Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

April Reviews - I Light A Candle by Gena Turgel

In 1945, Gena Turgel was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her autobiography, I Light A Candle, was published in 1987.

Gena Turgel speaking at an event

Whilst she survived the Holocaust and went on to have a fulfilling life with a large family, her writing is permeated by a sense of what she lost. Her story captured the attention of the public – it is a story of love born out of such tragedy that is both rare and moving. On Yom HaShoah, she, like many survivors and others around the world, would light a candle in memory of the family members she lost during the Holocaust.

The youngest of nine children, Gena grew up in a family who ran a small textile business in Kraków. Her father died when she was young, and so her mother continued the family business. Gena’s feelings of awe and admiration for her mother run throughout her writing - they clung to each other, surviving together.

When Poland was invaded by the Nazis in 1939, the family’s belongings were seized, and they were forced into the Kraków ghetto in August 1941. Gena witnessed many acts of brutal violence, and her account of such events is unflinching. In the ghetto, one of her brothers, Willek, was shot through the window of their family home by an SS soldier, for merely standing on a chair to reach a suitcase stored at the top of a wardrobe. Her other brother, Janek, escaped, but Gena never saw him again.

Gena and her surviving family were eventually sent to Płaszów labour camp on the edge of Kraków. She later found out her sister, Miriam, was shot after trying to smuggle food into the camp. In winter 1944-45, Płaszów was liquidated and Gena and her family had to walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In January 1945, Gena and her mother were sent on a death march, leaving behind her sister, Hela, who was never seen again. After three to four weeks, they arrived in Buchenwald concentration camp and from there were sent to Bergen-Belsen. On 15th April 1945, Gena and her mother were liberated by the British army.

Gena's wedding to Norman

In October 1945, Gena married her husband Norman Turgel in Germany. The couple met in Bergen-Belsen, as Norman was a sergeant for the British intelligence and was one of the first soldiers to arrive, sent in to round up SS soldiers for interrogation. Gena wore a wedding dress made of British parachute silk (now in the Imperial War Museum, London), one of many incredible moments that she relays in I Light A Candle. The British Army Rabbi who presided over the ceremony declared their love as a symbol of hope, after so much death and destruction

Despite the horrific conditions and terrifying experiences that Gena endured, she still managed to find happiness and a way to survive against the greatest odds. Her story of both her love for Norman and her zest for sharing her story with young people in Britain, is a reminder of the sheer courage and bravery demonstrated by every single one of the survivors we hear from.

Gena sadly passed away in 2018, after dedicating her life to sharing her testimony to hundreds of thousands and impacting countless lives. This year, on Yom HaShoah, I will be thinking of Gena, and lighting a candle in memory of her, her family and her incredible story.

By Evie Robinson