Surviving the Holocaust, living to 102
Family, friends remember the indomitable Helen Fellowes
|Above, Helen Fellowes and her children as she celebrated turning 100.|
No one survived the Shoah without a story.
No one survived the Shoah without some luck.
No one lives to be 102 years old without both luck and a story.
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Helen Fellowes of Ridgewood, who died on November 3 at 102, took advantage of some lucky breaks, and she had very many stories.
Ms. Fellowes’ husband, Donald, was reunited with their two children, Martha and George, after the war, but he could not find his wife. He had no idea if she had survived. “We waited in Budapest for my mother to return, but she did not, so we went back to Nagyvarad,” the small Hungarian town where they had lived together long ago, before their part of the world went crazy, George Fellowes said.
It was her sixth birthday, said Ms. Fellowes’ daughter, now Martha Tiktin. “My dad bought me a bouquet of red roses. And then he put me down for a nap, and he said, ‘The only thing I wish for your birthday is that your mother would come back.’
“And then somebody woke me from my nap. I didn’t recognize her. It was my mother.”
That’s the fairy tale part. Some reality – “The story is that my mother weighed 59 pounds then,” George Fellowes said. “That might be an exaggeration. She might have weighed as much as 80 pounds. Maybe. But no more than that.”
And not only did Martha not recognize her mother, but at first she was frightened by her.
This is from the middle of Helen Fellowes’ story. To start at the beginning, Helen Grosz was born in Budapest in 1912. Her father was a boot maker – and he also was a war veteran. He fought with the Hussars – the cavalry, who by definition rode horses to war – in World War I, on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She married Donald Freiberger, and they moved to Nagyvarad. The town is in Transylvania, and it was exchanged between Hungary and Romania – where it is known as Oradea – many times. She was a milliner, he was a tailor; their family, which eventually included Martha and George, lived there in peace until well after the start of World War II.
Because Hungary was a collaborationist state, Germany did not go after its Jews until late in the war. When the Nazis began their roundups, they started at the edges of the country. They came to Nagyvarad, and sent Donald Freiberger to a forced labor camp on the Russian front. “My mother decided that instead of staying in Nagyvarad, she would move us to Budapest, which is at the center of Hungary. Had she stayed, we all would have been taken.”
Eventually the Nazis took Helen from her father’s house, but they did not take her father because he was an ex-Hussar, and they did not take her children either. Her father, Mikhael Grosz, took Martha and George to one of Raoul Wallenberg’s safe houses, where they lived out the rest of the war.
Helen, meanwhile, “went through a series of concentration camps, and eventually ended up on a forced march,” her son said.
That was a death march; the Germans, who knew by that point that the war was ending and that they were losing, wanted all the women to die as soon as possible, so that they could make their own escape. “The Germans had been making them carry huge boulders, to tire them out,” Rabbi David Fine of Temple Israel in Ridgewood, Ms. Fellowes’ shul, said. But the women somehow were able to keep going. They talked about recipes, he said; in fact, “she still had a book of recipes, in very small handwriting,” he said. “They would sing songs as they walked, and it once made the female German guards cry. She saw them crying.”
Her son, her daughter, and Rabbi Fine all report that Ms. Fellowes said that when she had to keep going, “she imagined her children walking in front of her,” as Rabbi Fine said. “That’s what kept her going.”
When the Russians finally caught up with the women, “they were worse than the Germans,” he continued. “They went to rape everyone, but she was down to 60 pounds, and she was older than everyone else, so they said ‘yuck’ and passed her by.”
When Helen rejoined her family in Nagyvarad, she and Donald decided that they had to leave. Only three Jewish children from the town had survived the war, and the townspeople made it clear that Jews were not welcome there. “It was a terrible time,” George Fellowes said.
His mother’s brother Dan, an engineer, had emigrated to New York before the war, and established himself there. “He tried to get us into the United States, but he was unable to get us a visa,” Mr. Fellowes said. “The Statue of Liberty says ‘Give us your tired, your poor,’ but it didn’t seem to apply to Jews in those days.” Still the family finally got a visa to the Dominican Republic, which was accepting Jews in those immediate postwar years.
