On May 1, 1944, Helenka Lebovic turned 19 years old in the Košice ghetto. Having been ordered into the ghetto only a few weeks before, Helenka’s parents had foreseen her upcoming birthday and smuggled a gift for her into the ghetto: a ring of white gold, onyx, and a green gemstone.
It was the last gift Helenka would receive from her parents.
19 years earlier, Helenka was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Košice, Czechoslovakia. Her father, Shimon, was a lumber broker; her mother, Aida (nee Fuchs), was a homemaker. The second of four children, Helenka grew up speaking Hungarian – the dominant cultural language among the Jews of Košice at that time – as well as Slovak, German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.
She attended a Jewish day school affiliated with the Neolog synagogue, a modernizing/reform movement popular among Hungarian Jewry. Her schooling ended at eighth grade because Jews were denied further academic opportunity in Košice. She went on to study at a fashion trade school and became a dressmaker. While her mother Aida observed kashrut and shabbat, her father Shimon was more secular and liberal. Helenka had non-Jewish friends in her neighborhood, and they were welcome in her home just as she was welcome in her friends’ homes.
In November 1938, Košice was occupied by neighboring Hungary. Although increasingly anti-Jewish restrictions were put in place, the Hungarian government resisted the outright deportation of its Jewish population to German concentration camps. Jewish families like Helenka’s lived tenuously under Hungarian rule until 1940, when all Jewish men between the ages of 21 to 40 were conscripted to forced labor battalions in Russia. Among the men separated from their families because of this order was Helenka’s brother Alexander.
On March 19, 1944, less than two months before Helenka Lebovic turned 19, Germany occupied Hungary. Immediately, the Germans began hasty preparations for the deportation and mass murder of Hungarian Jewry. They forced the Jewish population to hand over anything of value, like gold or jewelry, which was shipped back to Germany.
In April of 1944, Helenka’s family was ordered to move to the Jewish ghetto concentrated in the local brickworks on the outskirts of Košice. It was here, on May 1, that Helenka’s parents gave her the last gift she would receive from them: a gold ring for her 19th birthday, which her parents had risked their lives to hide from the German officials.
Shortly thereafter, in mid-May, the family was deported by train to Auschwitz. Upon arrival there, Helenka, Elizabeth, and Berta were sent to the line for workers. Her father was directed to a line for men, while her mother was directed to another line for women. Unwilling to be separated, Helenka’s youngest sister, 13-year-old Berta, ran to join their mother. At the time, Helenka and her remaining sister, Elizabeth, did not realize that their parents and sister had been sent to the line for death.
Helenka was among the 16,000 Hungarian Jews, primarily women, transported from Auschwitz to Stutthof during the summer and fall of 1944. She was separated from Elizabeth, but somehow managed to hold onto the ring that she had received from her parents months prior. In Stutthof, where Helenka recalled living conditions even worse than in Auschwitz, she worked harvesting sugar beets. Helenka’s facility for different languages helped her as a translator for the other prisoners.
From Stutthof, Helenka recalled being transported to Grodno, again to harvest beets. However, this time she was selected with some other strong girls to dig trenches through the day and night. The next morning, she witnessed the Germans using the trenches as a mass grave. She recalled that they did not shoot the victims; they bludgeoned prisoners with bats and threw them in the ditch, some of them still alive.
In the cold Polish winter of January 1945, Helenka was forced to begin a death march. After enduring impossible conditions, one night, while encamped in a village barn, Helenka and her friend Clara decided that they could go no further. They remained hidden under the straw in the barn for three days. Once the Germans left, they were found and welcomed by the Polish family that owned the barn. They had temporary respite, until a neighbor reported the girls to the Gestapo. As they were led away to be shot by four soldiers, Helenka engaged in conversation with one of them, who convinced his fellows to let them live. Her language skills literally saved her life.
Eventually, Helenka and Clara found themselves in a Russian work camp. At this point the Allies had nearly won the war, and so the girls began the long journey back to Košice, where they arrived in April 1945. Helenka found her sister Elizabeth, her brother Alexander, a few extended family members, and some friends. Her brother was at risk of being drafted into the Russian army, so he soon left for Palestine.
After the war ended, Helenka and Elizabeth were sent to convalesce at a sanatorium in the Tatra Mountains.
During her stay Helenka met another survivor, Ernest Bokor. They married in Košice on April 11, 1948. From Košice, Helenka and Ernest went to Israel, where their daughters Ronit and Raya were born. The family eventually immigrated to the United States, where Helenka changed her name to Helena. They settled in New Jersey, where they worked hard to establish a good life for the family: Ernest as a metal mold maker in the jewelry industry, and Helena as a dressmaker. In 1987, they moved to Edison to be closer to their grandchildren: Leonard, Leslie, Jordan, and Scott. Both Helena and Ernest were committed to Holocaust education and spoke frequently at local high schools and Yom HaShoah gatherings.
Later in her life, Helena often told her daughters of how she hid the ring during inspections by keeping it in her mouth or digging it into the ground with her toe. Hanging onto this last gift from her parents by successfully smuggling it through a ghetto and multiple concentration camps was a life-risking feat, but the ring was symbolic for Helena of her ties to a past that no longer existed and a family that was no longer intact. Keeping the ring was an act of hope, an act of resistance, and an act of love.
Decades later, in the United States, a crack in the center stone—which Ronit and Ranya recall as a green stone, perhaps jade—required a repair. Ernest lovingly replaced the center stone with a diamond.
Helena’s nineteenth birthday present is now in the Museum’s Permanent Collection, a donation from Ronit and Ranya. They reflected:
“After our parents died, we considered passing the ring to one of their four grandchildren. Besides the difficulty in choosing a recipient, our concern was that the story behind the ring might be lost over time and might diminish with each generation. The ring itself is fairly simple and plain. Its true value is as an artifact or piece of history. Our parents’ commitment and involvement with Holocaust education made the donation of the ring to the Museum of Jewish Heritage a logical and comforting decision. Helena would be very pleased to know that the ring is being recognized and protected for its true value. In our hearts we feel she would be smiling.”
Through their donation, Helena’s ring, which has made its way through so many countries, years, and hardships, will be preserved; its story, of family love, loss, and survival, will be shared for generations to come.