Despite the horrors she'd seen at 12, she grew to be "happy, vibrant, active woman."
Helen Segal never let the terrible thing that happened on July 6, 1941, define her life, but it could not help but shape her destiny and character.
That day, 12-year-old Helen and her parents were visiting relatives in Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), when Helen's uncle heard a ruckus in the street and opened the front door to investigate.
"Somebody yelled, 'Juden, Juden!'" said Helen's son, Conrad Segal of St. Louis Park, his voice breaking as he told his mother's story. "When the Nazis kicked in the door, my grandfather pulled my mother behind it. Then bullets were sprayed into the house, and most of the family, including my grandmother, were killed.
"Right then, my mother's whole life disappeared."
Helen Segal, who would go on to build a new life, died of complications from a stroke Dec. 25 at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She was 82.
Segal, the only child of a textile merchant and his wife, was born in 1929 in Czernowitz, then a city of 100,000, about half of them Jews, in an area that had been acquired by Romania after World War I. Her early childhood was idyllic, her son said. But on July 5, 1941, after a year of Red Army domination, the Axis-allied Romanian army retook the city, and the next day, Helen's family was slaughtered before her eyes.
As she and her father hid in horror near their relatives' bodies, the killers moved on. Helen and her father were driven into a ghetto along with thousands of other Jews, the majority of whom would be deported and killed. In 1944, the Russians again took Czernowitz, bringing some relief but also forcing the surviving Jews to work in day labor camps.
After the war, Helen's father remarried, and with his new wife and her newborn half-sister they made their way to Vienna, where they signed up with an organization that brought Jewish refugees to America. In 1951, they arrived in New York. From there they traveled to Minnesota.
Helen got work at Stillman's Grocery in north Minneapolis and soon met Monroe Segal, who had been born on the North Side in 1919. She "fell in love with his mind," their son said, and they married in 1953.
Their sons, Conrad and Fred, were born in 1958 and 1962, respectively. In 1967, Helen, hoping to bring extra money into the household, got a job at Zayre Shoppers' City in St. Louis Park, where she worked for 12 years. Then she moved to a series of downtown department stores -- Powers, Donaldsons, Carson's, Bergner's. In the 1990s, she moved to Ridgedale in Minnetonka.
Her final job was at Kohl's in St. Louis Park, where she was a distinguished presence even in her 70s, Conrad said. Three years ago, she retired to care for Monroe, who died in 2009.
"My mother was a very refined, elegant European woman, very professional, the one you could always count on," Conrad said. "My daughter once likened her to Julie Andrews in 'The Princess Diaries.'" Segal's many lovingly nurtured friendships included people with whom she had Old World ties and those she'd only recently met, he said.
Although Conrad and Fred, now of Plymouth, grew up aware of her history, only as adults did they fully understood how extraordinary her physical and emotional survival was, Conrad said. "For what she had experienced, seeing her family murdered, she came out of it a positive person," he said. "She was a happy, vibrant, active woman, right up to the end."
In addition to her sons, Segal is survived by her sister, Karla Schwartz of Berkeley, Calif., and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290