Holocaust Survivor Speaks to Students

Last Wednesday, April 16, Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling came to Colgate to speak with students about her experiences in Nazi Germany and World War II. She wore a t-shirt that read “Colgate” in Hebrew, which was given to her thirty years ago, the first time she visited campus to discuss the things she endured.

Sperling began with a description of her early life in a small town near Warsaw.

“I was very well loved, very spoiled, very independent,” she said in a low voice that conveyed both nostalgia and regret. “We knew what was going on in the world, but we didn’t want to believe, to see the truth. Not even after we heard about what was happening to the Jews in Germany did we think it would come to us. Hitler was just a man with a little mustache who yelled a lot and people would yell with him. We thought he would disappear. In 1939, when the Germans walked into my little hometown, we realized it was here.”

She described one vivid memory she has of three young Germans coming to her home to look for gold. They went into the linen closet that her mother so carefully kept, pulling out towels and barking orders. One of them sat in her father’s chair, and Sperling recalled watching her father’s stature shrink.

“I want to tell you some of the things Germans told people about Jews,” Sperling said. “All the Jews were dirty, and then we were lazy. We were parasites, we did not know how to work, and the Germans were going to teach us how to work.”

She explained the two categories that Jewish people were placed under. The Good Jews were the young and the strong, while the Bad Jews were older people, disabled children and pregnant women.

“From the beginning they told us that people who would work, the Good Jews, would protect their families,” she said. “So the rush for jobs was unbelievable. The rumors were that at one point we would be taken out of our houses and go somewhere else, but somehow no one believed it. We believed that once the world learned what was happening to us, they would come.”

Soon after the family was relocated, they were told they would have to leave again. This time, they were brought to an enclosed, overcrowded ghetto. She then told the story of the night she decided to sneak out, just to call her best friend on her birthday, as was tradition for the two.

“I cannot tell you how proud I was, I was so proud I made it,” she said. “I called her house and said: ‘it’s me! You didn’t think I forgot your birthday?’ The voice on the other end said, ‘You dirty Jew. How dare you call?’ My soul was never the same.”

Sperling grew quiet for a moment.

“If I tell you that six million died in the Holocaust, it really doesn’t mean that much. Just a six and six zeroes.” She turned to the pictures of her mother and father and, holding them up for the audience said with a firm voice, “look at them. They are not a number, they are mine.”

“I remember how stupid I was when they told us, ‘take warm clothing,'” she said about being taken to the camps. “They would take the best of the warm clothing and send it to their soldiers in Russia.” As for who would live and who would die, “By that time, we should have known. To the left were old men and pregnant women, and to the right were young people. What happened to them? We know.”

Sperling paused before explaining that, “For many years I though that [my family] died easy. I thought they died together. Not necessarily.” Men and women were separated, the men being killed first because it was decided they could be a threat to their captors. She told the students in attendance about the duplicity of the Germans and the ability a person has to ignore the truth until it is too late.

When she and a group of other prisoners arrived at the labor camp, she remembers how the people who were already there were bald and dirty. She thought to herself, “I cannot look like that. It was months later it was raining and I saw myself and I was that ugly. Not only did the Germans look upon us as though we were subhuman, we looked at each other like we were subhuman.”

The prisoners were made to work for the war effort by assembling different types of shells and ammunition. Once they learned what they were doing however, they decided that they were not going to help the Germans win the war. Over time, the prisoners discovered that there was one hour in the day during lunch when they were not being watched by anyone.

“In this hour we were happy,” Sterling said. “We developed mechanisms of sabotage. From noon to one we made all the shells too short, all the grooves too deep. Resistance was so difficult, that if there’s any resistance it was so miraculous. If you kept some kind of dignity, you resisted.”

She spoke about how people were beaten at random, and if they were bruised the following day, they would be publicly executed. Victims would come up to others and ask if they were marked. Sperling recalled how it was eventually understood that it was kind to say yes, and even assist the marked person in committing suicide. This was considered far more dignified than having to endure a public execution.

“What bothered us tremendously was that we did not know what was happening in the war,” she said. “It was not until February of 1945 when our camps were bombarded did we realize we had a chance. And it was wonderful.”

Sperling was found on April 16, 1945, and was later reunited with her little brother who had survived in another labor camp. The two traveled to America when a family agreed to sponsor them. She eventually married another survivor.

“I don’t think I could marry somebody who did not know what makes me tick,” she said. “Because during the day, I am pretty normal, but at night I am not. The nights are still Hitler’s.”

The day her seven-year-old daughter came back from school crying because somebody had called her a “dirty Jew,” Sperling said, her “whole beautiful American life collapsed.”

“I survived and I didn’t survive for nothing,” she said. “So I talk, and I talk and I share. The important thing is not only the people who killed, but also the people who did nothing. The bystander. I want you not to be bystanders; don’t let anyone tell you you’re helpless. It’s so important, so very important.”

She concluded her talk by asking the students to give her a hug, and most gladly obliged.