At the age of 93, Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling is still sharing the darkest moments of her life.
Why? So that history does not repeats itself and so people won’t ignore what is happening around them.
“Do not become a bystander,” she said. “We must build a better world.”
Sperling said the inspiration to recount her own life to others came when her daughter returned home from school one day in tears because another child had called her a “dirty Jew.”
“It brought me right back in time,” she said.
In World War II during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Sperling was forced to endure life in the concentration camps at Ravenbruck and Buchenwald.
As she told about her personal journey in front of Cooperstown middle and high school students on Friday, she held up two photos — one of her mother and the other of her father.
“These are not numbers,” she said. “These are mine. And I miss them terribly.”
Her parents were sent to death camps, where, like 6 million other Jews, they perished at the hands of the fanatical Nazi regime.
“We should have known what was coming, we did not want to believe it,” she said.
At the beginning of the war, Sperling was a college student. She was born to a middle=class family in a small town outside of Warsaw, and was home on school vacation when the Germans invaded.
“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.
Sperling referred to herself as a spoiled, inquisitive child, always asking questions. She said when Nazi soldiers stormed 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.”
Sperling said her family was rapidly evicted out of their home, which was custom-built by her father, an architect, and put into the ghetto. Although Sperling and the other members of the Jewish community in her town remained optimistic, she said they soon began to realize the true extent of the Nazi’s plans.
“You did not realize who was your friend and who was your enemy,” Sperling recalled.
She recounted the story of her temporary escape from the ghetto to wish her closest childhood friend a happy birthday. Once she was able to get though, she was called racial names.
“Something dreadful happened to my soul that night,” she said.
In the ghetto, according to Sperling, the promise was as long as one could work he or she would be safe. She said food was given to all the residents, but it was usually not enough, and people began to quickly die of hunger and disease.
Like many other Jewish families, Sperling, her little brother, and her parents were eventually deported from the ghetto and scattered into death and prison camps. She and her family were put through a process 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,” Sperling said.
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.
Sperling was placed into Ravensbrück, which was a “transition camp,” where Jews were subjected to repetitive and demeaning manual labor in order to break their spirits.
“Ninety-nine percent of our survival was sheer luck,” she said. “A little tiny bit of it was hanging on to dignity. Once you lost that, you didn’t have a chance.”
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. “If you couldn’t work, you went to Bergen-Belsen and that was it.”
Sperling and her fellow prisoners were able to help sabotage the German war effort. The women would regularly make defective shells while their overseers were occupied with other tasks. These small acts of revenge, Sperling remembered, helped maintain her spirit.
This came with serious consequences 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.
The prisoners were eventually evacuated. Sperling said, “We walked and we walked and we walked … if you fell down they would kill you.”
An end did finally come, she recalled.
“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.”
Sperling spent the next three years in a hospital, recovering from kidney cancer and malnutrition, but was reunited with her younger 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 the two were able to emigrate to America. There she married her husband of 50 years. He was also a Holocaust survivor.
Sperling was not able to bear her own children, so the couple, who settled in Utica, adopted two.
According to Sperling, there is no such thing as closure to a survivor.
“You can never totally believe it is over and that you are safe,” she explained.
Sperling said she can only hope her stories help mold better human beings and can prevent cruelty. She said even when horrible things were happening to the German Jews, nobody, including herself, wanted to believe it was possible.
“I do not want anyone to make the same mistakes. You need to be aware of things happening around you,” she said.
“not just in your own local communities but all around the world, and see what might be staring you right in the face.”