Helen, Charlotte, Lenka, Rose, and Rosalie.
The oldest of the Lebovic sisters was 21 and the youngest, 12, when they were herded off the train at Auschwitz in the spring of 1944.
Their mother, brother, cousins, and countless others would soon die in that concentration camp, where the monstrous Josef Mengele personally selected prisoners for annihilation.
But the five sisters from the small Czechoslovakian (now, Ukrainian) town of Tacova survived together, eventually building new lives and families of their own in the United States and Canada.
Later, someone gave the sisterly quintet the nickname “The Golden Girls.” I was privileged to meet one of them last week.
“Honey, let me tell you something,” said Charlotte Weiss, 93, who moved to Camden in 1960. “When my sisters and I get together, sure, we are happy, but you don’t forget what you lived through.
“It’s always in the back of my mind, but I can turn it off for a while and not think about it,” she said. “Otherwise I would go crazy.”
A mother of three, grandmother of six, and great-grandmother of five, Weiss raised her family in Camden. Her late husband, Isaac, ran Ike’s Groceries at Fifth and Washington for many years. Weiss now lives in the Lions Gate retirement community in Voorhees. She’s been the oldest surviving sister since Helen, whose married name was Herman, died in 2016. She was 93 and lived in Montreal.
The youngest sister, Rosalie Simon, 86, lived in Margate until 2017 and now resides in Floral Park, N.Y. Lenka Weksberg, 91, lives in Toronto, and Rose Miller, 90, lives near Baltimore.
Immaculately coiffed and delightfully down-to-earth, Weiss welcomed me into her cozy apartment. Her eldest daughter Renee Weiss Chase, a sculptor and retired Drexel University fashion design professor, was visiting from Collingswood.
Weiss was a bit anxious, but willing to talk. “You can ask me anything,” she said, and began to tell her story.
When the sisters arrived at Auschwitz, she said, they were assigned to the same barracks and looked out for each other, sharing precious bits of bread — “Bread was life,” Weiss said — and even scarcer potatoes.
“They were burning bodies day and night, and it was hard to smell that smell. It was awful,” Weiss recalled. “Every night we were afraid it would be the night they would exterminate us. What I’m telling you is only a little part of it. We went through hell.”
In one terrifying moment, Mengele selected Rosalie for the gas chamber, rather than for transport with her older sisters from Auschwitz to a work camp. Weiss, then 20, found the courage to confront him.
“I ran after him and said, ‘Herr Doctor, please I beg of you. Let my sister live,’ ” she said. “I spoke to him in German, thinking maybe he would think we were German.”
Remembering this, the elegant lady dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and continued.
“He turned around. It was unbelievable that I would have the audacity to talk to him,” she recalled. “He was like the king, and I was nothing. He said to me, ‘All of you sisters can stay here and go to the crematorium, where you will be together. … Under no circumstances can she go with you.’ ”
But a kindly Czech woman Mengele had also selected for the gas chamber helped the little girl escape from the wooden shack where those marked for death were being held.
“I was running like a wild animal,” Simon told me later by phone. “I saw the women standing there [for the train] and I heard someone calling my name. It was Charlotte. She took me into the line and hid me there. … She definitely saved my life. Charlotte to me is a real true hero.”
Simon recounted her Holocaust experiences in a memoir, Girl in a Striped Dress, published in 2014 by ComteQ Communications. It was written with Maryann McLaughlin, then a professor of English and the assistant director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University.
The sisters were close even before their imprisonment, said Simon. But being “stuck together in that hell” drew them ever closer.
“As adults we made it a rule we should see each other as often as we possibly could. We just wanted to have fun,” she said. “We dye our hair blonde so we’re the Golden Girls. I don’t know who started that.”
Three years ago, “we all got together in Canada,” said Weiss. “That was the last time.”
In January of this year, Charlotte, Rosalie, and Rose got together at a Newark hotel.
“They played this European version of rummy from morning till night,” Chase said. The conversation, mostly in Yiddish, was as much a marathon as the card play. The sisters barely took breaks to eat.
Family “is what keeps me going,” her mother said.
A staunch supporter of Israel, where her husband is buried, Weiss said her faith also sustains her.
“You have to believe in something,” she said. “You have to lean on something.”
When Rosalie was penned in the shack to be taken to the gas chamber, “I talked to God. When we were at Auschwitz, I talked to God. I told him, ‘Please let me die a natural death. Please don’t let the Nazis kill me.’ ”
Sitting across the living room from her seven decades later, I ask why she is willing to talk about something so unimaginably painful, and personal, one more time.
“Don’t ever say it can’t happen again,” she said. “It can happen again. It can happen not just to the Jews, but to others.
“So you have to tell people what happened. You have to talk from your heart.”