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kottke.org posts about Helen Fagin

100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin on How Books Save Lives

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2019

Starting when she was 21, Helen Fagin was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Radomsko and Warsaw ghettos in Poland. Her parents were sent to Treblinka and murdered there, but Fagin and her sister eventually managed to escape and, after a long journey around Europe, made it to the United States. Fagin has offered lengthy testimony about her experience of the Holocaust (for the USC Shoah Foundation and US Holocaust Memorial Museum), but in this short video, she reads a letter she wrote about how reading and stories gave a spark of hope to those under the Nazi boot in Warsaw.

Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?

At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.

One day, as if guessing my thoughts, one girl beseeched me: “Could you please tell us a book, please?”

I had spent the previous night reading Gone with the Wind — one of a few smuggled books circulated among trustworthy people via an underground channel, on their word of honor to read only at night, in secret. No one was allowed to keep a book longer than one night — that way, if reported, the book would have already changed hands by the time the searchers came.

The full text of the letter is here and is also collected in the book The Velocity of Being. (via open culture)