April 11, 2013
“I still don’t know how it happened,” Helen Sperling said to an audience in the Chapel on Tuesday night as she told her personal account of the Holocaust.
Sperling sat comfortably on the chancel steps as she narrated her experiences. She started her talk by greeting the audience and thanking them for coming, adding humbly, “I’m sure you have so much to do, but I’m honored you’re here.”
Sperling grew up in Poland and was around the age of many of her Tuesday night college audience members when the Holocaust began.
Polish Jews were warned about the growing persecution of Jews in Germany, but Sperling explained, “We did not believe it would happen to us.” When the Germans, with their “loud, shiny black boots,” invaded Poland in 1939, they registered Jews, took their valuables and ushered them into crowded ghettos.
Sperling explained, “They told [us that] we had to move to a part of town that I didn’t know existed.” She described the ghetto as a place of “screams and guns and dogs,” where “some people cried, and some people prayed, and it stunk.”
Although she was trapped in a ghetto literally surrounded by barbed wire, Sperling took a risk one day to call her best friend, a Christian Pole who lived outside of the ghetto. She was shocked when her friend responded, “You dirty Jew. How dare you call me?” Sperling described such betrayal and acts of bystanding as especially painful.
Despite the terrible conditions, Sperling explained that she and others remained hopeful, believing, “Once the people in the world see what’s happening to us, they’ll absolutely come and save us.”
However, the terror would continue—and worsen—for another six years. Although her family members were told that they would be going to Germany to stuff mattresses in a factory, they were instead sent to the gas chambers.
Sperling explained that the Nazis often told Jews that because they were “dirty,” they had to be sent to showers.
Once the Jews realized the showerheads emitted gas rather than water, however, it was too late. The Nazis would lock the doors to the chamber, leaving piles of victims in which “the weak were on the bottom and the strong [were] on top.”
After having told this particularly graphic and devastating part of her story, Sperling explained that though she has told the story several times, “it never stops hurting.”
Pausing, she said bluntly to the audience, “I don’t know how to tell you…I don’t know how to make you understand.” Numbers are too abstract; although “six million Jews died…it doesn’t mean anything.”
She emphasized that she repeatedly tells her story in order to humanize the people of the Holocaust and in turn connect people today with their traumatizing, inhuman experiences.
After an hour of speaking, Sperling told the audience, “I’ll let you stretch. Don’t go anyplace.” She picked up her talk with her arrival at the female concentration camp Ravensbrück, explaining that after entering the showers—not gas chambers, in this case—the “women came out, and they were naked, and they were so ugly” with their shaved heads.
The Germans effectively dehumanized prisoners in the camps, turning them into mindless slaves by robbing them of their individuality and identity.
Sperling explained, “Not only did [the Nazis] look at us as subhuman; we looked at each other as subhuman.”
In the camps, Sperling told of how she and fellow prisoners did what they could to sabotage the German war effort by purposely making mistakes in their factory work. However, Sperling explained that they “did not know what was happening in the war,” and it was not until they heard bombs falling nearby that they knew the Germans were floundering.
Once she was finally liberated, Sperling weighed only 60 pounds and had developed some sort of growth in her stomach. Despite her dire health conditions, she slowly healed with the administration of medical treatment, and the end of the war brought some happiness for her. She reunited with her younger brother, who also survived, met the man who would later become her husband, and eventually moved to the United States.
The Holocaust has continued to haunt Sperling’s life every day, however. She explained, “The days are mine. And the nights are still Hitler’s, and I dream, and I scream.”
At the end of her talk, Sperling told the story of how when her daughter was nine years old, she had come home from school crying because a classmate had called her a “dirty Jew.”
While Sperling’s idealized vision of a tolerant, free America crumbled, the incident inspired her to start speaking out about the Holocaust. She explained that by telling her story, “it makes you more aware. It makes you different than I was at your age. I don’t want you to be a bystander.”
Hannah Fine ’15, president of Hamilton Hillel, observed Sperling’s ability “to reflect on the past with wisdom, forgiveness and even a sense of humor.” Moved by the rawness of the speech as well as its inspiring conclusion, Fine commented, “I am amazed by survivors of events as horrifying as the Holocaust who are able to look at the world without bitterness or resentment.”
Indeed, while Sperling’s story is undeniably somber, it also offers a way to grasp and learn from the Holocaust, conveyed in one of her stirring final comments to the audience: “You are our future, and you don’t have a right to be silent.”
At 93, she continues to speak about her experiences.