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December 6, 2016 by

Holocaust Survivor Helena Weinrauch on Trauma and the Joy of Dancing

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Helena Weinrauch. Photo courtesy of Karen Goldfarb.

When Helena Weinrauch was 88 years old, she found a promotional flyer from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in her mailbox. The leaflet promised a free lesson followed by a party.

Four years later, Weinrauch has become a Dancing Angel, a title given to her by the Manhattan Ballroom Society, and currently spends five hours a week doing the Fox Trot, Merengue, Samba and Tango.  

“When I dance I forget everything that bothers me,” she told Lilith reporter Eleanor J. Bader. “My fear disappears. There was never time in my life for dancing before this. There were always more important things to do, but before I say goodbye to this world I want to do something I always dreamed of doing. I think I’ve earned it.”

Over the course of more than two hours, Weinrauch describes key events in her life: The Nazi’s murder of her parents, sister, and 16 other relatives; her own internment in three different concentration camps; the long process of post-war renewal; and, in the mid-1990s, the death of her only child. “My life has been sadness, suffering, and loss,” she says.

This pronouncement is delivered as fact, with neither tears nor fury. Each word is delivered calmly, the tone measured. Nonetheless, Weinrauch seems aware of the impact she’s having.

It’s unsettling.

“Looking at me, you probably see a cheerful, loving, outgoing, well-adjusted person,” she shrugs. “I can’t tell you what a struggle it’s been not to give in to post-traumatic stress and guilt. To be a survivor is, of course, fate. I do not attribute it to some heroic action or deed that I undertook. I always had—and still have—a very strong will to live. I never give up.”

This intrepid spirit was captured in a 2015 documentary film, FASCINATION: Helena’s Story, directed by Karen Goldfarb. 

Weinrauch spoke to Bader in the living room of the Manhattan apartment she has lived in for 55 years. Spry, charming, and charismatic, she bounced between numerous topics and eagerly shared her incredible personal history.

Eleanor J. Bader: In FASCINATION, you say that nature and music helped you heal. Can you say more about both?

Helena Weinrauch:  My mother was a concert pianist before the war, so I was grew up surrounded by music. When I was a child, she told me that when she was pregnant, whenever there was music playing, I’d go crazy in her stomach. She also told me that I danced before I walked. As I got older, I could sing anything I heard on the radio, and as a four-year-old I could pound out simple melodies on the piano.

Even after I was taken to a concentration camp at age 17, I sang. I knew songs in German, Polish and Russian, and I would sing them despite the fact that it wasn’t allowed. One night a Nazi officer came into our sleeping quarters and heard me. It was past curfew, but he requested that I sing three songs. I did. From then on, every night he’d come to listen. Eventually, he told me that he was leaving the next day and cautioned me that his replacement might not like music. He told me to stop singing.  But he thanked me for singing his wife’s favorite songs and, before he left, he gave me a piece of soap and some bread and sausage. There were not many moments like that.

After three years in the camps, I was liberated on April 15, 1945. I was 20 years old and weighed 60 pounds. I could not walk and had been pulled from a pile of corpses after a British soldier noticed that I was still warm. After a few months in a hospital in Germany, the American Red Cross arrived and I ended up being transported to another hospital, this one in Sweden. I had wanted to go to Argentina, where I had an aunt, but Argentina refused to allow Jews to come in, so I could not get to her.

I spent six months in a Swedish Hospital and another six months in a convalescent facility.  It took a full year to restore my body, but it took much longer to restore my psyche. I did not trust people. I could not communicate. I was petrified, traumatized. I could not relate to anyone.

Instead of talking, I spent hours and hours staring out the window of my hospital room. I could see a beautiful lake as well as a garden. I watched the birds. I would also get wheeled into the music room where I listened to other people play the piano. When no one else was around I’d try to sing a little. Slowly, nature and music helped me return to the world. The Swedish people who cared for me restored my faith in humanity. They were kind, patient, and caring.

EJB: Did you think about staying in Sweden permanently?

HW: When I finally began to feel better, I wanted to repay the hospital staff for healing me. I told them that I wanted to volunteer and said I’d scrub the floors, feed, or wash the patients; basically I’d do whatever they needed. All they had to do was give me room and board. They were terribly understaffed so were happy to have my help. I did this for a few months and also took classes to prepare myself for a career in nursing. Meanwhile, my aunt in Argentina had found my mother’s stepbrother. He was working in Washington, DC and living in New York. He sent me an affidavit of sponsorship and on October 14, 1947, I travelled to America.  

EJB: Did you plan to stay in the US?

