Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Feature Writing Class were assigned to profile people at the forefront of change:
Helene Strong, a Holocaust survivor, recollects on her experiences with World War II and how they inspired her to reach for a life devoted to helping others.
Helene Strong sits in a cadet blue chenille reclining arm chair. She pauses for a moment, inhaling deeply. Behind her stands a tall, oak bookcase. It’s filled with framed photographs of her children, books on history and war and a Dutch dictionary. Dexter, a cocker spaniel-Shih Tzu mix, sits on Strong’s lap. She strokes his golden fur back and exhales, letting out a sigh.
Strong was 13 years old when the Nazis began their occupation of Belgium. As a young Jew, she feared she would be detected, taken and sent to a concentration camp. For four years, she hid her identity.
She had heard stories of Jews being taken to concentration camps or killed on the spot. She believes one of her uncles, who worked on the shipping docks of Antwerp, was discovered and taken by Nazi soldiers.
“A traitor must have given his name and there was an accident,” Strong said. “It was all made up and he was gone but that’s what they would do.”
Strong will never forget how her world changed on May 28, 1940. World War II started less than a year earlier but the Germans occupied her home.
“Next thing I knew, the Germans came,” said Strong. “The Jews had to wear a Star of David, yellow, it said Juif.”
A recent survey by Claims Conference, an organization dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, found that there is a lack of knowledge regarding the Holocaust and World War II in the United States. Nearly half of Americans ages 18–34 do not know key details regarding the Holocaust, concentration camps or Hitler. For survivors like Strong, these gaps in knowledge are alarming.
Strong was born in 1927 on a small farm in the Flemish Region of Belgium. Strong was the youngest child, born into a family of six girls.
Her mother died during childbirth and the cost of raising six children and running a farm was a burden for Strong’s father. He sent each child to live with different relatives. Strong was sent to Brussels to live with her aunt and uncle. She never learned what became of her sisters.
Strong’s life in Brussels was extravagant compared to life on the farm. Twice a week, a hairstylist would come to the home to wash and style her hair. The family had a chef and maids. Strong also had a personal nanny who doted on her every desire.
“I was treated like a china doll,” recalls Strong.
Her aunt’s wealth allowed her to afford luxuries such as tutors, private school and books. Strong developed a love for books and spent her time reading about art, literature and culture.
Every morning, Strong’s aunt would give her a wad of money before she headed off to school. After her lessons, Strong would take the trolley home. During a portion of her commute, she would pass Catholic churches where poor Belgians and Jews took refuge. Strong would make rounds, donating her money to those who needed it.
During the war, people were forced to portion their food and meals. Ration books contained removable stamps that could be used for certain items such as sugar or meat. Strong’s aunt used her wealth to purchase rationed or other illegal items on the black market.
“The stamps were not enough and after a while, if you were Jewish, they would deny the stamps,” said Strong. “There was nothing you could do about it.”
To avoid detection, Strong learned German. She believed that if she could speak the language of the soldiers, they would not suspect that she was Jewish.
The hardest part of the war for Strong was denying her faith. Even now, she struggles to connect with the Jewish community. But Strong understood that she had to sacrifice her beliefs to stay alive. During the war, she converted to Catholicism to erase any connection to Judaism.
“You can’t change your circumstances, but you can change how you react to them,” Strong said.
In 1944, Belgium was liberated by Allied forces after four years of German control. Strong cheered among other Belgians as they celebrated the arrival. Strong wandered the brick streets, watching the parade of soldiers. Mock funerals for Hitler were held while the people of Brussels feasted.
Shortly after Belgium regained its freedom, Strong met a man in the United States Air Force. Shirley Carter Strong, from Virginia, was briefly in Brussels to aid American troops. Although Helene Strong couldn’t speak English, Shirley Strong was fluent in French.
Shirley Strong was stationed in Paris, France with the air force. On Friday nights, he took the 9 p.m. train to Brussels, where Helene Strong was waiting. They would spend a few hours together, talking and getting to know each other, before he left on the midnight train back to Paris.
Shirley Strong proposed before returning to America. But Helene Strong finally felt free for the first time after the war and didn’t want to settle down. She turned him down. The couple stayed in contact, writing each other letters and speaking on the telephone. Shirley Strong proposed 29 times before Helene Strong’s aunt intervened. She wrote to him, inviting him back to Brussels, and helped arrange their marriage. For the last time, Shirley Strong called to propose marriage. Helene Strong finally said “Okay.” She was only 18.
“In those days, I was the right age,” Strong said. “But us girls didn’t talk about those things because we just had four years of war.”
One month later, Shirley Strong found a job working on a liberty ship that was bringing food supplies to Europe. He soon learned that the ship’s orders were changed and it was going straight to Bremerhaven, Germany before heading to Antwerp, Belgium. Shirley Strong jumped ship in Germany and made his way to Brussels.
On a cold, snowy, January day, Strong’s aunt, uncle and the couple went to the local registrar’s office where they were married before a judge. After three days, Shirley Strong met the ship in Antwerp to complete his work.
After his assignment was completed, Shirley Strong once again returned to the United States. Even now, he returned alone.
Within two weeks, Helene Strong received a letter from the United States Armed Forces. Strong was told she would be traveling on an American ship to New York City.
Strong’s husband stood waiting with his mother, step-father and two dogs at the New York City port. She was the seventh war bride off the ship.
“I did not want to come to America,” Strong said. “I was happy in my life in a nice little country.”
