Veronika Elenska suffered through the regimes of the Communists and the Nazis. The first eighteen years of her life were spent working hard for others who treated her cruelly. She lost her home and she lost her family. But she lived. She survived to tell a story of evil –and a story of hope and faith.
Later, things changed a little for the better, but only for a while. While I was at the orphanage, around 1933, my parents returned from Siberia. They were re-settled in (Maloyaroslavich ??), about 30 miles from Moscow. My parents took Nina and Sergei out of the orphanage, but the Communists kept me there to work for them – they kept me because I was a hard worker and I could do anything with my hands. They kept me there so that I could do the work of my sister and brother.
I was about seventy miles from my parents’ home, but after I was about ten years old, I would take a train home sometimes, maybe once every month or two months, for the weekend. My father continued working as a tailor, sewing and doing things, so they weren’t too poor. I didn’t have involvement with anyone outside the orphanage, and I don’t remember anybody from there, it’s been so long and so much went on.
I don’t remember much because I was so young, and all I did was work hard all the time. We couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t say anything because under Communists you just can’t do anything. The only thing I remember is work and sports. I played all kinds of sports even though I’m short – I played soccer, swimming, running, and I did well with all of it. Everything I did, I did well.
I was twelve or thirteen when the war broke out. I had to walk back home and in 1940, the Germans came to Russia. They bombed many places. I had to walk from Kaluga to where my parents were, about seventy miles, and the bombs were just falling down and I had to go into a creek or a ditch. I don’t know how I survived, I guess by the grace of God. Invasion had started other places, trains weren’t available, so I had to walk.
Later, one time when I went home for the weekend, policemen (Communists) came to the house, took my parents to jail and burned the house. We three children had to watch as all our clothes, food and toys burned down to a pile of ashes with the house and furniture. We wandered around – we had no place to go. No one dared take us in for fear of retribution by the soldiers. I don’t remember much of what happened to us. I remember one time my brother climbed over a neighbor’s fence to steal bread cooling on a porch. We girls could only watch and cry as we watched the former friend beat out little brother nearly to death. Sometimes we would go in the fields and get us some greens, or go in the woods and get some pecans or nuts and mushrooms to eat or go to Moscow and sell them to make a living. I don’t know how long we stayed or where we stayed, but then one day we decided to go and see our parents in jail so we swam the river or creek that was there and started walking. But the soldiers put us back in the orphanage. After a year or two, when my parents got out of the jail they came and got my brother and sister. I was allowed to visit them as I had done before. Anticipation of a family reunion eased the pain in my aching, often bloody feet. I was cold because I only had light clothes to wear.
Later soldiers came to us, and they said, “You’re not Russian, you’re Polish, if you don’t go back to Poland or White Russia, we’ll kill you on the spot.” We were terrified. We wanted to run, but fear froze us. They took us to White Russia. They didn’t give us a choice, they took us there and left us. At the time I was with my parents and brother and sister, and I think they carried us in a covered truck. It was cold. They took us somewhere, I don’t even remember what it was like in White Russia, because we weren’t there long before the Germans came. I heard the chug of one steam engine as it left and then the whistle of another train as it came. Then adults started yelling and children began crying and screaming, creating such confusion that thoughts of our parents vanished. They picked me up from the truck like I was a sack of potatoes and tossed me into the car of a freight train along with Nina and took us to Germany. Nina and I were separated somehow. I went to Germany and Nina later wrote that she went to Vienna, Austria. That letter was the last communication I had from my sister, and I don’t know what happened to her. I heard later that the Germans killed my mother and brother. My father was very old, so he probably died a natural death. But I never heard from my older sister. I don’t even know at all what happened to her and her husband.
The Germans took me to the Saarbrucken concentration camp on the freight train. It was so hard. You couldn’t resist them, because they would kill you right on the spot. The freight train was horrible. I remember a little bit. I remember there was not much food or anything, only the wood floor to sit or sleep on and no toilet. I was not quite fourteen then. I was very small.
Saarbrucken is a big town on the French border. It was dusk when they opened the doors of the train. I saw a huge factory that loomed over the grimy camp. Black smoke floated over the camp. I didn’t understand the cries of unseen prisoners, the filth and the stench. Before daylight I was sent to work in the factory there, doing all kinds of things that the management wanted me to do. One day the camp guards found me attempting to sew up the thin dress I still wore from the orphanage and learned that I could sew and cook a little, so they took me to a room filled with bolts of material, buttons, thread and a sewing machine and told me to sew up new uniforms for them. The officers were very particular and if things were not just right, they showed their displeasure with unfeeling cruelty. Later, I was taken to homes and I did lots of work there – God spared me because He gave me so many talents and I used them.
