Wars throw up many remarkable stories of courage and coincidence, cruelty and compassion, but very few as remarkable as that of Gena and Norman Turgel. They met when Norman, a young British officer, entered Belsen with the Allies to liberate it. There he found a mass of starving, disease-ridden people. Among them was 22-year-old Gena Goldfinger. When her husband-to-be first laid eyes upon her, she was half-starved, gap- toothed and in rags.
But Norman says he knew at once that they were meant to meet. "When I first saw Gena I thought, `This is the girl I am going to marry'." A few days later he proposed, the bemused Gena accepted, and in October 1945 the young couple returned to England, to be greeted by headlines proclaiming Gena "The Bride of Belsen".
The Turgels have spent their married life in north London, close to where Norman brought her after their wedding: the home of parents-in-law she had never met. Today, their house is spotless, almost uncannily so, as though, having been at the mercy of hellish forces for five hellish years, Gena was now obsessive about imposing order, neatness and perfect cleanliness upon her surroundings. Despite the harrowing events of 50 years ago, today she comes across as a grand Jewish matriarch, immaculately dressed, her soft blond hair swept back in a perfect coiffure with not a lock out of place. At 72, she remains a beautiful woman.
Her voice perhaps gives a clue to the nature of her experiences. It is cool, calm, precise, but with an indefinable authority. Behind its modulation lies great strength. One senses that she is not someone with whom it would be wise to argue, for here is a woman who has suffered all that war and the Nazis could throw at her, yet who (she says) thanks to luck, willpower and courage, was one of the few who survived.
Genawas born in Cracow in 1923, the youngest of nine children from an affluent middle-class Polish family. She was brought up in a big house filled with all the accoutrements of bourgeois comfort: parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, Persian rugs. Her early childhood was very happy.
The family was well-respected in the town and she did not know the meaning of anti-Semitism until 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. "Then our freedom ended abruptly and we found ourselves utterly cut off from the rest of the world." Jewish schools and colleges were closed; the Gestapo commandeered Jewish business. Gena witnessed horrifying sights: men in chains being dragged through the streets, summary executions, and everywhere the random torture of Jews.
"We were turned out of our home to live in the ghetto. All the other Jews of Cracow were there, too, but no feelings of strength or unity emerged from this sharing of experience. Life in the ghetto was unreal. People's main preoccupation concerned the next transport... would it be their turn next?" Gena's sister-in-law, with her three-year old son, was sent to Auschwitz and never heard of again. Her brother, Willek, was shot by a German in the street when he stood on a chair next to a window to get a suitcase on top of the wardrobe. "He was such a gifted fellow, so intelligent: my favourite brother. I loved him dearly and I couldn't believe he was dead.
"All this was a preparation for the concentration camps, about which we were already beginning to hear rumours. But in our ignorance we still didn't think the war would last long enough for that to happen. We expected the Allies to march in and liberate us at any moment."
On 1 March 1942, Gena, her mother and her sisters, Miriam and Hela, were sent to the concentration camp at Plaszov (the camp depicted in Schindler's List)where theyshared a barrack with 100 people.They were sent to work, and as they worked they could smell bodies burning. "The agony grew deep inside me and I became like a stone." Her sister Miriam survived for several months before she, too, was shot. "Miriam used to sleep on my left side in the barrack and from that moment to this my left side has always felt chilly, as if a part of my flesh had been cut away." At other times people would simply disappear, transported to Auschwitz. "I remember one mother in the barrack who took off her daughter's coat, put it on herself and went to Auschwitz instead of her."
Then, in December 1944, orders came for the camp to be liquidated. They left on foot: Gena, still with her mother and her sister Hela - now very frail - in the last transport to leave Plaszov. The temperature was 20 degrees below freezing. "We walked all day long for about three weeks, sleeping in farms or snowy fields."Acts of kindness from villagers- surreptitious gifts of long johns, coffee,a precious tin of meat - enabled them to survive.
Eventually, they got to Auschwitz."In our loose, striped, insect-ridden clothing and with our hair cropped or shaved we felt completely dehumanised," says Gena. There, her sister Hela was injected with petrol as part of the Nazis' infamous "experiments", and became desperately ill; she died in the camp hospital.
With the Germans fearing the arrival of the Allies, they began shuttling their emaciated prisoners across the country in the hope that they would die of hunger and cold. Gena and her mother were sent by cattle truck toBergen-Belsen, arriving in February 1945.Typhus had swept through the camp. "Wherever we walked, we had to climb over piles of rotting bodies." Everywhere, they smelt death and dysentery. "It is a smell you never forget."
Today, aged over 70, Norman is a small, intense, dark-eyed man;then he was a battle-weary young soldier, servingas a sergeant in the 53 Field Security section of British Intelligence.When the Army entered Belsen on 15 April 1945 - "At 3pm," Norman says; "You don't forget the details of such an event" - it fell to him to arrest the camp commandant, the notorious Josef Kramer. "Maybe it was fate, that a Jew should arrest one of the war's worst concentration camp guards, known as the Beast of Belsen," Norman reflects, "but first and foremost I was doing my duty as a British soldier. These were evil men and women who had to be brought to justice.
"The scenes which greeted us were like something out of a horror film. People everywhere were dying. Others had been reduced to cannibalism. To see thousands of innocent people being starved to death, murdered or poisoned was beyond belief. We had all been innoculated against typhus and other diseases but on 18 April, three days after our arrival, I woke up paralysed. I could not get out of bed. When needles were stuck in to me, I felt nothing. This lasted for 24 hours and was ascribed to shock at the horrific sights we had seen."
He recalls his first meeting with Gena, "a blonde young woman whom I took to be a nurse.In my eyes she looked beautiful and I knew immediately I saw her that we were meant to meet". In the most unlikely of circumstances, Norman Turgel fell in love.
On 7 October 1945 they were married in a Lbeck synagogue by Rabbi Leslie Stephen, who was also an army chaplain; Gena wore a wedding dress made of parachute silk.Shy and bemused by the speed of events, she admits now: "In some ways I would have liked a little longer to think about it but Norman was so determined to marry me that I gave in, and now I'm glad that I did. I really believe we were meant for each other."
Back in London, the young couple moved in with Norman's parents and after a few weeks Gena found to her astonishment that she was pregnant. The war years had taken a great toll, yet unlike many other women from the camps, she was still able to conceive. Their first child, a daughter, was born in the autumn of 1946. Today they have three grown-up children and eight grandchildren. Gena could almost be any proud and perfectionist Jewish matriarch. But, she says, the pain and loss always remain buried within.
Remarkably, her mother survived the camps, too, largely because Gena managed to smuggle precious food to her and encouraged her to have hope. She came to live in England with Gena and her husband and attended her grandson's bar mitzvah before dying peacefully at the age of 99, knowing the family line had not been ended by the Nazis. "My courage came from my mother," says Gena. "I was determined to keep her alive, and because of that, I lived."
The story of Gena and Norman Turgel is told in `What Did you Do in the War, Auntie?' a series beginning on BBC1 on 2 May, and in Gena's book, `I Light a Candle' (Grafton Books, 1987).