VACAVILLE (KPIX 5) — At age 90, a San Rafael man is one of the declining population of Jewish survivors still alive to tell firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. It took him decades to tell his own children that he survived the Holocaust. But since 2004, Herbert Heller has shared his life story freely with anyone who will listen.
He will go to community groups or he will invite them to his home. He’s donated his time to lawmakers, neighbors, community members and especially students, in hopes they won’t repeat the mistakes of World War II.
“I always feel that one young lady or one young man will hopefully be our president and I really wanted them to know what went on,” Heller explained.
At the Chabad of Solano County in Vacaville, Heller recently told a packed audience how he, his parents and his brother got deported from their home in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
“At age 15, we were shipped to Auschwitz,” he said. “There were two cattle cars waiting for us. They packed us in like sardines. We could hardly breathe.”
Once at the concentration camp, Heller’s quick thinking spared him from the cyanide showers.
“So then I had to undress, totally naked. I would go before Dr. Mengele, who was the German doctor, Dr. Death, and I flexed muscles I didn’t have. And I said in German…And in German that means, ‘I can work,'” he recalled.
And he was thankful for his job assignment. It helped keep him from starvation.
“In Auschwitz, I became a messenger at a first aid station, which was a fabulous job for me because they had running water available. Anytime I was hungry, I just filled up with water.”
And a year later, while freezing in the infamous 1945 Death March from Auschwitz, he found a way out: a backpack in the snow with civilian clothes inside.
He put them on at night and escaped by train.
“And I started running toward the train and calling out in German,” he said. “It meant ‘Mother, mother, where are you?’ I was acting like one of those kids separated from their parents. And I sat on the train eyes forward in civilian clothes.”
Heller and his mother survived the Holocaust and they eventually came to San Francisco. He joined the U.S. Army Reserves, became an American citizen, got married, and would run a baby clothes and furniture store in San Rafael for more than half a century.
He told the audience he came to the United States with $10 in his pocket, and today he has a wife of 63 years, three daughters and ten grandchildren.
A new life in a new country.
“It was just unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it. It’s a fabulous country,” he smiled.
After sharing his story for an hour, people in the audience came up to greet Heller. Jeanine Thiessen brought her students from Willis Jepson Middle School to hear his incredible chapter of living history.
“He didn’t fluff any of it up. He was very honest about what he felt, what he saw how that impacted him,” Thiessen said.
His strength and resilience made an impact on 8th grader Amelia Doran.
“I’m just really inspired by what he said. Everything that happened to him, and how he still became a contributor to society,” she said.
As for Heller, he said he does not consider himself courageous at all.
“The only answer I have is that I’ve been lucky,” he concluded.
So for sharing his Holocaust survivor story with tens of thousands of people in the last 16 years, this Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Herbert Heller.