The moment when British troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp would be forever stamped on Gena Turgel’s memory.
It was 3:15 p.m. on April 15, 1945. An announcement blared through the loudspeakers in several languages, telling all of the Nazis in the camp to lay down their weapons and report to the headquarters, Turgel recounted in April.
After being forced from one Nazi camp to another, after grieving the killings of family members and witnessing the deaths of scores of others, “we felt free,” Turgel said. Three days later, a British sergeant who helped liberate Turgel’s camp would ask her to marry him. Their wedding officiant, a rabbi with the British Army, called the marriage a “symbol of hope after so much death.”
In the decades that followed, Turgel would learn English, write a gripping memoir and share her memories of the Holocaust with thousands of schools. Turgel died last week at age 95, Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said on Twitter on Friday, calling her “remarkable.”
“Her legacy is our responsibility now,” Mirvis said.
Turgel is survived by her three children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“My story is the story of one survivor,” she said at a Holocaust commemoration event in April. “It is also the story of 6 million who perished. And maybe that is why I was spared, so my testimony would stand as a memorial, like the candle I light for the men and women who have no voice.”
Turgel, who survived the Nazi camps at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, also took care of Anne Frank as the teenage girl was dying from typhus, Turgel once recalled to the BBC.
“I washed her face, gave her water to drink, and I can still see that face, her hair and how she looked,” Turgel once told the BBC.
British media would give her the nickname “the bride of Belsen” for her marriage to the British sergeant, Norman Turgel.
The youngest of nine children, Gena Turgel was 16 when the Germans invaded her home city in Poland in September 1939. “They came very well prepared,” with lists of the most affluent Jewish families in the country, Turgel said in April. Nazis came to her family’s home, demanding that her brother hand over the keys to his business.
In 1941, Turgel was forced into the ghetto in Krakow along with her mother and four of her siblings. One of her brothers was shot and killed in the ghetto, and another brother escaped, never to be seen again. One of Turgel’s sisters was shot and killed while trying to smuggle food into the Plaszow labor camp, according to the Holocaust Educational Trust. Then, in December 1944, Turgel and her remaining family members were forced to walk on a “death march” to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“The temperature was about 20 degrees below freezing,” Turgel wrote. “I had to go exactly as I was, the clothes I was standing in: dress, coat, boots, a thin pair of knickers and stockings. The snow was deep and thick. … Sometimes we were made to walk overnight. We kept wondering: ‘When will it end? How much further?’ ”
Arriving at Auschwitz after about three or four weeks of travel, Turgel and her relatives were divided into groups and sent into what they thought was a shower room.
“There must have been about a hundred of us squashed into the stone-walled room, with no windows and narrow openings in the ceiling,” Turgel wrote. “We stood there for an hour or so, and nothing happened. The waiting seemed endless. Nobody spoke.”
When they emerged from the room, a group of women embraced them, elated. “Don’t you know where you’ve been? You’ve been in a gas chamber,” they said, Turgel recounted in April. Turgel did not know why her group was not gassed but said she believed that “God must have saved my life and so many others with me.”
In Bergen-Belsen, Turgel, then 22, landed a job as a nurse in a hospital. In this hospital, she says, she cared for Anne Frank as she was dying from typhus.
When the British troops liberated the camp, one sergeant became “very interested” in Turgel. He invited her to a dinner outside the camp, where Turgel arrived to see decorated tables and white tablecloths.
“Do we expect any special visitors?” Turgel told Shalom TV. “You are the special visitor,” he responded to her. “This is our engagement party.” Norman Turgel had made up his mind that he was going to marry her. She eventually agreed, and they wed months later. Her wedding dress, made of parachute silk, is on display at London’s Imperial War Museum.
After their wedding, the couple moved to London, where Gena Turgel established three goals: to learn English, to learn the British way of life and to write her memories so she would not forget them, she said in the Holocaust remembrance speech in April.
“But how can we forget?” she said.
Those who knew Turgel posted tributes to her over the weekend. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, tweeted that he was “saddened to learn of the passing of Gena Turgel.” He said he was “deeply moved by her contribution and inspired by her lifelong commitment to educating people about the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, tweeted that the news had not “really sunk in yet.”
“Our beautiful, iconic and unique Gena Turgel, whose testimony touched so many lives, passed away,” she tweeted. “We celebrated her 95th birthday just 3 months ago.”
“The Gena Turgel we knew was the most beautiful, elegant and poised lady. Her strength, determination and resilience were unwavering, her powerful and wise words an inspiration,” Pollock said in a statement. “Her story was difficult to hear — and difficult for her to tell, but no one who heard her speak will ever forget.”
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