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Published: Saturday, 4/11/2009

Nazi camp survivor was active in Jewish groups

Tonia Helberg, 84, a Holocaust survivor who settled in Toledo with her husband, Sam - they met in a concentration camp - and was active in the Jewish community, died Tuesday in Kingston Care Center of Sylvania from complications related to dementia and diabetes.

Mrs. Helberg of Sylvania Township had been a member of Congregation B'nai Israel and its Sisterhood since the 1950s. She also was a member of Hadassah and ORT.

The former Tonia Altman was a teen in Poland when the Nazis took her to a small camp near Auschwitz. At barely 5 feet tall, "she really was the smallest in her barracks. The other people, they just kept an eye on her and protected her," her son Tom said.

Sam Helberg's skill as a barber meant he was kept apart from the general population and received extra rations, which he shared, secretly, with other prisoners when he could.

Tonia met him through a fence as he shared his food.

"They were never together," their son said. "So much of that situation was fate and living by your wits."

After she was liberated, she found refuge in a home for young survivors who could not find their families. She later learned that her parents, two brothers, and sister were dead.

Meanwhile, her future husband went from town to town, asking about the young woman he'd only met through a fence.

When they reunited, he remarked, "•'You have nobody, and I have nobody. Do you want to take a chance?'•" their son said.

They married not long after, she in a borrowed wedding dress, and he in borrowed shoes. They lived in Germany, then came to Toledo in 1950, sponsored by Jewish Family Service.

Mrs. Helberg was a homemaker and a volunteer in her community. Her husband was a barber and, later, a partner in a real estate investment company.

Decades later, they spent half the year at a second home in Aventura, Fla., where they were friends with other Holocaust survivors. In Israel, which they visited at least six times, they got together with members of their extended families and other survivors to tell stories and sing songs from the camps.

She and her husband were married 57 years when he died Sept. 8, 2003.

Surviving are her sons, Sandy, Ted, and Tom, and seven grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday in Congregation B'nai Israel. Afterward, family and friends will be received at The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim. Arrangements are by the Robert H. Wick/Wisniewski Funeral Home.

The family suggests tributes to Congregation B'nai Israel; the Alzheimer's Association Northwest Ohio Chapter, or a charity of the donor's choice.

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