Helen Sperling, a Holocaust survivor, shared her story with the Colgate community in Love Auditorium last Wednesday.
Sperling, 93, has been telling her story at Colgate and similar institutions for more than 40 years. She described growing up in a small town in Poland as part of a Jewish, middle-class family. She noted that, as Hitler gained power, her family did not take threats seriously.
“We should have known,” Sperling said. “We should have believed. We should have done something.”
Her story quickly transformed from one of a pleasant childhood with a loving family to one of loss and fear. Her family was moved from the security of their home to a Polish ghetto, and later to several concentration camps.
“The situation was pretty bad but we hoped, we hoped the world would wake up. You really cannot survive without hope,” Sperling said. Hope was just one of the secrets Sperling shared on how she survived.
When working at an ammunition factory in Buchenwald, a concentration camp, Sperling was caught sabotaging shells. The man who caught her tried to bring her an apple, positive she would take it.
“He gave me the apple like you give a bone to a dog. If I took that apple, I lost my dignity, so I didn’t take it,” Sperling recalled.
Next, the man offered her bread and cake, both of which Sperling again refused, despite unimaginable hunger.
“Ask any survivor, 99.9 percent of surviving is luck but the other part is keeping your dignity,” Sperling said.
After years of struggling for her life, Sperling and others from Buchenwald were rescued by Americans. Although she lost both of her parents, she found and reconnected with her brother, who had also survived. Later, she married another Holocaust survivor and they adopted two children.
Despite being rescued, Sperling’s story continued. When her daughter was nine years old, someone at school called her a “dirty Jew.”
It then occurred to Sperling that it was her duty to speak out and share her story.
“My eleventh commandment to you is, ‘Thou shall not be a bystander,'” Sperling said. “If we want to survive as a human race it is not permissible to be a bystander.”
She encouraged the audience to speak up in the face of injustice and to know that one’s actions matter.
She concluded her story with a Jewish legend that says there are 36 notable men and women in each generation. Sperling states that the beauty of this story is that anyone can be this notable person, even the students in Love Auditorium.
“I hope when you go home tonight you won’t be the same; I hope you realize you count,” Sperling said.
The two-hour recount of the darkest moments of Sperling’s life was filled with emotion, humor and hope. Each member of the audience shook hands with Sperling and left with a bracelet reading, “Thou shall not be a bystander,” as a reminder of her story and a reminder to speak up.
Contact Emily Rooney at [email protected]