Helen Sperling died last week at the age of 95. She survived Buchenwald. A significant portion of her life thereafter was devoted to reminding others of what occurred during those World War II days.
Helen lived most of her free adult years in Utica, my home town. A close friend Sharon Smith knew her well. I did not. Sharon frequently spoke of her.
I met Helen only once at some gathering. We were introduced. It was a hello, how are you, and on our separate ways.
Helen’s story sad. Hard to believe, unless a person shared her death camp experiences.
Helen lived with her parents and brother in a small Polish town near Warsaw. Her father an architect. Her family middle class.
As a child, Helen was spoiled, pampered and imaginative. She was at home on vacation from college when the Germans marched in. Her first recollection is that of “boots…..the ugly, ugly black boots” the Nazis wore.
The Nazis stormed into her home. They emptied the drawers and closets. One sat in her father’s chair. He shoved his booth in her mother’s face. He then threw some of the family’s fine linens at her. The German yelled…..”Polish them!” Helen helped her mother.
That day was the beginning of six years of helplessness, humiliation and degradation.
The family was first sent to a ghetto. Then to prison camps or death. Her parents were sent to their deaths. Helen was transferred to Ravensbruck, a transition camp. The last stop before a death camp. She was subjected to manual labor. The purpose of the labor was to break the prisoners’ spirits. Her time there she describes as demeaning. She lived in squalor, hunger and fear.
Helen says, “You did not realize who your friend was and who was your enemy.” She had a close girl friend before the Nazis arrived. Her closest girl friend. It was her girl friend’s birthday. Helen escaped from the ghetto for a short time. Her purpose to wish her girl friend a Happy Birthday. Her girl friend was a gentile.
She telephoned her girl friend. Helen was received with all kinds of racial slurs. At that moment, Helen says “…..something dreadful happened to my soul.”
Helen was transferred to Buchenwald. A death camp.
She has memories of the cattle cars and sorting. The sorting involving a German officer telling her when she arrived at Buchenwald which of two lines she was to get into. One you lived, the other you died.
Helen was selected for the live line. She was young and strong. She was able to avoid the death part of Buchenwald for that reason. She was directed to the work phase of Buchenwald.
She was made to work in a munitions factory. She and other prisoners produced artillery shells. When the guards were not looking, they did whatever to produce a defective shell. If caught, it meant death. Fortunately, Helen was not caught. She describes the destructive activity as revenge. It kept their spirits up.
Living quarters at Buchenwald were terrible. Filthy, cold, crowded. Food was limited. One piece of bread a day and whatever other slop was provided.
Each barracks/living quarters had a “block supervisor.” Also a prisoner. A trustee of sorts. The block supervisors had all kinds of privileges, including beating the other prisoners. Which was done frequently. In some instances to the same prisoner daily.
Helen’s block supervisor was a prostitute and murderer in her former life. She frequently stole Helen’s bread. The block supervisor did treat Helen good in one respect. Helen wrote poetry. She needed paper to write on. The block supervisor at great risk to herself would steal paper for Helen to write on.
Helen recalls the block supervisor thusly: “She still owes me the bread, but I owe her my humanity.”
Beatings by block supervisors and Nazi guards were constant. Helen owed her life to her fellow prisoners. On several occasions, she was beaten so badly that she was still bleeding at roll call time in the morning. Her fellow prisoners would hide her in the back row. In winter, red blood was obvious on white snow. Bleeding was not tolerated. The Germans would put such a bleeding Jew to death immediately. Then and there on the roll call field.
Helen says she constantly wondered while in Buchenwald why no one came to save her and the others.
Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945.
Helen was going nowhere. Except to a hospital. She was too sick. She was hospitalized for three years. When liberated, Helen was suffering from kidney cancer, pneumonia and malnutrition. She weighed sixty pounds. She also was infertile. No longer capable of bearing children.
At some point, her brother found her.
Helen immigrated to the United States. She met Leon. Leon was another Holocaust survivor. They married. Lived in different parts of the United States before settling in Utica. They adopted two children.
One day, Helen’s daughter came home from school crying. The other children had called her “…..a dirty Jew.”
Helen was incensed. She hurried to the school and confronted the principal. Helen insisted that she be given the right to speak to her daughter’s classmates the next day about anti-Semitism. She was given permission.
Not knowing exactly what to say, Helen decided to simply tell her story as told herein thus far. The impact on the class was astounding. She was invited to return every year thereafter to speak to the succeeding class.
The name calling and her first talk to a class took place sometime in the mid 1970s. Helen was not a public speaker. Her words made an impact, however.
Helen caught hold. Word spread. She was asked to speak everywhere. She gave the same talk three times a week for years. At colleges, universities, public and private high schools, police academies, monasteries, and churches. She gave these talks into her ninety’s. In central New York and through out the northeast.
It is seventy years since the end of World War II. Helen’s basic thrust was her concern that despite the lessons of the Holocaust, genocide has been ongoing. The story of the six million Jews has not taught man a lesson. The world stood by quietly while the Jews were being exterminated. Such conduct can never be permitted again. Speak up, yell!
Helen told her audiences that there was an Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shall Not Be a Bystander. No longer remain silent.
We talk about the genocides worldwide. Do we really do anything about them?
Some of Helen’s words I would like to share with you.
Helen started each of her talks with “Hello, my name is Helen Sperling. I am a Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust.”
Regarding those who stand by and do nothing as genocides occur: “…..a mistake. You cannot be a bystander. A bystander is someone who helps the evil.”
“There is no closure for a survivor. I tell the stories of what happened because they help me to survive.”
“Ninety nine percent of survival was sheer luck.”
Regarding survival: “A little bit of it was hanging on to dignity. Once you lost that, you didn’t have a chance.”
At the end of one Helen’s talks, a student asked whether she could forgive the Nazis. Helen’s answer: “The issue is not whether we can forgive the Nazis, the issue is whether we learned the lesson – genocide continues to occur in our world…..we have not learned our lesson.”
Helen challenges students to “Go and save the world!”
“I still don’t believe it happened.”
The memory “never stops hurting.”
“The days are mine, but the nights still belong to Hitler.”
Regarding hope and dignity: “You can live without food for a long time and without drink or anything. But you cannot live without hope and without dignity…..the Germans were trying all the time to take it away from us.”
“We do not have the right to be silent. The Eleventh Commandment is Thou Shall Not Be A Bystander.”
Rest in peace Helen Sperling. The first true peace since that day the Germans entered your home.