Welek (William) Wolf Luksenburg was born on February 1, 1923, in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland. His father, Simcha (Simon David), was a wholesale meat merchant, born in Poland in 1896. His mother, Rozalia Feiner, was born in Sosnowiec in 1901. His brother Szlomo was born in 1917. The family was Orthodox and active in Zionist organizations. Szlomo trained to be a dentist. Welek attended a public school, where he was berated by teachers for being a Jew, beaten by classmates, and taunted with antisemitic slurs, such as "Christ killer."
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Welek watched German soldiers march into town, smiling and passing out candy. The Germans imposed a curfew that night. A young man out after curfew was told to halt by a soldier. He kept going and was machine gunned in front of the Luksenburg house. Welek was among those ordered to remove the body. Restrictions were imposed: Jews had to register, wear Star of David armbands, and give up radios and valuables. In 1941, the ghetto was established and three families moved in with the Luksenburgs. Szlomo was sent to a work camp in Germany to provide dental services to the SS. Welek worked in a factory making supplies for the German Army. He had a blue card for those working for the war effort which kept him from being arrested. Food was scarce.
In August 1942, all Jews had to register at the sports arena. Rozalia and Simcha were taken away. Rozalia sent a note to Welek telling him where she had hidden some valuables. Welek found a job in Sosnowiec where his German boss sometimes let him sleep in the factory. He also would take Welek home for dinner and Mrs. Sinberg in the factory kitchen also fed him and let him sleep on the floor in her home.
Szlomo broke his leg and was sent to a Jewish hospital. The hospital was emptied weekly and the patients sent to Auschwitz. Welek retrieved the family valuables and exchanged them for Szlomo. The brothers returned to Dabrowa. One night when Welek went out for supplies, he was arrested and sent to Sosnowiec. He escaped and hid at an uncle’s house, but soon the family feared for their safety and asked him to leave. He returned home and soon Welek was re-arrested and Szlomo was deported. In early 1943, Welek was transported in chains to Blechhammer labor camp, an Auschwitz subcamp. Upon arrival, he was beaten, stripped, and kept standing in a room for days without food, water, or facilities.
On March 2, 1943, Welek was transferred to Gleiwitz, a slave labor camp in Poland, to help build a carbon factory for Deutsche Gasrusswerke. After his first 12 hour day digging ditches, his hands were badly blistered and he knew he could not work the next day. He saw a friend of Szlomo’s, Lola, who worked in the office. She falsified documents to admit Welek to the sick room. After his release, he drove a steamroller. It had no steering and he crashed it and was beaten. On May 3, 1944, Gleiwitz became a concentration camp, an Auschwitz subcamp. Welek was stripped and tattooed with number 187295, issued wooden shoes, and a new uniform. He worked as a welder and his German boss would leave his uneaten lunch for him. He next worked as a scale mechanic. One night, Welek saw a truckload of potatoes being unloaded into a cellar. He made a key to open the padlocked door and, for the next few nights, Welek and friends stole potatoes. The Germans noticed the pile shrinking and posted a guard. Welek was caught, whipped twenty-five times, and his teeth fell out.
At one point, the women’s latrine was closed and he met Hinde (Helen) Chilewicz, when she walked in while he was washing his pants. They actually had met as children in Dabrowa Dobricza, but Welek did not remember. They talked through the fence between the men's and woman's barracks and wrote letters. Welek read reports that Germany was losing the war in discarded newspaper scraps and felt that he would not live through it. But he told Hinde that they would survive and he would marry her. On January 19, 1945, the camp was evacuated. The first night, they stopped at a barn and Welek found Hinde. They marched for three more days then boarded an open train car. The train passed through war torn Berlin and Welek realized Germany was losing the war. They arrived at Oranienburg, where the men were unloaded. The women’s transport continued to Pomerania. Welek became very ill soon after, but a friend helped him recover.
In mid-February 1945, Welek was transferred to Flossenbürg. He hauled stone filled wagons in the quarry and his ribs broke when he was crushed between two wagons. He went to the sick barracks and while he was undressed for the examination his shoes were stolen. He knew that he would die if he left barefoot, so he stole shoes from a Soviet prisoner which he smeared with grease to disguise them. After two or three weeks, Welek learned of a transport to Regensburg. It was only for the strongest inmates and Welek was one of the weakest. He feigned good health by puffing out his cheeks and wearing extra layers. In March 1945, Welek was sent to Regensburg, where everyone was covered with lice and slept on the floor. He worked at the train station which was bombed daily by the Allies, and was half buried by one blast. After a few weeks, the prisoners were forced on a march. Welek collapsed and fell on the road, waiting for the shot that did not come. The next morning, a farmer found him in the snow, took Welek to his barn, and gave him milk, and bread and butter. Neighbors came by to gawk at him, and some were moved to tears. He next day, as the American 6th Army moved through the area, soldiers came to the barn and he was freed. The first thing they did was spray him with DDT and he was finally rid of the constant burning of his skin caused by the lice. Welek weighed 65 pounds and was put in an American camp hospital to recover.
