While thousands died in the dehumanizing concentration camps established by Germany’s Third Reich, Gena Turgel defied the odds by surviving not only three separate Nazi camps, including the notorious Auschwitz-Birkeanau camp in Poland, but also the deadly gas chambers themselves.
“When I think back, I have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I’m really alive,” Turgel, 90-years-old, told NBC News.
During her time at Auschwitz, she was one of the prisoners herded into the gas chambers along with hundreds of others to be killed en masse. Miraculously, Turgel, then, came out of the chambers alive and unaware of what she’d gone through.
She had no idea the Nazis had tried to kill her until a woman she knew said, “Don’t you know what has just happened to you? You were in the gas chamber!”
Turgel still looks amazed to have cheated death.
“I completely lost my voice,” she said. “I just never realized I was in the gas chamber … it must not have worked.”
Turgel was 16 when her hometown of Krakow, Poland was bombed from above by the Nazi Luftwaffe in 1939. Her family had been trying to move to Chicago to be with other relatives, but they became trapped in the nation’s Jewish ghettos when Poland was sealed by the Nazis.
Two of her brothers were killed fighting Nazis before her family was separated and she wound up in Plaszov concentration camp. Her 17-year-old sister Miriam slept on her left side, but she was shot by a guard for smuggling food into Plaszov. Today, Turgel says she still feels a chill on her left arm from her sister’s absence.
She lived there for two-and-a-half years before being marched to Auschwitz. While there she not only endured the gas chambers but also medical testing by the notoriously brutal Dr. Josef Mengele.
As the Nazi regime was put on the defensive by the Soviet army, Turgel participated in the “death march” from Auschwitz, first to Buchenwald and then to Belsen, where she shared a barracks with a sickly Dutch teenager named Anne Frank — yes, that Anne Frank.
After the Third Reich fell, she met Norman Turgel, a British soldier among those liberating the prisoners of Belsen. She showed him around the rudimentary hospital where she treated other prisoners. Six months later the two were married.
Sixty years removed from the painful ordeal, Turgel can’t quite escape the haunting past, nor does she totally want to.
“I wear a lot of perfume,” she said. “The stench of the camps will always stay with me and I try to block it out.”
Turgel has revisited Auschwitz twice with her grandsons and consistently speaks about her experiences. She hopes to enforce the message that discrimination against Jews is not only a matter of history but an enduring issue that must be fought against.
“Those people were real. They were mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, doctors and teachers, poets, wonderful people. Composers. And now they scream in silence,” she said. “My story is only one story, but it is the story six million others cannot tell. I was, and always shall be, the witness to … mass murder.”