I was treated horribly – well, not too, too badly. When you went through the line to get food or anything, if you turn your head or say anything, they hit you on the head. But otherwise, I was treated alright because I did all those things for the big shots. My husband said, “You know why you weren’t killed or treated so bad? Because you worked for them.” The Germans needed me and they watched over me. Still, they were mean.
I don’t remember much about the conditions there, but they were bad. I think I had a bed, but most had only a thin layer of straw on the floor. The building was filled with starving, dirty and diseased people laying next to and on top of one another. The cold winter wind blew through the cracks in the walls. But we were so tired we slept anyhow. I think we were allowed to wash ourselves maybe once a week. I was there about four years. There were so many people, they were crammed in there, everyone together. We slept on bunks when they were available. We had nothing with us from our past. Men and women and children were in the same camp, whole families, some in the same quarters. I was with the girls. Guards abused and assaulted many of the women, right there in the barracks, anywhere. They didn’t hide anything, they did it right there, anywhere. I remember that. God just saved me because I was working with the big people and the big people told the guards, “Don’t touch her.” That’s the only way I can figure out I was saved.
The bathrooms were outside, and sometimes people were waiting in line to use the bathrooms. It all smelled bad. I sewed the clothes I wore there, using a piece of material someone had given to me, all my clothes, everything: underwear, top, all that. I had no shoes, just sandals or bare feet. No wonder my feet are killing me now. (A note from her husband: Vera was more fortunate than many. Testimony and photos taken by the liberating troops showed many of both sexes, old and young, to be nude.)
I worked in the kitchen sometimes. I had to work, sick or not sick. That’s the only thing I can remember. Working in the kitchen didn’t help me to get food, because I was watched and it was rationed. Once in a while, a woman might slip me something. Meals were usually a large kettle of water with one – two – or three potatoes in it. I remember one time I saw a potato peeling in a moldy, wooden garbage can. I didn’t see a guard around, so I reached in to get it to eat, but a guard did see me and almost beat me to death. I remember that – you never forget that.
I don’t remember what kind of factory was there, but I did not have to work there, once they found out the other things I could do. They knew the Americans, or whoever, were coming, so they were rushing to make whatever products they could.
I sewed, cooked, cleaned. I cleaned the barracks. You get up at five o’clock in the morning, you go to work, doing whatever you were told to do, with the German guards accompanying you there and back. You work all day long – I remember that. You don’t go to bed until eight in the evening. I think there was a roll call, some officer knew what was going on all the time, somebody was in charge; they knew where everybody was.
I don’t really remember any acts of kindness while I was there, except from the other people I lived with – though they were afraid to be kind openly. I don’t remember getting sick. When people got too sick to work, too old or for any imaginable, they were killed. They were lined up by a trench, so that they would fall in, and shot. I heard the shots day and night. The dead were replaced every day, as a train with a haunting whistle, kept bringing
more and more prisoners.
In the winter of 1944-45, the Saarbrucken camp was bombed. We were in the barracks when the bombing started. The bombs whistled as they fell to the ground. Every explosion illuminated the sky and the ground shuddered as though it would break apart at any moment. Those of us who believed in God, we were just rocking back and forth, hundreds and hundreds of people. We would hear God tell us, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.” We were ordered to a shelter. As I went a soldier grabbed me tightly by the arm, turned me toward the camp and yelled, “Look at what the enemy is doing to you!” I was forced to watch as the building where I had been sleeping was consumed by a tremendous fire. My home of four nearly years was totally destroyed.
I was shoved, along with thousands of others, up an embankment into the night. “Don’t look back, keep moving!” the soldiers yelled. Many were stumbling as they were marched away from the smoldering camp. We prisoners were forced to march nine hundred miles from Saarbrucken to Leipzig, by way of Berlin, during the winter. The guards continued to yell and constantly prodded us with guns and sticks. “Move forward, do not look back, do not look sideways, do not speak, do not stop!” There was bombing. The old and the sick, who were slow and couldn’t keep up, were beaten badly, shoved out of line and left to die. There were people just dropping dead. We slept on the ground; there was very little food to eat along the way. Occasionally local people would attempt to give us some food or help those who fell down. Then the guards would beat or shoot them too and just leave them where they fell. It was winter. There were men, women, and children. Very few people survived. There were friends I had known at the camp left dead or dying on the ice and dirty snow, but I could not stop to help them. There were dead and dying all the way from the camp to Leipzig. I felt it was all hopeless. I don’t know why I survived. The only thing I can think of now is that God protected me. When we came to Leipzig, we were forced into a large barn. The smell and foul odors from the sick and dying and the dirty barn made it hard to breathe. Nevertheless, the rest was a welcome relief. We got there in January, and in May of 1945, Americans came. I don’t remember anyone I walked with – there was no one else I could depend on or get to know – you had to depend on yourself.
