Holocaust survivor Gena Turgel, born Gena Goldfinger in Krákow in 1923, died on June 7 at the age of 95. Turgel — known for her lifelong commitment to Holocaust education — treated Anne Frank in the hospital of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Her survival story is remarkable: Along with her mother and four siblings, Turgel was forced into the Krákow ghetto in 1941. She first sent to the Płaszów labor camp, then forced to walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. Turgel was then was marched to Buchenwald and, from there, taken by train to Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
Turgel worked in the hospital at Bergen-Belsen, where she nursed 15-year-old Anne Frank — who would have turned 89 today, June 12. Turgel remembers the young writer, who was dying of typhus: “She was delirious, terrible, burning up. I gave her cold water to wash her down. We did not know she was special, but she was a lovely girl. I can still see her lying there with her face, which was so red as she had a breakout. And then she died.”
As one profile of Turgel noted, “she survived the gas chambers when the mechanism broke and she later said this narrow escape convinced her she had a duty to bear witness to the Holocaust by speaking to schoolchildren about it.”
Notably, Turgel married one of Bergen-Belsen’s liberators, a British soldier named Norman Turgel. For this, she was known as the “Bride of Belsen.” As she wrote for the Holocaust Educational Trust blog,
On the second day of liberation I met an army sergeant who had come to the hospital to search for SS soldiers. His name was Norman, and, as he spoke German, we conversed together. I think he liked my way of speaking. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I’d been working as a nurse. I liked him and was impressed when he told me about his work trying to track down the Nazis and to see justice done.
Her wedding dress, made of British parachute silk, is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London. They were married by Rabbi Leslie Hardman, the first British Army Chaplain to enter Bergen-Belsen. Their wedding took place in Lübeck, Germany at a synagogue that the Nazis used as a horse stable. Rabbi Hardman called their wedding “a symbol of hope after so much death.”
Turgel dedicated her life to Holocaust education. As she said: “I witnessed the mass systematic destruction of civilization. It’s very painful, but it’s my duty to tell this story. We must build bridges, regardless of religion or color, to aim for peace.”
She published an autobiography in 1987, I Light a Candle, and she continued to tell her story. For her work, she was warded the MBE — Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — by the Queen in 2011.
Watch: “I beg you – don’t forget those who are less fortunate than yourselves”.
Please find a few minutes to listen to the moving words of Gena Turgel z”l, a truly remarkable Holocaust Survivor who sadly passed away last night. Her legacy is our responsibility now. pic.twitter.com/4hZBEKYSoO
— Chief Rabbi Mirvis (@chiefrabbi) June 8, 2018
Turgel is survived by her three children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. May her memory be a blessing.