associate professor of philosophy & religion, director of Jewish Studies
"Hello, my name is Helen Sperling, I am a Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust." Once more I hear these opening words to Helen Sperling's story of pain, human dignity and hope. After being told annually at Colgate for 23 years the story has become part of us. Like General Education and the Core, like a Balmuth or Aveni course, Colgate students know that sometime in their four-year stay they have to hear Helen Sperling. The opening to the story is the same, but tonight, November 5, 1997, something is different. There is an air of added intensity. Lathrop auditorium is packed with more than 200 people. Students are trailing out the doorways and sitting in the aisles and on the floor. Faculty are standing in the back and many have brought their spouses and children. Perhaps it is because an advertisement denying the Holocaust appeared in the Maroon-News the past week and people want to express their protest against it and to support those who provide us with authentic witness. Perhaps it is because issues of genocide and its prevention are increasingly appearing in the Colgate curriculum with the first Core distinction course titled "Modern Genocide and Holocaust" being offered during the fall semester. Perhaps it is because people sense that Helen is aging and that she will not be able to come out on cold, autumn nights to tell her story at Colgate forever.
Helen Sperling first came to Colgate 23 years ago when Terrence Des Pres of the English department was writing his now classic book, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. Des Pres found, in Helen, confirmation for his view that many individuals survived the Holocaust by finding ways to preserve their sense of human dignity in the face of Nazi attempts to degrade them. Des Pres passed away the year before I arrived at Colgate in 1988 and I was told by colleagues that I had to invite Helen Sperling to speak to my new religion class, "Faith After the Holocaust." When I called her and began introducing myself she spoke to me like my grandmother in a sweet high-pitched, Polish-accented voice, "You don't need to say anymore dear, I've been waiting for your call, when shall I come?" The first time I heard her story I was captivated and moved to tears.
I have learned the story by heart over these years but, still, the emotional intensity of listening to her has not subsided.
"I was a spoiled, pampered and inquisitive child, always asking questions," she continues. Then Helen describes young Nazi soldiers storming into her house to look for valuables. "One of them sat in my father's chair, thrust his boots near my mother's face, threw our fine linens at her and barked. 'Polish them!' And as she began to do it, I didn't ask why and I didn't say no. That was the beginning of six years of helplessness, humiliation and degradation.
"You hear the number six million, but what does that mean to you?" Helen says, and then she takes out two pictures that were taken out of Poland by her nanny. "These are my parents," she con-tinues in a trembling voice. "This is all I have left of them. You must remember that every one of the six million had a human face." Because there are no empty seats and I am forced to stand to the side and behind Helen I can look out and see Helen's impact on the faces of students who are listening. The room is crowded and hot but there is neither sound nor movement in the assembly; Helen holds them in rapt attention.
After a break Helen subtly changes her tone to highlight images of human dignity and hope. She describes how her block supervisor, a prostitute and murderess who randomly beat women every night, would smuggle paper and pencil to Helen so she could write her poetry. She tells of how she gained self-respect and pride by systematically sabotaging shells she was forced to make in a munitions factory. She speaks of the support gained from fellow female inmates and recounts how friends saved her life during winter roll calls by putting her in the back row to help her hide the fact that she was bleeding from a beating she was given, for dripping blood on white snow was enough reason to have a Jew put to death in a Nazi work camp.
Following her liberation, Helen collapsed and was hospitalized for almost three years. She was sick with pneumonia and cancer and lost the ability to bear children. Upon her recovery she came to America, married Leon Sperling, also a survivor, settled in Utica and adopted two children. Helen tells us how one day her daughter returned home from school in tears because someone called her a "dirty Jew." Helen impulsively and angrily dashed back to the school, confronted the principal, and insisted on talking to her daughter's class about anti-Semitism the very next day.
Unaccustomed to public speaking, holding no academic degrees, she struggled with what to say. Finally, she decided to tell the story of what anti-Semitism did to her and her family. She decided to simply tell about what happened to her when she was young. The impact on the class was so great that she was asked to return to the school year after year. Since then she has been telling this same story three times a week to large audiences at colleges and universities, public and private high schools, police academies, monasteries and churches in central New York and throughout the Northeast.
At the end of the talk, a student asks Helen if she can forgive the Nazis. "The issue is not whether or not we can forgive the Nazis, the issue is whether we learned the lesson, and I am afraid, my friends, we have not learned the lesson - genocide continues to occur in our world. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia - we have not learned our lesson." And then she implores our students, "but you have learned it, you must learn it. Go and save the world!"
Helen concludes, as she always does, with the Hasidic story of the 36 hidden righteous upon whom the hope of the world rests. Since these righteous ones are hidden and we don't know who they are, she points to students: "you could be one!" Then the students spontaneously form a line to say thanks and receive a warm embrace. I stand to the side and ponder the directives: To learn the lessons and save the world. What are the lessons of the Holocaust? Why teach about hatred, anti-Semitism and racism? How can a negative be turned to a positive?
To save the world:
isn't this a ridiculously naive and hopelessly utopian idea that could
only have life in a remote college campus in the middle of New York State?
What can I say tomorrow in class to the student who will surely ask, "What
can I, a mere college student, do to save the world?" And then as I look
at the long line of students and faculty waiting to give Helen a hug and
receive a personal greeting from her, the answers became clear. That the
line that extends from this diminutive lady now being engulfed by a huge
football player extends out beyond 209 Lathrop Hall tonight. It extends
back to Terrence Des Pres, who learned from Helen and began teaching about
the ability of humans to transcend hatred and preserve human dignity 23
years ago. It extends to Terrence's close friend and colleague, Professor
Peter Balakian, who has delved into the dark history of his family and
unearthed the truth of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks
in 1915 and written about it in his poems as well as in his recent memoir,
Black Dog of Fate. It extends to other Colgate faculty like Nigel
Young and John Knecht, who have taught about the Holocaust in their popular
"Images of War and Peace" course. It has motivated me to continue to teach
my "Faith After the Holocaust" course and to address not only