SARASOTA, Fla. (FOX 13) - She was defined by only a number. Her body was covered in lice and she hadn’t eaten in days. She had come face to face with one of the Nazi's cruelest SS officers, Josef Mengele, but was spared his torture.
Helen Borenstein says she weighed around 65 pounds when British soldiers liberated the concentration camp where she was held captive. Prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were freed 74 years ago, April 15, 1945.
Borenstein, who now lives in Sarasota, Florida, says if the allies came a few days later, she would have been dead.
“I wouldn’t be alive. Nobody would be alive,” she told FOX 13's Jennifer Holton.
The tattoo is still visible. "A-21498," she read aloud from her forearm.
The 22-year-old had spent the last several weeks in the northern Germany Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen.
Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died in the same barracks. Helen was there at the same time.
“It was very hard,” Borenstein said. “We had no food, they didn’t feed us. I weighed maybe 65 pounds. Everybody had lice and the lice carried typhus.”
A Polish Jew, Borenstein had survived six other concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Her older sisters were sent to other camps. Her father was sent to work hard labor. She remembers the last time she saw her mother.
“We were standing by a fountain and she said, 'I think this is it. I don’t think we will see each other anymore,'" Borenstein recalled.
That night, she was separated from her mother, who was eventually taken to a concentration camp and was killed in one of the gas chambers.
“I never forget the screams that we heard,” she said. “I don’t know how far it was but the whole night, such terrible screams.”
By the time Borenstein arrived at Belsen, the number of prisoners had soared to 22,000. Hundreds were dying every day from typhus and dysentery and food was scarce. She says she hid what bread she had.
“I carried the food underneath my jacket,” she said.
Borenstein slept on the cold barrack’s floor.
“On the ground,” she said. “There was a sweet little girl laying, I think she had typhus. When I woke up, she was dead. She had a good coat. And I took off her coat to have it for myself.”
The dead were not carried away, anymore. They were piled high, in the tens of thousands.
“There were mountains as high as the fourth floor,” she recalled.
Then came the morning of April 15. Someone came running to her barracks shouting that the Germans were no longer in their watchtowers.
“I ran out and I see everybody running to a building,” she said.
Inside were piles of potatoes.
“If you saw a wild animal, that’s how the people ran in and grabbed the potatoes, with the skin. Everybody was starved,” she said.
The British soldiers had arrived to liberate the camp. Borenstein clung to life.
“I was so skinny, you wouldn’t have needed an X-ray,” she said. “You could see everything through.”
Decades later, she never removed Auschwitz’s tattoo. She says her friends had theirs removed, but she didn’t like the way it looks afterward, so she decided to keep hers.
“I didn’t need it [removed],” she said.
It inked her place in one of the 20th Century’s most defining events, but this survivor refuses to let it define her.
When the British liberated Bergen-Belsen, they found around 60,000 prisoners in the camp, most of them seriously ill. More than 13,000 former prisoners died from their illnesses after liberation.
British forces burned down the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. Borenstein was there to witness it.