During my years in the camps, four years total, I always held out hope. I always had God in my heart. When I was young, I came home one day, and I was in the garage and my mother said to go get some sauerkraut or something, and I went there, and saw my grandfather in white standing there, and I talked to him. And I went into the house and I said, “Mom, you come here, Grandfather is there,” though he was dead. And she went in and said, “nobody was there – she said it was God there.” I remember that like it was now. And another time I saw God face to face, I was working for an American family after the war.
I never felt like giving up, because I had God in my heart and He wouldn’t let me give up. I never thought about suicide at all, but I witnessed some who did. Some hung themselves with a sheet. I remember an escape attempt, and the person was killed shot dead. They tried to get out of the gate. We had a fence all around us. But I never tried to escape. I did not hear of anyone succeeding in escaping, and never got news from the outside.
The American troops liberated us in May 1945. I awoke to hear voices screaming, “The Americans are here! The Americans are here!” The German guards had fled during the night. Because of malnutrition and the conditions we lived in, I was very sick at that time. I had eczema all over my skin, I had weeping boils, filled with the dirt from the barn floor, all over me – I still have scars on my arms. I was bald, my hair had fallen out. I was skin and bones, a skeleton. I didn’t know at that time that they were all doctors and they came to pick out girls to work for them. I stood with my arms held out from my body because of the boils, and yelled, “Take me! Please take me. I can do the work of twenty people.” I knew that if they didn’t pick me I would probably die. I was pushed into the barbs of the fence as others tried to get noticed. The doctors felt sorry for me and they took me and fed me, and I blossomed, just like you see in the pictures there on the table. I had pictures from earlier days, but they were destroyed in a fire.
Everybody was crying, screaming, it was such a joy that we were free. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment, wonderful moment. The Rhine River, somewhere there, that’s where the officers were. The liberation took place near Liepzig. As I said before, they were doctors, they picked out girls and a family to oversee them, then took us to a big building. They cut my boils open, wherever it was that they took me, a hospital, a clinic, wherever. They opened one arm where gangrene had set in, and healed me. They gave me all sorts of shots and ointments and good food to heal me, and I just blossomed. The first night I was there, the scent of flowers filled the room that I was taken to. It had a real bed with sheets, a blanket and even a pillow. It didn’t take me long to snuggle down and fall asleep. During the night I was awakened by a loud noise. I could see flames shimmering against the white walls. I thought the building was on fire. I started to cry and scream and felt like I was going to die. I jumped out of the bed and tried to run, but a nurse caught me and cradled me tightly. Then she had an assistant put out the candles. As the last one was put out, I quieted down and was soon back asleep with my memories.
Before the officers left, they recommended me to an American family. They said to the family, “She’s a good worker,” and they took me to work for them. The family, the Michael’s, moved to Heidelberg; he was an officer with the American military. The woman, Mrs. Helen Michael, liked me so well, she tried to adopt me. But the paperwork moved very slowly and I married before they were ever completed.
I was never reunited with my own family. Mrs. Michael went to the embassy and tried to find my family, but they couldn’t find out anything. I know my mother and father were dead. My sister had written me in her letter not to go back because the Communists will kill you because you were with Americans. I never had evidence for any of it though. Everybody was killed or drowned. The rest of them just went their own way, wherever. I had one aunt, but she died.
(A note from her husband: When I went to Germany in June of 1946, I was assigned to the G-2 (intelligence) section of the Ninth Infantry Division headquarters. At that time the Alli
es were beginning to assemble displaced persons of the same nationality into camps. Then arrangements were made with the pertinent national authorities, to ship a train load of people back to their home land to begin a new life or so it was thought at the time. The first train to the Communist lands went smoothly. When the second train load was being arranged, many people begged to be left behind, but they were sent along anyhow. We got reports of Russian liaison officers being threatened and assaulted in the camps. The same thing happened with the third train load, but this time we got back reports of people jumping to their deaths along the way, rather than return home. Investigation revealed that these people had learned somehow, that they were going to be sent to Siberia or killed. Trying to organize further trains proved to be impossible. Eventually the remaining people were allowed to seek homes elsewhere. Vera’s work ethic had saved her again. During the six months I was in this assignment, I accumulated many reports and pictures taken by the liberating troops, showing the conditions of the German camps and their inmates. Words alone can not describe the inhuman conditions found there. Unfortunately, the collection was destroyed by a fire in 1995.)