HW: No. Before I left, I was engaged to a Swedish boy who was studying to be an engineer; I was studying to be a nurse.  When I found out about my step-uncle, who was just four years older than me, I felt that I had finally found some family. My fiancé encouraged me to go to the US and get to know him. Little did I know I would stay.

EJB: Was that because you liked New York?

HW: New York City was the biggest disappointment you can imagine. My step-uncle’s wife was just four years older than me, but she already had two kids, a five-year-old and a newborn. They lived in a small apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. I did not speak any English and when my uncle would come to New York on weekends, he’d barely say a word to me. I cried myself to sleep every night. I wanted to swim back to Sweden. I felt like I was in the way, sleeping on the sofa, always underfoot.  I was ashamed, and after three weeks I finally said, “I know I’m a burden.” My aunt told me I needed to get a job, and she found work for me taking care of a newborn. I lived with a family that had three children; seven, three, and an infant. Even though I was only supposed to care for the baby, the three-year-old attached himself to me. I agreed to stay on the job on the condition that I could attend night school. That was the beginning of US life for me.

EJB: Did you become a nurse?

HW: No. By coincidence I met a Polish dentist who taught me dentistry, and I became a dental assistant. I’d already had a few other jobs—as a baby caretaker, fashion model, and receptionist. Unfortunately, I did not like dental work and the dentist later introduced me to Dr. Kurt Lange, a cardiologist and nephrologist, and I worked as his assistant for 30 years. I learned a great deal about medicine and medical research from him.   

EJB: Is this how you met your husband?

HW: No. My husband was also traumatized by the war, but his story was different. When he was 17 his parents sent him to safety outside of Germany, but they were unable to leave the country with him. Eventually, they fled to France and were ultimately interned in Africa.  When he discovered that his parents had survived the war, he dropped out of college and brought them from Africa to the United States. He became a travel agent thanks to a cousin. We got married in 1951 and met when he came into a fur business where I was the receptionist.

EJB:  You had one daughter?

HW: Yes. Our daughter was born in August 1953 and died from breast cancer more than 20 years ago. I have to say, of all the horrific things that happened to me—losing my parents and sister, being interned in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, spending a year in a hospital and rehab facility—nothing can compare to losing a child. I gave her the best and most unconventional upbringing I could and tried to prepare her for life, for being an independent woman. She did fabulously well until she became ill.

EJB: It’s hard to imagine finding joy after such a monumental loss. Can you talk about the role dance plays in your life?

HW: After I got the invitation from Fred Astaire Studios, I went to one of their dance centers on 72nd Street. I opened the door and the people weren’t half my age, they were a quarter of my age. I started to walk out but a young man followed me and said, “Madame, where are you going? You just arrived.” I told him that I didn’t belong, that this was obviously for young people.  He told me that he was one of the teachers and had a student who was 90. He then suggested that I sit and watch.  I sat down with him, and when I heard the music, right away my feet started to move. He took my hand and asked me to dance. It was a fox trot and I danced. “You’re a natural,” he told me. He then put on a rumba and, once again, I followed him. He told me he wasn’t trying to flatter me, but wanted to acknowledge that I clearly had music in my body. Right away I was hooked. When I’m on the dance floor, I’m a house on fire.  People stand and watch me, and I feel wonderful.

EJB: Tell me about some of your other activities.

HW: Once a week I read to a partially blind man, and every year I go to Corning, New York, and speak to students at all the schools there about my experience during the Holocaust. I tell the students the same thing I told my daughter as she was growing up: The one thing I expect of you is tolerance. There is no room for bigotry, prejudice, or hate because someone is a different race or religion. I’ve been doing these talks for years and have received more than 600 letters from students who tell me that I opened their minds to what’s important in life. They call me a role model.

EJB: I guess this means you’re not a fan of Donald Trump!

HW: I don’t like what the man stands for, closing borders and discriminating against Mexicans and other immigrants. It makes me sick to my stomach to hear his ideas; his appointments scare me.

Look, I’m at the end of my life. I’m 92-and-a-half and am realistic enough to know that that things can change any day, but I’m not yet ready to face this inevitability. At this point there are three things that keep me going: Germany’s ongoing education programs to make sure everyone knows how the Holocaust happened and what it inflicted; speaking to school children about tolerance and respect; and dancing.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.


  • Jack Arnow

    Great interview and inspiring story.

  • Elizabeth Roe

    I love this woman. She is one of my closest friends. My daughter and I (and my fiance) have adopted her. At our wedding, she will be an honored guest. She is an inspiration.
    Elizabeth Roe