On Thursday, May 1, Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling shared her story with the entire CVA student body. Her tale was one of her life in Poland, her trials in Nazi prison camps and how her experiences compel her to speak out to help prevent similar horrors from happening today.
“I’m Helen Sperling. I’m a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. I’m sure you know a lot, but you need to know more. It is my fervent hope that when you leave the room today, you will be different than you came in,” she began.
Her story and history
In 1939, Mrs. Sperling described herself as a very loved, spoiled and independent young Jewish woman living in a small town 27 miles from Warsaw. Her father was an architect who would spontaneously take her via train into Warsaw for a cream puff. Hers was a comfortable life.
That slowly changed with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He had declared his view of Jews in his book Mein Kampf in 1925. And yet, Mrs. Sperling said people viewed him as a crazy little man with a funny mustache.
That changed little despite the 1938 Evian Conference in which Hitler offered to ship Germany’s 200,000 Jews to any nation that would take them. Not one of the conference’s 32 countries agreed to accept appreciably more Jewish refugees. The world’s refusal to act assured Hitler that the world would not interfere in any plans he might have to deal with the Jewish people.
Still, Poland’s Jews refused to be concerned—even when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
Poles believed that France and England would intervene and the invasion would end in two or three days. Instead, it lasted six years.
The persecution began slowly, lulling Polish Jews into denial. Jews had to register and identify themselves with a white armband adorned with a blue Star of David. Anyone who did not register was soon turned in and punished. Then Jews were forced to give up their gold, jewelry, furs and other valuables. One family that hosted a party that included Jewish guests was found hanged.
The Nazis spread rumors that Jews were dirty and lazy. Those fostered a belief that Jews carried lice and spread disease. It wasn’t long before Jews were moved into ghettos separate from the rest of the people. Ghettos were soon surrounded by barbed wire and guards to keep “dirty” people inside. Anyone caught leaving would be killed. When that was no longer enough to keep people from leaving, the Nazis killed the family of those who escaped. Eventually, the Nazis gathered up ghetto residents as hostages, killing them whenever someone escaped.
Despite the hunger, disease and horrors of the ghetto, Mrs. Sperling said everyone refused to believe the Nazis would close the ghetto.
Hitler promised in Mein Kampf to get rid of the Jews. His “final solution” began by isolating all Jews in the ghettos. Everyone who was unable to work—the young, old, pregnant women and infirmed—we relocated. She later learned these people had been trucked into the woods outside of town and shot. By 1942, the Nazis had been a series of concentration camps with gas chambers and giant ovens to cremate the bodies.
It was with disbelief and utter shock that one day, ghetto residents were loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to a concentration camp. They disembarked and filed past a Nazi officer, who with a slight wave of his hand, divided people into two groups. To the right went the healthy and able; to the left went everyone else. After placing possessions and clothing into giant bins, the unable were paraded into “showers” where they were gassed.
“They were dead in 15 minutes and ash in ah hour,” said Mrs. Sperling.
What followed for her was a systematic process to dehumanize and enslave her. She and other able bodied people were sent to a transitional camp where they were subjected to cold, hunger, medical experiments and physical and psychological torture in an attempt to rob people of their self-worth. From there, they went to labor camps where people worked until they died.
She spent the remaining three years of World War II in a labor camp making aircraft munitions. Despite working 12 hours each day with little food, she and her fellow prisoners found ways to sabotage the shells they made. In great detail, she described her physical decline—she weighed just 60 pounds at war’s end. Finally in 1945 American forces liberated her and her fellow prisoners.
She explained her survival as 99.9 percent pure luck.
Why she speaks
Although the worst of the atrocities ended with the war, persecution and antisemitism continued. Jews who had lost their homes and property had nowhere to go. The lies about Jewish people spread at the beginning of the war persisted. Nations would not would not accept Jewish immigrants without sponsors. Finally in 1949, the world created the nation of Israel, opening a new homeland for displaced Jews.
After spending three years in a German hospital recovering from injuries she received in the labor camp, Mrs. Sperling emigrated to the United States, sponsored by her former nanny. She married and adopted two children.
Then, one day in 1967, her nine-year-old daughter came home from school, saying she had been called a dirty Jew.
That was the beginning of her personal campaign to speak with parents, students, teachers—anyone who would listen—about what had happened to her. Her desire was that her story would help end bullying, persecution and genocide in this world.
“I don’t know if you know what you have,” she said.
She warned that there are things that people absolutely cannot take for granted. Everyone must be on guard against the horrible things she experienced. This kind of tragedy must never happen again she said. Sadly, she listed Cambodia, Syria and Libya as examples of how history can repeat itself if people turn a blind eye.
“There were two types of people in the war,” she said.
“There were bystanders who looked out the window and saw their neighbors taken away and did nothing. And then there were righteous Gentiles who risked their lives and sometimes lost them to protect the Jews.”
She encouraged the students and staff to stand up for what is right.
“What do I want from you?” she asked.
She answered herself telling everyone that she does not want anyone to tell you you can’t do anything. She encouraged everyone to love children, because society cannot survive without that love. And finally, she added her own commandment, “Thou shalt not be a bystander. Speak out. Don’t pretend you don’t see.”
In closing she said, “I don’t want much, but I don’t talk for nothing.”
She asked for a hug.
CVA principal stepped up and hugged Mrs. Sperling, then presented her with several gifts.
And then, nearly half of the students and staff stood in line for the honor of hugging a woman who had suffered so much, but is determined to rise above her nightmare to make this world a better place.