The couple rented a small apartment above a two-car garage in Bronxville, New York. The kitchen was the size of a closet. The bathroom had rusty water. The bedroom had one corner just large enough for a chair. Strong, who was accustomed to a life of luxury, was creating a new life.
But for the first time, Strong no longer felt fearful that she would be detected as a Jew. She felt excited to explore the endless possibilities that life in the land of opportunity could offer.
Strong was the only foreigner in town. She could speak French, Flemish and German but she could not speak English.
At the local Gristedes, Strong would shop for groceries. Her mother-in-law would write out the shopping lists in English. The store was often filled with older men. Strong would walk in, tall and slender, with a dimpled smile, and the men would teach her the pronunciations of the words.
“All I had to do was smile and they would stop what they were doing to wait on me,” Strong said. “The people there were very nice to me.”
After less than a year of marriage, Shirley Strong received a letter from the United States military. They requested that he join the United States Army to become a translator. The couple packed up their things, and their life in America, to move to Germany.
For four months, Shirley Strong was stationed in Garmisch, Bavaria, Germany learning German and performing other military duties. Helene Strong stayed closer to Frankfurt but visited on the weekends.
During this time, she became pregnant with their first child. But the lack of nutritional food and stressful circumstances caused a miscarriage.
“There was food but it was not the right food,” Strong said. “Europe was a big mess.”
While they were expecting another child, Shirley Strong was instructed to take Russian language classes. After World War II, all eyes were on the Soviet Union. Many allied nations feared that the country would spread communism throughout Europe and the world.
After another four months, the couple was finally living together in the same city. Shirley Strong began working as a military intelligence officer for the United States Army in Germany.
A Holocaust survivor reminisces on post-war life with an American military husband. Video created by Tori Barnhart for Lisa Phillips’ Feature Writing Class.
The family, who grew to six, lived in Germany and France for 15 years until Shirley Strong retired from the military. They returned to the United States, this time to Beacon, New York, to once again start a new life.
For many years Helene Strong was a homemaker, a military wife and mother. Every morning, she would help her children get dressed and send them off to school. Then she would do chores or spend her time reading. After school, Strong helped her children with homework or watched movies with them until she tucked them into bed.
When she was 38, Strong felt that she was meant for more in life. She began volunteering at the Castle Point Campus of the Veteran Affairs Hudson Valley every day. Strong was also taking classes to become an aide. When she started, her class had 38 students in it. In the end, only three graduated.
While working at the VA hospital, Strong discovered that her husband was having an affair. He remarried, but she never did.
“If he had ever asked me to come back,” Strong said. “I probably would have taken him back… I guess that’s what you call love.”
Strong, a new empty-nester, threw herself into her work. She split her time among the patients. Sometimes she’d play cards or listen to war stories in between providing care. She would pour cups of water for soldiers in the intensive care unit and help them drink when they were too weak. She sat at the bedside of dying men, holding their hands as they took their last breaths. Strong worked at the hospital for 21 years until her retirement.
“The greatest thing you can do is serve others above yourself,” Strong said. “Being empathetic and adaptable along with sympathy and humanity have driven me to always want what is best for others and not myself.”
Prior to arriving at the nursing home, Strong lived with her daughter and son-in-law. Her aging mind started to become forgetful, causing her to feel like a burden to her family. Strong voluntarily checked herself into a long-term care facility.
“They need to live their lives,” Strong said. “I’ve lived mine.”
Death is not something that worries Strong. She never expected to live to 91.
Strong’s greatest fear is that the events of World War II and the Holocaust will happen again. The Claims Conference found that 58 percent of Americans believe something like the Holocaust could happen again.
Now, Strong spends her time reading and watching the news. She watches the news every morning, fearing that another catastrophic event has taken place. Strong traded her books on art and literature for ones on history and war.
Strong looks down at Dexter, who has fallen asleep on her lap. She points to a watercolor painting, tucked into the corner of her desk. The image is of a small, brick church located on the coast of Belgium near the town she was born in.
“My son is going to take my ashes there,” Strong said. “He’s going to take me back home.”
Read about more #ChangeMakers here:
David Wilkes, self-taught artist and vice president of Roost Studios and Art Gallery, opens up about how his journey with photography led him to go to Ghana, West Africa.
Bryan Sison, a photography enthusiast at SUNY New Paltz, creates thought-provoking images on his Students of New Paltz Instagram page.
Billie Golan, the head organizer of the farmer’s market, has managed it every Thursday for the past three years and strives to create a sense of community.
Caleb Sheedy, theater major at Syracuse University, single-handedly organized a walkout at New Paltz High School after the Parkland Florida shooting to create a platform for change on gun violence.
Ellie Condelles, president of Democracy Matters, spends each Thursday informing her peers about the importance of political involvement, especially in the current political climate and their ability to make a change.
Victoria Precise, an alumna and drag queen, educates the Hudson Valley on drag and inclusiveness, while maintaining mentor relationships with students.
Emma Ward, zine enthusiast and activist uses her position in society to advocate for human rights and other issues prevalent in America.
Brianna Knight, co-president of Melodía and Movement, strives to educate people about diversity through her poems and hopes to become a teacher.
Liam Neubauer, event coordinator of rush week for Alpha Phi Omega uses his fraternity to help others through service work and recruits others for volunteering.
“Jenny,” a child protective service worker, tries to help children everyday while struggling with the fact that she is an undocumented immigrant.