Reflecting back on nearly a century of memories, Trude Heller describes her life as one “full of miracles.”
She remembers the early years growing up as an only child in Vienna, Austria. She liked school. She enjoyed going to dances on the weekends. She loved her mom’s strudel.
One day in 1938, everything changed. She remembers walking to gym class as a 15-year-old and coming out of the building to a sea of swastikas.
Unbeknownst to her, the Anschluss had begun.
As Jews, “we stopped being human,” said Heller, now 94.
Heller shared her story of Holocaust survival with about 75 Furman students as part of several special sessions arranged by Communications Studies Professor Brandon Inabinet ’04 during the past six weeks. Students from classes taught by Inabinet, History Professors Courtney Tollison ’99 and Dianne Vecchio, German Professor Erik Grell and Sociology Professor Claire Whitlinger all participated.
Inabinet was an undergraduate student at Furman when Heller Service Corps was named in honor of Trude Heller and her now-late husband, Max, for their long history of leadership, community service and philanthropic work in Greenville.
Although some classes have visited with Mrs. Heller over the years, Inabinet said he wanted to arrange on-going visits for as long as her health allows.
“For some of the history courses, this is the last generation of students who will ever have first-person testimony directly available,” said Inabinet. “Her story allows students to confront the reality of immigration and refugee issues as a recurring historical issue rather than a sudden new threat.”
For other classes in sociology and rhetoric, students were able to think at a more theoretical level about how storytelling and narrative functions in politics, how people judge the ethos of cultural heroes like Mrs. Heller and how people are able to determine truth from fake news in today’s digital era.
Bailey Freeman ’17, a German and history major from Rome, Georgia, said he was impressed with Mrs. Heller and the life of service she led with her husband, who served as mayor of Greenville from 1971 to 1979.
His chat with Mrs. Heller was a unique opportunity “to interact with someone who has been there,” someone who lived through a horrific time that he had only read about, he said.
Storytime with Trude had special meaning for Alexandra Harris ’17, an urban studies and German major from Crawfordsville, Indiana, whose grandmother came from Germany to the United States after the war.
“You can’t have these kinds of experiences by simply reading a textbook,” she said.
Sitting with a cane at her side and a beige handbag in her lap, Heller described her family’s struggles as Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Austria in detail. She and her parents, who owned two stores in Vienna, were forced to leave their home with six hours’ notice and were able to take only a few of their belongings with them.
After being separated from her father, Mrs. Heller and her mother escaped Vienna with the help of friends. They experienced a harrowing journey on and off trains, gathering false papers and spending weeks in the woods in winter before finally making it to Belgium. After a year of uncertainty, she and her mother were finally approved for visas to come to the United States.
“It was unbelievable that we made it,” said Mrs. Heller. “We had nothing.”
Heller stopped periodically during her story, encouraging students around her to ask questions.
“Do you ever get tired of telling your story?” asked one student.
“Never,” responded Mrs. Heller with a smile. “I love questions.”
These days, Mrs. Heller said she is surrounded by “43 of the best people in the world,” including three children, 10 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
“I try not to make my story sad, because it has a good ending,” she said.