For the last 40 years, Helen Sperling has been coming to Col-gate to tell students and faculty the story about her survival of the Holocaust, and this year was no different. On October 10, in front of a lecture hall full of attentive lis-teners, she retold her amazing story once again for a new group to hear.
“I was very well loved, very spoiled and very independent,” Sperling said of her childhood in Poland. Born 92 years ago in a town about 27 miles from Warsaw, Poland, Sperling came from a large and very tight knit fam-ily. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was an architect.
“We should have known what was coming, we did not want to believe it,” she said. It was not long after Germany began their invasion of Poland in 1939 that they marched into Sperling’s hometown.
“I remember the boots, the ugly, black, shiny boots,” Sperling said of the German soldiers who came in and demanded that all the Jews register and wear armbands to identify themselves.
Not long after the beginning of the occupation, all the Jews in Sperling’s town were forced to move into a ghetto.
“Overnight we were locked into the ghetto,” Sperling said. “The promise was as long as we could work we would be safe.” Food ra-tions were given to all the residents, but they were usually not enough and people began to quickly die of hunger and disease.
“The situation in the ghetto was getting bad,” Sperling said.
Soon rumors began to emerge that the residents of the ghetto were to going to be moved and before long things got worse.
“They told us to bring three days of food and warm clothing,” Sperling said of the Germans. The residents of the ghetto were packed on to cattle trains for their first transport.
“You could not sit down, you could not lie down,” Sperling said.”Then we went to selection and it was so simple,” she said of her arrival at her first camp, where she and her family were put through a pro-cess to decide who lived and who did not. The weak were taken off to the left and told that they needed a shower, which turned out to be a gas chamber, and the strong were taken to the right.
“We were also ordered to take off [our] clothes and get into the shower, but it was a real shower.”
The strong were then each given a flannel nightgown, a jacket and a metal plate to eat off of.
“The jacket had on it what you had become – a number,” Sperling said.
Their next move was another transport, this time to a transition camp for women called Ravensbr??ck where prisoners were trained to be slaves for later work in concen-tration camps. They were given some food and forced to walk to their new camp.
“All of us without exception got sick,” Sperling said of the dreadful march. “Not only did they look at us as sub-human but we looked at each other as sub-human.”
“Selection for experiment was worse than initial selection,” Sperling said. “They would put people in ice baths … inject them with all kinds of sicknesses and diseases … The Ger-mans were absolutely obsessed with destroying the ‘bad’ race and improving their own.” Ra-vensbr??ck was the first camp to use women for these kinds of experiments that became an in-famous part of the Holocaust, where Sperling said two-thirds of her transport died.
Sperling’s next move was to Buchenwald, a men’s work camp that produced weapons for the German military.
“We were needed [and] as long as we could work, we were safe,” Sperling said of her 12 hours a day, seven days a week shifts in the arms factory. “If you couldn’t work, you went to Bergen-Belsen and that was it.”
“People ask how come we did not rebel, [how come] we did not escape,” she said. “It was a foolish thing [to try to escape]; you did not look like a human being.” Prisoners who tried to escape and failed were hung for the en-tire camp to see and everyone was disciplined to prevent future attempts.
But resistance did not always take the form of escape attempts. As a worker in the factory at Buchenwald, Sperling and the other women were forced to make anti-air-craft missiles for the German army. She and the other workers would purposely make mistakes in the production of the missiles to render them useless when the Germans went to fire them. This came with serious con-sequences though. When a guard caught Sperling sabotaging the artillery, he beat her and later tormented her with a lack of food upon her return to work.
Months passed and things continued to look bleak until one day Sperling was re-turning from the factory and was told the prisoners were being evacuated.
“We walked and we walked and we walked … if you fell down they would kill you,” Sperling said. After a few days of relentless walking, the end finally came.
“From [out of ] nowhere there were tanks, big, beautiful, American tanks,” Sperling said. “As far as I was concerned, the war was over and I collapsed.” She spent the next three years of her life in a Munich hospital where she was eventually reunited with her brother who had also survived the camps.
When Sperling and her brother were released from the hospital, they ended up in a displaced person camp for another three years.
“The Jews did not have a place to go, there were very few takers,” Sperling said.
Eventually Sperling’s childhood nanny earned enough money to help her and her brother come to America for a better life. A few years later, Sperling met her hus-band Leon, whom she was married to for 50 years.
“I don’t think I could marry anyone but a survivor,” Sperling said. “We lived a wonderful American life.”
Sperling hit home with her central message.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes … I don’t want you to be bystanders … don’t look at the world as them and you,” Sperling said. “The days are mine, [but] the nights are still Hitler’s. When you burn books, you start burning books and end burning people.”
Contact Rachelle Ehrman at [email protected]