Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling related her story to Colgate University students and faculty for the twenty-eighth time in as many years Tuesday night, emphasizing the “righteous” potential in each individual.
“My name is Helen Sperling,” she began frankly. “I’m a Jew, and I’m a survivor of the Holocaust.”
Sperling, who received an honorary doctorate from Colgate, grew up in a small Polish town 27 miles from Warsaw and was interned at Ravensbr??ck and Auschwitz.
Through newspapers, radio and refugee testimony, members of her community knew full well what was happening in nearby Germany from 1933 on, but they felt no responsibility to intervene, she said, drawing a comparison to the contemporary practice of watching events unfold on television without reacting fully.
“Nobody took [Hitler] seriously,” she said.
Sperling’s talk did not focus on stunning numbers or obviously devastating events, such as the loss of her parents and much of her family. Deceptively small things, like uprooted lilac bushes and using a blanket that belonged to a deceased child, figured strongly into her narrative.
“The first tragedy of the Holocaust was when somebody you knew your whole life … pointed you out and said, ‘She is a Jew,’ knowing full well you were going to be killed,” Sperling said.
She said that “6 million Jews” or “1.5 million children under the age of 12” sound like mere numbers.
First, she held up two framed pictures. “This is my mother,” she said. “This is my father. They are not numbers.”
Then, she told the audience to someday go to Auschwitz and look at the bins where personal belongings were stockpiled.
“Take one of the child’s toys, not with your head or with your hands, but with your heart,” she said. “Put it in the arms of a child who you love. Then know – don’t imagine, but know – that that child will be dead in 15 minutes and a little bit of ash in an hour.”
Sperling told stories of people being truncheoned to death, having to choose between eating or having toilet paper, standing for days in filthy train cars with no food or water, wishing inhuman medical experiments on others rather than themselves and, finally, reasserting their pride by little acts of sabotage and resolve.
“Despite all the cruelty, I was lucky enough to see humanity,” she said. “You cannot believe how people drag other people not to die.”
She emphasized the power of the individual who is willing to risk his or her own life for the dignity or survival of others.
However, the time since liberation has not been all optimism for Sperling.
“The worst thing that has happened to survivors is that the world has not learned a lesson,” she said, and told a story of her adopted daughter, Franny, coming home from school crying at the age of eight because someone had called her a “dirty Jew.”
This was the incident that inspired Sperling to begin telling her story and to continue for 40 years since.
Sperling closed with the Hasidic concept of the Lamedvavniks, 36 righteous people said to exist in every generation who keep the world safe. She said that part of this doctrine states that nobody knows who the Lamedvavniks are, and that she takes this to mean that anybody, even oneself, could be one of these people entrusted with saving the world.
To the crowd’s applause, Sperling stood and held out her arms.
“I don’t need an applause,” she said. “I need a hug.”
The majority of audience members made their way to the front to embrace Sperling. When one student came away from the hug with tears in her eyes, Sperling took the student’s face in her hands gently.
“Don’t cry. Go and save the world,” she said.