To Dedicate

December 10, 2012 at 7:42 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

ImageHanukkah also known as known as the Festival of Lights is a Jewish holiday that usually occurs from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah begins in the evening of Saturday, December 8th and ends in the evening of Sunday, December 16th. It lasts for eight days and eight nights. This holiday commemorates the Maccabeus successful rebellion against the Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC. “According to the Talmud, a late text, the temple was purified and the wicks of the menorah miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day’s light.” Today, celebrators light a Menorah or Hanukah that has a total of 9 candles.  Throughout the holiday, 8 candles are lit. The candle in the middle of the row is called the Shamash which can be higher or lower than the rest. The purpose of this candle is to have it available to light. This Holiday was extremely interesting to research and it sparked my idea to write about one of my good friends, Helen Sperling. Mrs. Sperling is a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who turned 92 this year. I had the opportunity and privilege to meet and befriend Mrs. Helen Sperling when I was in high school, where she spoke and told her story to our school. Every time I go home, I try to get in touch with her and have lunch. Mrs. Sperling survived three concentration camps, including Ravensbruck and Buchenwald. Her story will bring to tears even the most hardened soul.

 When did WWII start? Depending on the person asked, the date will vary within a decade. If an Italian veteran was asked, he might say the year 1935 when troops under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Ask an Austrian and the year might be 1938 as the Germans marched into their country. For many of the Jewish population in Europe, the year 1933 indicated what was to follow when the students of the University of Berlin burned thousands of books by Jewish authors. In 1938, when Synagogues and Jewish shops were destroyed by Nazi mobs in Germany (Kristallnacht), it left little doubt for many in the Jewish Community that the future was bleak. For Helen Sperling, the War started in 1939.

During our first lunch, the tiny 90 year old woman sat across from me. She still had a heavy Polish accent. Being the recipient of the Helen Sperling Scholarship, this was a special privilege and honor for me. She told of when the Germans entered her hometown on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland. They entered her home, verbally abused her father and mother, and tossed many of the household belongings looking for any valuables. She remembers a German soldier sitting in her father’s chair as if he now owned their home. He put his “ugly shiny black boot” in her mother’s face and ordered her to polish it, which she did. Helen admits being a well loved but spoiled and pampered child and this first episode left her confused, scared and angry. The first time she ever saw her father cry was when the German officer, living in their house, dug up the beautiful lilac bushes in her front yard to have them sent back to his own home in Germany.

She and her family were forced to move into a Ghetto in Warsaw. The ghetto was encircled with barbed wire and they were told never to exit the perimeter and to maintain a strict curfew. Violating either rule would result in the individual or the entire family being shot. Despite this threat, she told of how one night she snuck out of the camp to make a phone call to her best friend. She was a “gentile” and they always wished each other a Happy Birthday. When her friend answered the phone and heard Mrs. Sperling’s voice, she said, “You dirty Jew, how dare you call me?” Mrs. Sperling states she will never return to Poland in fear of seeing that friend, even since more than 60 years have passed since. She described how her family was put into a rail car and moved to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The camp was filled with Jews, prostitutes, gypsies and homosexuals. All the prisoners were shaved, tattooed with a number and they all suffered systematic and repeated abuse. Helen took pauses as she spoke. She told of how her block supervisor, a prostitute and murderess, was a violent woman and would often beat other prisoners but showed glimpses of humanity by sneaking pencils and paper to her so she could write poetry at night.

Prisoners were treated as sub humans. They had no value. She described that SS Workers could kill any prisoner on a whim. There was one SS guard that would routinely strangle a prisoner each night. He said, “It helped him sleep.”  It may appear to be callous, but Helen reluctantly would add, “After weeks of hearing the screams of the dying prisoner, the prisoners, including myself, would get mad at the victim for keeping them awake.” Mrs. Sperling was forced to work in a nearby munitions plant that made mortar shells for the German Army. She told of how she took pride in her ability to sabotage the shells so that they would not fire. It was her way of fighting back and not becoming a slave to her captors. As long as she resisted becoming “their slave” she kept her sanity and there was still hope.

She showed me a photograph of her parents taken when she was very young. While in Ravensbruck she watched her parents marched to the “Showers.” They were called the showers to the prisoners, to trick them into the gas chambers, the main killing machine at the camps.  Quietly, she said, “this is all I have left of my parents,” as she was holding their pictures in her hand. Their maid had the photographs and gave them to Helen many years later. Helen was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp where the abuse and degrading conditions continued to escalate. Mrs. Sperling related that there was one time when her fellow prisoners saved her life. She had received a severe beating from her guards and was bleeding. Bleeding on the white snow within the camp was worthy of being killed. As they had to gather for muster outside their barracks, her fellow prisoners placed her in the back and gathered close so that her guards could not see the blood droplets. By trying to hide Helen’s injury, the prisoners also placed their own lives in jeopardy.

In early April of 1945 as the U.S. Forces started to move closer to Buchenwald, many prisoners were forced further into German territory. Helen was not moved and remained at the camp until April 11th, 1945. On this date, the prisoners knew that the U.S. Forces were close. Many of the German guards evacuated the camp. In expectation of liberation, the starved and emaciated prisoners stormed the watchtowers and seized control of the camp from the remaining guards. Later that afternoon, U.S. forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 people in the camp.  After Helen was liberated, she collapsed and was hospitalized for nearly three years. She had pneumonia, cancer, her liver had to be removed, and due to her treatment at the camp, she would never be able to have children.

After her recovery, she came to America and eventually married Leon Sperling, also a camp survivor. Unable to have children, she adopted two children. Helen currently is a renowned speaker about the Holocaust and currently lives in a small town outside of Utica, NY.  When asked how this started, she tells of how in 1970, her daughter came home from school crying. When asked why she was crying, her daughter said, “The kids called me a dirty Jew.” Mrs. Sperling went to her daughter’s school and asked if she could speak to her daughter’s classmates. After being granted permission by the principal, she spoke to the students about anti-Semitism. When she was told that her talk had a dramatic effect on the students, she realized that she should continue to bring to light that the genocide happened in what was a civilized society and continues today in many places in the world.

Mrs. Sperling states that she is often asked if she can ever forgive the Nazis. To paraphrase her response: It is not important if we forgive the Nazis, it is important that we learned the lesson. She stresses that genocide continues in our world – Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan.  “We have not learned our lesson, but now that you have learned it – go and save the world.” She will tell all her audiences, that although she has come a long way since this barbarism, she will sadly admit: “The days are mine; the nights are still Hitler’s.”  Mrs. Sperling will always leave her audience with the message – “remember the dead, honor the survivors who have rebuilt their lives and their families, but most of all, teach people, young and old, to never take anything for granted, and honor the liberators while they are still with us.” Having had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Sperling and listen to her a number of times, I know she will end her talks 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 the audience, “You could be one!”

The name Hanukkah comes from a Hebrew word. The translated meaning is “to dedicate.” This seems like a fitting title for my story. I dedicate this blog post to the beautiful, kind, incredibly smart and wonderful human being – Mrs. Sperling.

Katherine Lee
AmeriCorps Instructor
Literacy Council of Northern Virginia
2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church, VA 22042

1 Comment

  1. Over the summer I had the chance to hear Mrs. Sperling’s story in person at Morrisville state university. I live by her saying “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander”. I am wondering if there is any chance I can get her contact information? I would very much like to write her a letter expressing by gratitude and support.Thank you.


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