In 1993, I purchased a beautiful little Scandinavian tudor in an artsy urban neighborhood of my city. Just to the north of us lived Helga Bessac. Helga was already 86, frail, and needed a walker to get around. She had no family that we knew of and her only visitor was a slightly younger older lady that would periodically come over to help her.
After living in my house for a short while, I naturally wanted to check in on her to make sure that she was okay and see if there was anything we could do for her. Helga had a thick German Yiddish accent, was reserved, but still very bright and a pleasure to speak with. She greatly appreciated that I took an interest in her and our relationship slowly grew.
I became more curious about her life and her history. However, when I asked, she would only talk about her life in the United States. She talked with pride about being a nurse in the city hospital and still clearly loved her husband, who had now been gone for nearly 25 years. Pictures of her husband, now yellowing in old frames, were placed around her house.
One day I noticed a set of numbers on her forearm. Deeply shocked and disturbed, I suddenly realized very directly her reason for not wanting to talk about her time in Germany. I wondered deeply what had happened and what she had experienced.
We lived next to each other for six years. Every spring, beautiful pink peonies would bloom right on the property line between our front yards. Each year, Helga would encourage us to clip some of them for our kitchen table. So we would clip some to place in a vase in our kitchen and then we would clip some more for her kitchen. She always appreciated it.
One day, she made the comment that those peonies had been there since 1950. Surprised, I asked if she had planted them and she told me that she and her husband (my memory says “Frank”) had planted them when her husband “had finally joined her in the United States”. I was quite surprised by this and asked her when he had arrived. Though I am getting fuzzy on the details, I recall that he arrived in the US about three years later than her. Strangely, she had actually first landed in California and then had made her way to the Midwest. If you are coming from Germany, why on earth do you go to California first?
This question of Helga’s history was personal for me too. In the summer of 1992, just a year before we had moved in next to Helga, I was living in Gdansk, Poland, working in a summer internship for a private consulting firm. I had gotten to know some of my young consulting colleagues and had learned some of the personal stories of their, their parents’ and grandparents’ tragedy in World War II and its aftermath. I told Helga about this experience and this created a stronger bond and more trust between us.
One day, I told Helga that I really wanted to know more. I told her that I understood if there were things that she just couldn’t talk about, but asked her if she would tell me what she could. She said that there were some things that she could never tell me, but that she would think about it.
Bits and pieces of the story started to come out. She and her husband realized that things were gong very badly in Germany. Jews were disappearing and they realized that they needed to get out. Helga and her husband talked to her parents and her siblings, but they all said that things would get better and that they were going to stay. Helga’s husband, Frank, knew some German officials and used all of their life savings to bribe them, so that they could get on a refugee ship. Helga became very very quiet at this stage in the story and I suspect there is far more that occurred here.
As they arrived to get on the refugee ship, the Germans separated Frank from Helga, allowing only Helga to get on the ship. Helga protested and demanded to go back with Frank, but he would not allow. I do not know what happened to Frank in the following years, only that he survived and made his way to join her many years later. Helga never again saw any of her siblings or her parents, all of whom disappeared.
The refugee ship departed and traveled all the way around the west coast of Europe (where they could not stop during war). It then made its way to the major port cities of Western Africa, stopping in each port. At each port, the Jewish refugees were denied admittance and the ship was sent on its way. It went down the coast of Africa, to South Africa, into the Indian Ocean, to all the major ports of Southeast Asia. At every port, they were denied. Finally, they were accepted in Shanghai, China. Refugees from the ship were forced to live in large tent city refugee camps. Here, Helga, alone without her husband, her siblings or her parents, served as a nurse and took care of the other refugees in the camp for two full years. I figure that she was probably in this camp somewhere in the range 1945-1948.
I don’t know how the camps came to a close, but somehow Helga was allowed to emigrate from Shanghai to the United States, arriving via ship in California, and then arriving in my city shortly thereafter. As a well qualified nurse, she quickly landed a job in one of the hospitals and served faithfully there for the next 30 to 35 years. As mentioned previously, her husband Frank, arrived a few years later, but was never the same and died at a young age.
Helga always had a bright, engaging personality. As a younger healthy woman, I can just see her joyfully and unselfishly taking care of the patients in the hospital. I’m sure her patients, and probably even her co-workers, never knew what she had experienced and endured.
In 1999, we bought a new house in a different part of the city. Helga was getting progressively more ill and she encouraged me to take some of her peonies to our new house. Shortly thereafter, she passed away. She had outlived most of her friends and had no family, so there was a small crowd at her burial at the tiny little Jewish cemetery where she is buried.
Each year, Helga’s peonies are now blooming in my back yard as you can see in the picture. Tonight, I will cut some and take them to her grave.