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A TWIST OF FATE : Spared 3 Times by Mengele

July 22, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

The most arresting truth of fate--or chance, as some wish to call it--is how it intrudes in the lives of everyday people. It affects the weak and strong, the good and bad, the young and old. For some it pops up again and again, often in the strangest ways. Often in the strangest places.

Fate can mean romance. Joan Smith was a barroom singer in St. Paul, Minn., when Ray Kroc walked in. He liked her voice, the way her fingers tickled the ivories. Joan Smith, now Joan Kroc, is one of the world's wealthiest philanthropists as well as the president of the San Diego Padres.

Fate can mean tragedy--for some it continues to mean that. E. Jack Ridout escaped death by fate three times--he avoided Vietnam, was injured in the world's worst aviation disaster, and missed a seat on PSA Flight 182, which crashed in San Diego.

Fate can mean taxing survival to the fullest. Auschwitz survivor Helen Waterford came before Mengele three times and three times was spared.

Fate can mean fame, unwanted or otherwise. Photographer Hans Wendt, who almost won the Pulitzer Prize for a picture of the crash of Flight 182, is uncertain of the side effects of fame-at least that imposed by fate.

Fate can mean philosophical, theological (or semantic) confusion. Pastor Paul Pulliam of San Diego's First Presbyterian Church has puzzled over the meaning of fate, and the role God plays in it.

He isn't sure of the answers.

Helen Waterford often hears, "My, my, you've had an interesting life." She wishes it were less interesting.

"Boredom would be nice," she said.

Waterford walked before Mengele three times. Each of those times he pointed one direction, and a friend of hers died. Once it was a mother and child. Each time he pointed another way, and she was spared.

She doesn't know why. She suspects she looked stronger than most of the "inmates" at Auschwitz, but dwelling on such matters only causes her further grief.

She refuses to say it was fate.

"I don't agree with this word 'fate,' " she said, sitting in her living room in La Mesa, sipping iced coffee. "I don't believe it is assigned before. Fate means a life directed somehow, some way, whether by God, the stars . . . I don't believe in that."

Waterford, 76, believes how a person handles chance (the term she prefers) is the only important criterion.

"If something unexpected happens, if someone close to you has a terminal illness or dies, it's what you do with it," she said. "How do you turn a black experience into a valuable one? I have met many survivors of the Holocaust. Everyone deals with it differently. I consider myself very fortunate. It has given me something in life I wouldn't have had otherwise. I don't want to say it has helped me, but it has made me another woman, one with more insight. Without it I would probably be an old woman . . . who loves to play bridge."

Waterford tours the country with Alfons Heck, a former member of the Hitler Youth who now writes and lectures on the evils of Nazism. Theirs is a compelling account of the power of fate to finagle its way into millions of lives.

Waterford, a grandmotherly type with a thick accent and soft eyes, says many who hear them often comment, "You know, I didn't want to come tonight, but now, I understand."

Understanding, she said, is the lesson of Auschwitz.

"Hating is a terrible thing," she said, and thus, she would never have engaged in a witch hunt for Mengele. Her time has been better spent, she believes.

Waterford, whose father was Lithuanian, grew up in Frankfurt. In 1934, after the Nazis seized power, she and her husband moved to Holland with dozens of other Jews. In 1942, the deportations to concentration camps picked up with a vengeance.

She and her husband were ordered to the train station for the trip to Auschwitz. They refused.

"The first step of resistance," she said. "You do not obey orders. If it's dangerous, unfair, don't do it. They can torture you, they can kill you. You can always say no."

The couple sought refuge in an attic hideaway. They remained for two years, living off the proceeds from pawned jewelry. In 1944, they were arrested--in the attic--and sent by train to Auschwitz.

The two Dutch and two German soldiers conducting the arrest saw a picture of Waterford's daughter on the wall. They ordered her to come, too.

"She's not here," Waterford said. When told to fetch her, she refused. "What more could happen?" she asked. "They'll shoot you there? As far as we knew, our lives were over."

For that reason she had given her daughter to friends two years earlier. The move puzzled and outraged others, but Waterford was right. Mothers and children by the tens of thousands were gassed at Auschwitz. Waterford feels being childless was a main reason she was spared. In the Nazi view, children and mothers were roadblocks to productivity. Whereas a strong single woman was an asset--why not let her work for a while, the thinking went, then kill her. That way the party was served two ways.

After arriving in Auschwitz in September, 1944, Waterford saw her husband one more time. Both had their heads shaved and their arms tattooed. They spoke quietly and said goodby. She never saw him again.

Her most lasting memory from the camp is of smokestacks rising from the crematorium. Later, while living in Chicago, she had nightmares night after night. Smoke from a stack near her apartment billowed long into the afternoon.

She remembers Mengele as a "good-looking Hollywood type," one utterly without compassion in sending thousands of Jews, Poles and children to death. He was a master, she said, at appearing to feel nothing.

"To have seen those masses of people come before him for hours, to show and feel nothing . . . " Her voice drifted off. "There is no why to the Holocaust. There are hundreds of thousands of answers but no one answer. I believe strongly it's what you do with that moment that counts. I do know I've seen the worst. What else can be as bad as Auschwitz?"

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