When released, he worked cleaning soldier’s barracks. He took leftover food and coffee grounds to barter with local Germans. He acquired a motorcycle and returned to the barn to retrieve his jacket. Months later, a cousin arrived in camp and he went to his uncle’s in Bayreuth. He learned that his parents were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 3, 1942, and his brother in 1943. Welek heard that Hinde was alive. They reunited in October and went to a refugee camp in Germany. William and Helen married in the DP camp in Weiden in der Oberpfalz on March 2, 1947. Assisted by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, William attended a technical school organized by the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training. After passage of the Displaced Persons Act, the couple emigrated to the US in September 1949. William became a mechanic with his own business. The couple had three children. William and Helen were dedicated to Holocaust education and shared their personal experiences with countless groups. William did so to honor his heritage and his parents, so that they did not die in vain. The jacket he received in Oranienburg was one of the first articles of clothing donated to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He had been told to bury it when rescued to avoid the spread of infection. After his recovery, he retrieved it because he wanted evidence to show people what had happened during the Holocaust. As William has said: “It is important to know what one human being can do to another. This is not just a Jewish story.” William, age 90, died on January 29, 2014.
Hinde Chilewicz (later Helen Luksenburg) was born on April 4, 1926, in Sosnowiec, Poland, to Chaim and Chana Chilewicz. Her father owned a textile mill. She had a younger sister, Bluma, and an older brother Abraham (Mumek), born in 1927. Family life was happy and comfortable and they were active in the large Jewish community. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. German troops reached Sosnowiec three days later and the synagogue was burned. Restrictions were placed on the Jewish population. Jewish property was confiscated and they soon had to wear Star of David armbands at all times. Chaim had to close his business and the family sold their belongings to purchase food. In spring 1942, an open ghetto was established and Jews between the ages of 14-60 were required to perform forced labor. Chaim, Hinde, and Abraham worked in a metal factory. Germans began deporting residents to concentration and labor camps. In spring 1943, the Jews were forced into a closed ghetto. After the move, Hinde and Abraham were listed as missing in the records and the police came to the house looking for Abraham. He was not there and they took Hinde and her mother instead.
Hinde was transported to Goglin transit camp and, in March 1943, deported to Gleiwitz slave labor camp, an Auschwitz subcamp. She worked stoking furnaces in a factory that produced soot for rubber. She met Welek Luksenburg, a 20 year old inmate from Dabrowa, Poland. They actually had met as children in Dabrowa Dobricza, but Welek did not remember. They talked when they could meet at the fence between the men and women’s barracks and exchanged notes. On January 19, 1945, the camp was evacuated because of approaching Allied forces. Warehouses were opened and prisoners took clothing and bread. The first night, they stopped at a barn and Welek found Hinde. They marched for three more days, and then boarded an open train car. When they passed under bridges, civilians threw bread to the prisoners. They caught snow to drink in their blankets. The train passed through war torn Berlin and they realized that Germany was losing the war. They arrived at Oranienburg concentration camp where the men were unloaded. The train then took Hinde and the other women to Ravensbrueck. While there, she was told by some people transferred from Auschwitz that her parents and sister had been deported in August 1943 to Auschwitz and killed. In May 1945, Hinde was on a forced march to another camp, Retzow, when she was liberated by Soviet troops. She was hospitalized with typhus. When she recovered, Hinde asked a Soviet soldier, whom she had identified as Jewish, to help her return to Sosnowiec to look for her brother. He arranged a ride for her with a Soviet general. Upon her return to her village, she learned that Abraham had been deported to Markstaedt labor camp in Germany and died on a forced march in 1944.
After two months, Hinde decided to leave Poland because of the painful memories, the deep anti-Semitism, and the Soviet occupation authorities who were trying to make her enlist in the Red Army. With some cousins, she left for Czechoslovakia. A bottle of vodka got them across the border, but they were detained in Prague because they had no papers or money. In August, she saw a man she knew from Gleiwitz and he told her that he had seen Welek alive in April 1945. She next heard that he was in Prague, but could not find him. She traveled to a displaced persons camp in Weiden, Germany, in the American occupation zone, and was able to get a note to Welek via a relative. The couple were reunited in October 1945. After their separation during the evacuation from Gleiwitz, Welek was sent from Oranienburg to Flossenbürg, and then Regensburg, concentration camps. He collapsed on the side of the road during a forced march and was saved by a German farmer who cared for him until US troops arrived in the area. The soldiers took Welek, who weighed 65 pounds, to a US Army camp hospital.
Hinde and Welek waited a year to marry because they had no money. They married in the displaced persons camp in Weiden in der Oberpfalz on March 2, 1947. They Americanized their names to Helen and William. After the passage of the US Displaced Persons Act, they were able to emigrate to America. They arrived in September 1949 aboard the M.G. Stewart. William became a mechanic and started his own business. The couple had three children. William and Helen were dedicated to Holocaust education and shared their personal experiences with many groups and visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. William, age 90, passed away on January 29, 2014.