The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)

Natasha sheldon - July 21, 2018

Belsen Concentration Camp was an unlikely setting for a love story. However, its liberation marked the beginning of a romance between Gena Goldfinger, a former camp inmate and Norman Turgal, a British soldier. Despite the grim setting and circumstances, the couple met and fell in love – six months later, they were married. Because of the place where they met and fell in love, The British Press dubbed the new Mrs. Turgel, “The Bride of Belsen” a title that stuck with her for the rest of her life.

However, there is so much more to the story of Gena Turgel than the touching circumstances of her marriage. For before she reached this happily ever after, Gena had to survive the loss of her home, much of her family, the ghetto, and four concentration camps. She survived a death march- and the gas chamber and nursed Anne Frank before her death. Once in England, Gena enjoyed a long and happy marriage with Norman. However, the horrors she had experienced and witnessed never left her. So, until her death at the age of 95 in June 2018, Gena Turgel dedicated herself to ensuring that her story and the story of the Holocaust would never be forgotten.

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
The Liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, 1942. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

From Krakow to Auschwitz

Gena Goldfinger had a happy childhood. She was born in Krakow, Poland in 1923, the youngest of nine children. Her family was middle class and prosperous and her world safe and secure. Then, when Gena was 16, her world began to fall apart as the Second World War began. On the very first day of the war, September 1, 1939, the Luftwaffe bombed Krakow. Before long, German forces had invaded Poland. The good times were over.

“Our freedom ended abruptly, and we found ourselves utterly cut off from the rest of the world,” Gena later recalled. The Nazis closed Jewish schools and confiscated businesses. Gena watched people being dragged away or executed in the streets. Then, in the autumn of 1941, the Nazi’s forced the Goldfingers to leave their home. Gena, her mother and four of her siblings, were forced to abandon most of their possessions and, with just a sack of potatoes and some flour move into Krakow’s ghetto.

“All the other Jews of Cracow were there, too, but no feelings of strength or unity emerged from this sharing of experience, “said Gena. “Life in the ghetto was unreal. People’s main preoccupation concerned the next transport… would it be their turn next?” It was in the ghetto that the loss of Gena’s own family began. Her sister in law and three-year-old nephew were taken from the family and sent to Auschwitz where they died. Meanwhile, Gena witnessed the execution of two of her brothers in the ghetto. A German in the street shot one, Willek when he stood on a chair next to a window to reach for a suitcase off a wardrobe. The Nazis also shot Gena’s eldest brother while he was trying to escape through the sewers to join the Resistance.

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
Plaszow Concentration Camp, Poland. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

In 1942, the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto began, and on March 1, 1942, the Nazis moved Gena and her surviving family into the Plaszov concentration camp. By day they worked, and at night, they slept in a barrack with 100 other people. When Gena’s sister Miriam and her husband tried to smuggle food into the camp, the Nazi’s shot them. Gena, her mother and surviving sister, Hela were forced to burn the bodies. “We had to carry wood for the bodies to be burned,” she later recalled, “Imagine how my mother felt carrying wood for her daughter to be burned.” Slowly Gena became hardened to her suffering. “The agony grew deep inside me, and I became like a stone, ” she said.

Then, in the winter of 1944, Gena, her mother, and Hela became part of the last transport from Plaszov to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were forced to make the 41-mile journey on foot in temperatures 20 degrees below freezing. “We walked all day long for about three weeks, sleeping in farms or snowy fields, “explained Gena. By this time, Hela was extremely frail. The prisoners only survived because the residents of villages they passed through gave them gifts of clothing and food.

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
Gas Chamber at Auschwitz. Picture Credit: Paul Arps. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Auschwitz and Belsen: Life Against the Odds

At Auschwitz, Gena and her family were “dehumanized’, as their hair was shaved off and they were issued identical, loose vermin-ridden uniforms. Then they were forced to strip naked and forced into a room and told to wait. “We were trembling. I didn’t know where we were, “explained Gina. “We waited a while, and then water came through the walls. It was wonderful. For many weeks we had had no water on our backs. We were all drinking it.”

