it. When your father tells you things and you want to believe it, you believe it.”
But his father was shipped away eventually. Heller never found out where.
“That was scary,” he said simply. “One thing you lose right away is, if I did have any religion at all, or believe in something, I lost that. I certainly lost that. It was so hard for me to believe what was going on.”
To this day Heller does not know where his father and brother were taken, only that they never returned.
Heller was still at Auschwitz in 1945 when the Germans, on the verge of losing the war, marched the remaining inmates out of the camp, away from Soviet troops that were approaching. An estimated 15,000 prisoners died along the way. Heller recalls people falling in the snow.
“There’s just so many of us that are not able to walk anymore, and those were put on the side of the road and then the trucks would come and [they] threw them on the truck and then we would never see those anymore,” he said. “They were shot somewhere.”
But the chaos offered Heller a chance.
“Something caught my eye on the left side of the road. Something was sticking out of the snow that was black,” he said. “As I got closer to it, it was a rucksack.”
Again his quick thinking saved him. He grabbed the backpack, which proved to have a set of winter clothes — pants, a jacket, gloves. Heller was still wearing his striped uniform from the camp, and he saw his chance. The marchers were counted regularly, but with so many prisoners dying it was harder for the Nazis to keep track of how many there were. That evening, when they stopped, Heller put the found clothes on top of his camp uniform and ran off, making his way to a nearby train station, which was full of Germans, including civilians fleeing the oncoming troops.
“When I got close to the train station, to the train, I started calling out in German, ‘Mutti, mutti, wo bist du?’ — Mother, mother, where are you? — and acted like I was one of the Germans who was going on the train with a family,” he said.
No one noticed him.
“I got on the train and sat down, eyes forward, and didn’t move,” he said. “And then the SS were coming through the cars with their big dogs, those German shepherds.”
But he wasn’t detected, and he managed to make his way to Prague, where he sought out a Catholic woman and her family; they had been friends of his family.
“They burnt the striped pajamas and she put me to bed and I think I slept for two days,” he recalled.
It was a respite and a moment of safety, but Heller knew sheltering a Jew was a death sentence and he wanted to protect the family. And with his Auschwitz tattoo, he was literally marked.
“I wanted to get rid of it, because my worry was that if the Germans ever barged in, they would shoot the whole family,” he said.
So he removed it by holding a rag soaked with cleaning acid to his arm until the tattoo was burned away. He still has the scar.
Vivian Cohen, Heller’s daughter, knew all about that scar — or so she thought.
“Dad told us he had burned himself … in a water-heater accident,” she said. “So every time I walked by my water heater in the garage, I was like, ooh.”
Only in 2004 did she learn the truth about the scar, and everything else that had happened, from an oral history Heller did that year.
“It was hard,” Cohen said. “My sisters and I watched it separately and I had to stop it a few times, thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God.’”
Before that, Cohen had known only about her father’s life in the United States after World War II. He came with his mother, who had also survived the Holocaust. They were reunited in Prague, the only ones left of their small family.
“I didn’t know how to cry anymore, but I cried,” Heller said, remembering the day he saw her again.
The two left together for America in 1946. His mother’s aunt lived in San Francisco and sponsored them. Heller was 17. He spoke almost no English and had only a fifth-grade education. He quickly remedied that by going to night school and getting a job as a stock boy at Woolworth, then at Macy’s, where he worked his way up. One proud moment was receiving his citizenship in 1952. Another was when he married his wife, Annette, in 1956. (She died two months ago.)
In 1958 he opened his own business in San Rafael: Heller’s for Children, which was a resource for generations of Marin parents looking for toys and gear. For almost 50 years, he ran a thriving business and raised a family (Heller’s daughter Linda took over the store in 2006; it closed in 2011).
“I always tell [people] how rich I am,” he said. “I had a wife, three daughters, 10 grandkids and a dog.”
It was a long time before Heller was willing to talk about his past.
“I never wanted to talk about it because I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me,” he said. “That’s the real true story. I didn’t say why, but that was the reason.”
He didn’t tell his children he was doing the oral history, either. But once his daughters knew the story, they encouraged him to open up more, and soon he began to speak at schools, clubs and organizations around the Bay Area. Cohen has accompanied him to many events, where children hear about his life and ask him questions about his experiences.
He remembers one young woman, who after hearing his story asked him if he was sorry that he had been born Jewish.
“I said, ‘Not really,’” Heller said. “What I’m really sorry about is that Hitler was born.”