In the summer of 1947, in Heidelberg, I met my husband-to-be, T/4 Eugene Francis Young. We were married on June 1.1948, in Stuttgart. In November 1948 we returned to his home in America.
My life was good then, but what came before was all just a nightmare. My most vivid memory of that time was when those officers came and took me and healed me at the end. That memory is really, really staying with me. I’ll never forget it. I wish I had their names and addresses, but they left so quickly and I was too young to even think about it. Even so, for many years when thunder storms came I was frightened. But my husband would hold me and talk to me. So now, I’m not bothered too much unless it’s a really bad storm. In 1951 I received my citizenship certificate. But my husband couldn’t be there. He had been sent to Korea, putting sadness in an otherwise joyous occasion.
I don’t blame all of the German people for what the Nazis did. I’m that kind of person, I believe in God, and God says you love everybody, even your enemy. I feel what they did, they’re going to answer for all that. And what I’m doing now, God says to love everybody, share with everybody, and take care of everybody, that’s what I’m doing.
The Holocaust changed my life, because God gave me a life to tell other people the truth, and because the young people now in school don’t understand what the Holocaust was. They don’t understand what war was like. That’s the reason I think I’m here, to tell other people. I spoke in a schoo
l once but it was very emotional for me so I couldn’t do it again.
If I had to explain the Holocaust to children, I would tell them whatever is true. I would say, “Children, listen, because life is not easy, you’ve got to learn every day what God’s going to tell you to do. There are mean people, like the people who crucified God, and there are good people, like God, who save us.”
The biggest lesson I take from those years is that life itself is worth living. If you believe God, He will carry you through. When I was younger I had nightmares, but I said, “Lord, You take care of it, I can’t do anything about it. It’s done, it’s history.” You’ve just got to live for now, not for later.
I watch TV and see the news. There’s danger everywhere, there’s so much evil going on, and so much terrorism going on. I just hope and pray that God will take me before I see it again. I’ve lived through everything and I don’t want to live through what I went through anymore.
Life in America is a godsend. God sent me here. It’s wonderful. If someone doesn’t know what freedom means, what America means, they don’t have a sound mind. If they don’t understand what freedom means – they and we are taking it for granted.
I’ve never gone back. My son was in Germany and he wanted us to come, but I didn’t want to go. I said, “Gene, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to die in Germany, I want to die here.” My son died there. He shot himself.
I had two wonderful, wonderful, smart children. The older one was in the Air Force for twenty-one years; he retired and got his bachelors and MBA degrees. He was married twice, and had a son. But now he is gone.
My other son was married and divorced twice. He has a girl and a boy. He earned a bachelors degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. Then after working for a while, he earned a masters degree in Public Administration from American University and still later he was sent by his employer to get another masters degree in conserving and administering strategic materials from the National War College.
So I have three grandchildren, beautiful, smart children, all three of them. And the oldest one, Ian said, “Grandma and Grandpa, I’m just like you! I’ve got all your genes!” I said, “You’d better believe it, you’ve got our genes!” He’s in Arizona and works for himself with computers. He isn’t married, but has a girlfriend. We kid one another a lot over the phone.
The girl, Annie was in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech. But now she is at Marymount seeking a teaching degree.
Sean is in eleventh grade at Dale City, and doing well, straight A’s and is taking a mathematics class at a community college.
I live for them. I tell them all the time, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t want to live. They know my story.
I have a wonderful husband, he really takes care of me. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the world. I have a good home, good life, anything I want, more than I want. Many people, especially the younger ones, call me Grandmom or Mom. I have a woman in Fredericksburg, she says I’m her “mother” and we’re helping her – she’s separated and has a child. She had an operation which prevents her from working as much and she doesn’t have much money, so we give her money from time to time, and other people, too. And God gives us back everything – every thing we give, we get it back double.
This mini – biography was derived from an interview by Mrs. Lynn Mayberry, King George, VA which she transformed into a paper entitled THE FLAMES ARE BACK! (It was the 1998 First Place Winner for Writing – Non-Fiction, Blue Ridge Region, ITC) and a video interview by volunteers from the Virginia Holocaust Museum, Richmond, VA which was transformed into biographical format by Mrs. Mary A. Tobey, Communications Creations, Ink, Powhatan, VA. Vera’s husband put the two documents together, added comments, smoothed the literal, verbal wordage and editied the results; hopefully without too much damage to the original interviews.