On their way to the Dominican Republic, the Freibergers stopped in New York to visit Dan Grosz. “I was ill – I had contracted tuberculosis of the spine in the Wallenberg camp – so I went immediately to St. Luke’s Hospital,” Mr. Fellowes said. That illness, which was serious, had the paradoxical effect of smoothing out their lives in the United States. The family got extension after extension to their tourist visas while George remained in the hospital. Eventually, they were served with a deportation notice. “About two weeks before we were to be deported,” Truman signed an order allowing aliens in the country right now to stay and to apply for green cards, so we ended up being able to stay in the States, he said.
The family became American citizens in 1952, and Donald and Helen Freiberger decided that they’d like to fit in. They wanted an American name. “So my father literally went to a Manhattan phone book, and looked under F for a name that sounded American to him. The fact that Fellowes sounds more British than American – that was lost on him, because of the intensity of their desire to assimilate.”
Still, Helen and Donald Fellowes were deeply interested in Israel, and their connection with Judaism was strong enough for them to join a small Orthodox shul
The family moved to the Bronx. “We came over with literally nothing,” George Fellowes said. But Donald, who had been apprenticed to a tailor when he was 10 years old, had no problem finding work. He “was all thumbs – except when it came to handling a needle,” his son said. “He was outstanding. When he picked up a needle and thread, he was extraordinary.
“He produced clothing for Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end places. He could literally look at a picture of clothing in the Sunday Times magazine section and reproduce it.”
Helen tried to run a clothing store, but she suffered from severe migraines and was unable to work steadily enough. Instead, she focused on her children.
“When we were kids, the subject of the Holocaust was never mentioned,” George Fellowes said. “It was an extraordinary void. Based on my experience, the people who survived wanted so much to assimilate, to forget what they had gone through in Europe, that it was never mentioned.”
George and Martha Fellowes grew up in the Bronx. Martha married and lived in Rio de Janeiro for 10 years, but George and his wife moved to Ridgewood, and then to Saddle River. The neighborhood where the elder Fellowes lived was becoming increasingly unsafe. One night, George Fellowes said, a calm phone conversation with his father eventually brought out the fact that the night before, an intruder had climbed into the apartment. “My father, all 5 foot 4 inches of him, starting yelling at him, and he went back out the window.
“And then I sort of freaked, and said ‘O.K. Guess what? You’re moving to New Jersey.'” His parents weren’t sure – and they were on their way to Rio to see their new grandchild – so “I said, ‘I don’t care. You don’t have to move to New Jersey if you don’t want to, but your furniture is moving.'”
That week, Helen and Donald Fellowes found an apartment in Ridgewood. They lived together in Ridgewood until Mr. Fellowes died in 1992. He was almost 85. Ms. Fellowes stayed there until she died.
“My mother was an extraordinarily strong woman, and she was very direct,” Mr. Fellowes said. “I guess it comes with age as well. She had no filters. If she thought something, she said it.
“She had gone through such incredible things, but she never complained about them afterward. The only thing she ever complained about is when we didn’t call often enough. It was a standard Jewish mother joke, but it is literally true. ‘What’s the matter,’ she’d say, in her Hungarian accent. ‘Is your finger broken?'”
After Donald Fellowes died, Helen and her children were interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. “For many years, I couldn’t listen to my mother’s tape,” George said. “My wife finally prevailed on me to sit with her and listen to her tape, and she was able to provide us with color commentary.”
Christine Dobkins is a former president of Temple Israel. She first met Helen Fellowes in the late 1970s, when her own children were young. “She was a lovely older woman, who had such an incredible spirit,” Ms. Dobkins said. “Her name for me, whenever she’d talk to me, was sweetpie.
“That’s the way she approached life, and it was amazing after all that she had been through, but she had an amazing spirit. She was a Shabbat regular. Her husband would come earlier, and he’d daven for us. She’d come later. And she was very active in our sisterhood. She was the handicraft chairperson – she initiated a project of needlepoint about the 12 tribes.
“She had a real zest for life. She was a happy, outgoing person; if you met her, you had to love her.”
“She was a tough mother,” her daughter remembered. “She wasn’t a wishy-washy kind of person. She wasn’t a mushy grandmother. She taught all three of my children – two boys and a girl – to do needlepoint. They all loved her. They knew she was tough, and they loved her.”
So how does a person survive all the horrors that Helen Grosz Freiberger Fellowes survived and still end up living to 102? One thing that Ms. Fellowes’ life seems to show us is that love and intensity and luck all matter.