Survivor STORY

Erika Komisarow was born Erika Helfgott in Berlin on August 16, 1925. In 1933, her father was arrested, so the family moved to Paris, a city which saw a large influx of German Jews. Erika attended a Jewish school there and learned to speak French fluently, a skill that would later help her blend in while she was in hiding.

When the Germans entered Paris in May of 1940, the family was reluctant to leave and continued life in Paris until 1942, when Erika and her sister, separated from their mother, tried to cross the border into Vichy France to join their father. Though the Germans captured the group at the border, Erika's fluent French and false identity papers helped her and her sister escape the situation. Soon after, they attempted to cross the border again, this time with a smaller group of only four people, and succeeded in reaching their father's residence.

But their trials were far from over. In late 1942, her father was arrested and the family never saw him again. Erika later learned that he was deported to Auschwitz, where he died in August 1944. After his capture, the two sisters confided in the archbishop at Manteauban on Yom Kippur of 1943, because they did not know how to keep the holiday. This generous man took the girls into his convent and hid them there throughout the rest of the war years.

Upon liberation in 1944, Erika and her sister held several domestic jobs with help from La Sixieme, an organization that provided jobs for Jewish people during and after the war. The sisters returned to the family's old apartment in Paris in 1945, where Erika worked first with the Signet Corps and then with the OSE, a French organization for children, as a case secretary.

The sisters moved to New York City in 1953, where Erika met and married her husband, and had two children, Marc and Gene. After living in Fort Wayne, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida, the family made its final move to Atlanta in 1966, where Erika worked with Atlanta Family Restaurant, the company that owns the majority of Shoney's restaurants in Georgia.

Remembering and Legacy

And then I applied for a job at OSE, Oevre de Secours aux Enfants, which is a child organization, and they had, and they gave me a job. I went because I was, at that time I was a girl scout and I thought I could help with the children. They were expecting a train from Buchenwald, so I went to Ecquis, where they had a sanitarium, took over a sanitarium. They said, "What we need is do secretarial work." So I took case histories of all those kids. There were four hundred and some odd. You know, it got to a point that if I knew where they came from I could write their stories without them telling me, because it was so much the same thing. So I took the case history of all those kids.

The first time I started thinking really about it is, I went to my grandchildren's school for lunch, with the grandchildren. And I, you know, everybody says, "What's your accent? Where are you coming from?" and all this. And I was telling some of the stuff to the principal and the teachers, and she says, "Would you mind coming and telling the children about it?" And I said, "No, I'd be delighted." And I went, and I went to my grandchildren's school and I talked to the kids. And they wanted to know, did I see Schindler's List? And I said, "No, and I have no intention of seeing it." It's the same thing with Sophie's Choice. There are certain things I will not see. I can't hack it. When I, in '45 and '46, there were a lot of movies about what happened, and I used to see them all, and I come out with eyes that were red and swollen from crying so much. So now, I get older, I decide, life is so short, it's too bad, I don't want to see it.

I don't know if they're learning. They're learning about what happened, but you cannot talk to those kids, telling them it should never happen again because they wouldn't understand it. You know, you don't want it to happen, "Never Again," you know, but the children don't have any idea. They have no conception of what it was like. You know, you see a movie about it and you say, "Oh, too bad", but it doesn't, if you don't go through it, you don't know.

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Erika Helfgott Komisarow