Agnes Helfman

"If you are lucky to have a family, be close to them and love them. They are the only rock you can rely on."

Name at birth
Agnus Kohen
Date of birth
Where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
Debrecen, Hungary
Name of father, occupation
Adolph Kohen, Livestock wholesaler, owned Butcher shops and had a farm
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Ilona Kohen, Homemaker
Immediate family (names, birth order)
Parents, me and one younger sister Marcia who was 3 1/2 years younger
How many in entire extended family?
I came from a large extended family. I had maternal grandparents, and my mother’s sister and her husband. They had a 5 year old girl. I also had an uncle who was 36 and newly married. On my father’s side, I had a grandfather and many aunts, uncles and cousins. My father was one of six children.
Who survived the Holocaust?
I was the only survivor from my immediate family. I know of an aunt, uncle and a fe cousins who survived from my father's side'
I had a nice, comfortable childhood growing up in an upper middle class family.  My mother had me at 23. She was a well-educated, ambitious woman who instilled a strong sense of the importance of learning in her daughters.  My father had only had a basic education, but provided well for our family with the livestock wholesaling business. I was an avid piano player from age 7.  I was also an accomplished dancer.  I recall dancing during a performance in front of the Opera house director.  He said to me “my child you have gold in your legs, it’s too bad you are Jewish!”  I belonged to a conservative synagogue, kept kosher, and attended a Jewish day school until age 14. I attended a public high school and had many non-Jewish friends.  At age 17, my hometown became a ghetto and I was forced to wear the yellow Star of David.
In June of 1944, I graduated high school and the principal said to me as we were walking in public, “cover up that star, I can’t believe I still have a Jew at my school!” The gates of the ghetto were opened at 7am and closed at 6pm.  Many families were escaping to other countries, but unfortunately mine did not.  Only days before my family was captured, my father and uncle discussed fleeing to Switzerland.  They decided to stay.  One day, the Hungarian patrolmen came to our home at 2:00 in the afternoon, and took all of our money and jewelry.  We were instructed to take basic essentials and go to an open field with tents. We were able to choose which transport to take unknowing of the various destinations.  Unfortunately, my family chose the last cattle car and traveled for two and a half days to Auschwitz. We arrived on July 1, 1944.
Dr. Mengele was standing in the front and pointed for me to go right, my mother and sister to go straight, and my father to go left.  I then had to undress, shower, get shaved, and was given only a black skirt and a green blouse. My barrack held eighty women.  We were woken at 5am and were given black coffee.  We stood in appel from 5:30am-7:00am to be counted. I was once told I was too weak and was instructed to go to another line to be killed.  I was able to sneak back into my original line without being caught in order to save my own life.  I wasn’t able to eat the black bread that was given to me.  I survived solely on the black coffee.    
At 18, I was sent to Buchenwald labor camp.  There were 1,000 prisoners there with fourteen to a room.  I worked in an ammunition factory making grenades from 6pm to 6am.  I became the supervisor in my division.  I was responsible for putting the correct amount of liquid in bombs.  I never did the proper amount because I hoped the ammunition would be defective. The night before liberation, I was sent on a death march all night long.  In March 1945, I became free. I was between Kassel and Mehburg, Germany        
Name of Ghetto(s)
Name of Concentration / Labor Camp(s)
Where did you go after being liberated?
Me and four other women stayed in a German farmer’s home for two weeks. A few weeks later I got a position with the American Red Cross making donuts and coffee. Then I went to Ansbach, Germany in June 1946 where I moved in with a German couple and lived with them for a year. The man was a Nazi but allowed me to live with them because I was paying rent. At 20 years old, I moved to Munich where I worked for a rabbi. I was aided by the UNNRA organization, which helped survivors financially, and also with finding relatives.
When did you come to the United States?
In July 1949 I came to New York. I was sponsored by some cousins in Arlington, VA
Where did you settle?
I lived in Virginia for two months and then moved to Detroit, Michigan
How is it that you came to Michigan?
I had a paternal aunt, Paula Fisch, who was in Detroit
Occupation after the war
I worked at Saunder's Bakery
When and where were you married?
On July 1, 1951 in Detroit. I was 24 years old.
Charles Helfman, Businessman
Ilona Helfman, Barbara Helfman VanEton, ultrasound technician Steven Helfman, businessman
What do you think helped you to survive?
My will. I always knew I would survive.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
If you are lucky to have a family, be close to them and love them. They are the only rock you can rely on.
Charles Silow
Interview date:

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