At 21, Gena Turgel was marched into an Auschwitz gas chamber. She walked out alive.

“When I think back, I have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I’m really alive,” Gena Turgel told NBC News in 2015; 70 years after the British liberated her, and fellow prisoners in the German, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Born the youngest of nine children to Samuel and Estera Goldfinger in 1924, Poland, Gena Turgel’s story of survival is one of the most incredible from World War II, one you do almost have to pinch yourself to believe.

Gena was only 16 when her hometown of Krakow was bombed by the Nazis on September 1, 1939. Her family was herded into Krakow’s notorious, Jewish ghetto where two of her brothers lost their lives fighting the Nazis.

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A year later, Gena was sent with her sisters and mother to the first of the three concentration camps that she would ultimately survive, Plaszow. It was here she would face more heartache and loss, this time of her 17-year-old sister Miriam who was shot mercilessly by the Nazi’s for smuggling food into the camp.

Years later, Gena said she could still feel her sister’s ghost due to the constant chill she felt down her left side, the side her sister had always slept.

Gena spent two and a half years at Plaszow concentration camp until she was later marched to Auschwitz.

During her two-month imprisonment at Auschwitz, the then 21-year-old faced some of the most horrendous experiences imaginable, including medical testing by the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. The experimentation was also conducted on another of her Gena’s sisters, Hela. “They injected her with petrol, to draw out her blood,” she recalled.

But perhaps the most astonishing event from her time at Auschwitz was that the Angel of Death himself (Mengele), directed the naked Gena, along with hundreds of others into a gas chamber, toward certain death; yet she managed to walk out alive.

At the time Turgel had no idea that 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!”

“I completely lost my voice,” she said. “I just never realised I was in the gas chamber … it must not have worked.”

Not long after her life was accidentally spared by this act of fate, the Red Army approached Auschwitz. Gena and her mother were ordered to leave, being forced to leave her sister Hela behind.

“She was too sick to move,” Gena said.

Once they said goodbye to Hela and left the camp, they never saw her again.


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As Gena and her mother travelled to Bergen- Belsen concentration camp, on what is now known as the ‘Death March’, temperatures plummeted below -20c and many people suffered exposure and starvation. If anyone fell to the ground due to ill health, the Nazis would shoot them dead. Despite the horrific conditions, both Gena and her mother survived the 50km + walk, where an estimated 15,000 others lost their lives.

Although they had made their journey, there was no relief once they arrived at the camp. In fact, what Gena witnessed would stay with her forever.

“When I arrived in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, I saw heaps of bodies lying around. Not just one or two but mountains as high as a tree in the garden,” she told The Sun in 2015. “You could not distinguish if they were men or women – bones, skeletons, children’s bodies. You can’t possibly imagine the state of the place, it was horrendous.”

Although she wasn’t a nurse, Gena wanted to help others, so she began working in the site’s hospital. One of the patients Gena treated was Anne Frank, who was dying of typhus. “She was delirious, terrible, burning up. I gave her cold water to wash her down,” Turgel said, according to The Guardian. “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.”

Greta remained at the camp, alongside her mother until it was liberated by the British in 1945. It was then, that she showed a young army officer, Norman Turgel, around the makeshift hospital where she worked.

And with a deserving twist of fortune, within six months they were married. Gena wore a British Army parachute on their wedding day and became known as the ‘Bride of Belsen.’

In her later life Gena became outspoken about the Holocaust and her experiences, sharing them at schools to help educate children on the event, she also wrote a book ‘I Light a Candle.’ She was determined to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.

“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 says. “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.”

Of her family, only Gena and her mother survived the Second World War. Gena passed away in 2018, aged 95.

Upon news of her death, Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, told The Guardian. “Gena dedicated her life to sharing her testimony to hundreds of thousands in schools across the country. Her story was difficult to hear and difficult for her to tell, but no one who heard her speak will ever forget. A shining light has gone out today and will never be replaced.”

Shona Hendley, Mother of Goats, Cats and Humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education and is a passionate animal lover and advocate. You can follow her on Instagram. 

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