However, when Gena came outside, she realized the enormity of what had just happened. “As we came outside, the women there said how wonderful it was to see us. They screamed with happiness. I didn’t understand what they meant. I said ‘What are you shouting about?'” Recalled Gina, “They said ‘Don’t you know? You were in the gas chamber.’ It seemed that on this occasion, fate intervened and the mechanism for pumping the gas failed, earning the prisoners an unexpected reprieve.

During their short stay at Auschwitz, Gena and her mother lost Hela who was injected with petrol as part of Nazi “experiments” and died in the camp hospital. They could not even mourn her. “To cry in Auschwitz could have you shot…. We had to be strong, to block out everything, “said Gena. However, within a few weeks of the gas chamber incident, mother and daughter were on the move again, this time for a brief spell in Buchenwald concentration camp. Finally, as the allies began to advance in February 1945, they were moved for the last time: to Bergen Belsen.

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
Anne Frank c. 1940. Unknown photographer. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Gena remembered her first impressions of Belsen clearly. “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. “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…Wherever we walked, we had to climb over piles of rotting bodies.”

Typhus was rife in the camp, and so Gena was assigned to the hospital to help nurse the sick. It was there that she encountered Anne Frank, whose secret diary would become one of the most touching testaments to the horrors of the Holocaust. “She was delirious, terrible, burning up. I gave her cold water to wash her down,” Gena recalled. “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.” Gena and her mother, however, survived Belsen and where there when the British liberated the camp. “My courage came from my mother,” said Gena. “I was determined to keep her alive, and because of that, I lived.”

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, April 1945. Wikimedia Commons. public Domain

“I light a Candle.”

On April 15, 1945, the British Intelligence Corps entered Belsen. Amongst them was Norman Turgel, a young Sergeant with 53 Field Security Section who had been assigned the task of rounding up the camp’s SS Commanders. It was Norman who arrested the notorious commandant of Belsen, Josef Kramer who was known as “The Beast of Belsen.” As Norman was locking Kramer up, he had the satisfaction of letting him know that he was being imprisoned by a Jew.

The first sights that greeted Norman must have seemed out of hell. Over 20,000 naked corpses lay about the camp unburied, the victims of starvation, and disease. Other bodies lay alongside the corpses, dying. Norman later discovered some of the camp’s inmates had been reduced to cannibalism. However, soon afterward Norman saw a different sight. He met Gena when she was asked to show him around the camp hospital, and although she was emaciated and bedraggled, for Norman it was love at first sight. He knew immediately he would marry her.

A few days later, Norman invited Gena to the officer’s mess. To her surprise, the tables were covered in white cloths and flowers. “I asked Norman whether he was expecting any special visitors, ” recalled Gena, “He said ‘This is our engagement party'”. Gena admitted she was terrified of committing so soon but was won round by Norman’s persistence. Six months later, on October 7, 1945, the couple were married in a Jewish synagogue that had only survived the war because it had used as a cattle shed. The bride wore a dress made from a British silk parachute. It is now preserved in London’s Imperial War Museum.

The Remarkable Story of Gena Turgel, The  Bride of Belsen (Concentration Camp)
Gena Turgel on a return visit to Auschwitz. Google Images.

The newlyweds returned to London with Gena’s mother and settled down. Gena and Norman became the proud parents of three children and grandparents to eight. However, for Gena, the pain of past events and the family she had lost remained buried inside. She wore a lot of perfume at all times as the stench of the camps never left her. Eventually, she decided that, as a survivor of so much horror and grief, she had to ensure that what had happened to her loved ones never happened to anyone else. So, in 1987, Gena Turgel wrote her account of her experiences “I Light a Candle.”

However, this was just the start. “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,” said Gena of all those the Nazis had murdered. So she became their voice and took her story into British schools to ensure that future generations would remain aware of the dangers of mindless prejudice and thus ensure that events like the holocaust never happen again. In 2000, Gena Turgel was awarded an MBE for her work in 2000. The indomitable spirit which had kept her alive kept her campaigning- right up until her death in June 2018.


Where Do We Get this Stuff? Here are our Sources:

Gas Chamber Survivor found love, The Telegraph, January 26, 2005

Gena Turgel, Holocaust Survivor, known as Bride of Belsen, dies, Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, June 8, 2018

Auschwitz Survivor Gena Turgel Walked Out of Gas Chamber Alive, NBC News January 26, 2015.

From out of the Horror, A love story, Angela Lambert, The Independent, April 13, 1995