Sperling Shares Holocaust Memories

Sperling Shares Holocaust Memories

Ryan Smith

Since the 1970s, Holocaust survivor Dr. Helen Sperling has been speaking to the Colgate community about her experiences during World War II. As in years past, Sperling, who received an honorary doctorate from Colgate in 2000, spoke to a group so tightly packed in Lathrop that many of the attendees willingly stood through the whole lecture. Sperling’s speech was sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program, the English Department and CORE 151.

Sperling spoke of her childhood, growing up on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland as a “well-loved, spoiled, independent child.” Her town was more of a familial community, where “birthdays, holidays, everything” were about a broader togetherness.

Before the Germans came, Sperling recalled the “ignorance” that ran rampant among the Jewish members of her small town. They had heard of the Germans, but most thought along the lines of Sperling’s father, “that Germany was the most civilized society in the world,” and it, whatever it may be, could not happen to them.

Thus, when the Germans marched in with their “ugly, ugly shiny black boots,” the populace was completely unaware of the evil that was to come. Willingly, according to Sperling, “Jews registered in the labor office for ‘protection,'” though from what, they did not know.

Sperling’s family did not awaken to their reality until they began to see “neighbors hanging from balconies.” Quickly the community that had celebrated birthdays and holidays together was selling each other out to the Germans: “He is a Jew; she is a Jew.” With such a breakdown in community, it became unclear who the “real enemy” was.

Eventually, the Germans began propagating the idea that Jews were “dirty and lazy.” Soon after, Sperling’s family home was seized by the Germans simply because the commander “liked the house.” When leaving the home her father had built with his bare hands, not a tear was shed. They left behind their valuables, furniture, clothing and her father’s beautiful lilac trees that peppered the property. Not until weeks later, when her father heard his lilac trees were dug up and sent to Germany did the family begin to break.

“It was the first time I saw my father cry,” Sperling said.

Sperling recalled how she felt at that traumatic, memorable moment.

“It was the beginning of six years of utter helplessness,” Sperling said.

The family was moved into the ghetto, which was enclosed by barbed wire, and were forced to either comply with curfew or face death. Initially, death was an individual risk but soon “violating the Germans meant they would kill your whole family.” Regardless, Sperling escaped the ghetto one night to wish her best friend, a Gentile, a happy birthday as they had always done. When the other line picked up, her friend answered: “You dirty Jew, how dare you call me?”

Sperling, to this day feels “something dreadful happened to my soul.” She has avoided returning to Poland out of fear that she may see that same friend on the street over 50 years later.

At times, Sperling had the audience laughing, as she offered to cook for the many standees in attendance. After all, if she could not “give them seats, as a Jewish grandmother, I could cook you something.”

The latter half of her talk focused on her experiences at the concentration camps of Ravensbruck and Buchenwald. There, Jews, prostitutes, gypsies and homosexuals were shaved, numbered and systematically abused and starved.

Sperling recalled for the audience the last time she saw her parents before they were sent to the “showers.”

“When I tell you 6 million people were killed, that means nothing. But they are not numbers; they are mine,” Sperling said, holding up the only pictures she has of them. 

Over the next several years, Sperling endured beatings and dehumanization that made her look and feel “sub-human.” At one point, she spoke of an SS soldier that had to strangle a prisoner every night in order to fall asleep. After weeks of hearing the screams, Sperling and the other prisoners “got mad at the victim for keeping them awake.”

The small victories, togetherness and luck kept her alive. She spoke of sabotaging German bombshells in the munitions factory, refusing to accept German food with which they taunted her and caring for each other when the worst of times got worse. As long as she resisted becoming “a slave” she had her mind and there was hope.

Allied Forces eventually liberated Sperling. She spent three years in a hospital during which time her liver was removed and she battled cancer. Years later, an American sponsored her immigration to New York where she married a survivor and raised a family.

To this day she has come a long way in coping with the barbaric evils she faced as a child, but sadly told the audience that although “the days are mine, the nights are still Hitler’s.”

Sperling stressed the importance of awareness and remembrance, echoing the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Sperling closed by saying that if there is one piece of advice to be had, it is that “there is no survival without love.”

“So, go to it,” Sperling said. “The world needs saving.”