Sixty years ago, she was a weak, weary 15-year-old Polish girl, recently liberated from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp after losing her family.
Last night, proud and strong, Anna Heilman captivated a capacity audience at Ben Franklin Place with her harrowing tale of survival and heroism.
“Only when I got out of there did I understand what happened,” she said in Hebrew, one of the five languages she speaks. “I was in all the worst places.”
Ms. Heilman was the featured speaker at a special ceremony hosted by B’nai Brith and The Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of Ottawa, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the same camp she narrowly survived.
The Ottawa ceremony was one of many held around the world in observance of the liberation of the camps.
Earlier in the day, the United Nations held its special session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.
The official Holocaust Memorial Day will be marked Thursday with world leaders attending ceremonies in Poland.
Last night, however, it was a standing room only affair at Ben Franklin Place, as hundreds crowded into the former council chambers. Among those in attendance were other Holocaust survivors, the Polish and German ambassadors to Canada and members of Humura, survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
Cantor Moshe Kraus, himself a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, choked back tears as he recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Speakers from the Ottawa Jewish community vowed to never forget. A representative of Israel spoke of the need to educate and commemorate. A city Rabbi gave an emotional sermon.
However, no words were as powerful as those of a survivor; a woman who lived to tell of the horrors she endured.
“Sixty years ago today, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz,” she began. “But they came too late. Too late for the four girls who were hanged publicly on Jan. 5, 19 days before.”
One of those girls was Ms. Heilman’s sister, Esther.
Ms. Heilman was known at the time as Anna Wajcblum. A native of Warsaw, she was interned in Auschwitz in September 1943 where she became known simply as prisoner No. 48150, a figure still tattooed on her forearm.
There, like the others, she was starved, humiliated, abused and forced into slave labour. But the Nazis couldn’t break her will.
She became one of the leaders of the famous 1944 Gunpowder Plot, in which inmates used smuggled gunpowder to blow up a crematorium used to burn the prisoners. The gunpowder Ms. Heilman and others smuggled from the Weichsell Metall Union Werke munitions factory was used to blow up Crematorium IV at Auschwitz on Oct. 7, 1944. Thousands of prisoners were spared as a result of her actions.
“It would have been easy to do nothing,” she said, “but we decided to fight back.”
An investigation into the sabotage was conducted. Her sister and three other girls involved in the plot were executed. It was the last public execution at Auschwitz before the camp was liberated.
Only Anna survived.
After the war, she recuperated in Belgium and then moved to Israel, where she started a family. She married Joshua Heilman and had two daughters, Ariela and Noa. In 1958, the family moved to the United States before finally settling in Ottawa two years later.
Ms. Heilman, 75, is retired. For 30 years she was a senior social worker at the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society.
For years she kept silent. In 1987, at the behest of a fellow survivor, she began to tell her story.
“She told me ‘you have to open your mouth,’ ” Ms. Heilman recalled.
Ms. Heilman recognized her historic responsibility. She also started writing a book from the diaries she kept during the war.
In 2002, she won the Ottawa Book Award for her memoir, Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman.
She has now told her story hundreds of times and realizes how important it is for people to know. Yet last night, after another stirring speech, as the guests began shuffling out the door, she admitted it never gets easier.
“Each time you relive it, over and over again.”