Helen Greenspun, a local Survivor who has made it her life’s work to share her story with thousands of students each year, has recently announced her retirement from speaking. To honor her, one of the many teachers who have been touched by her story has written this reflection about Helen’s impact in our community.
As an 85 year-old Holocaust survivor, Helen Garfinkle Greenspun has an amazing story tell, and tell it she has. This remarkably strong woman survived camps and death marches along with some of her siblings, but lost her two younger siblings and parents when they were sent to Treblinka. She has managed somehow to find the strength to retell her tale for the benefit of others.
It is in this capacity that I first met her. She graciously rode for over an hour and a half each way to come and speak to the eighth grade students at the middle school at which I teach. When I heard of her and made contact to request the visit, I imagined having to come up with creative ways to raise money for her presentation, but she refused to take any honorarium. Instead, my students and I donated the money we had raised to the Holocaust Center in Maitland where she has actively participated for many years.
Until her recently-announced retirement, Helen shared her story to teach future generations about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Upon first hearing it, I immediately formed a special bond with her, and it’s been an honor to get to know this very special lady. As a result of meeting Helen, I have decided to make the teaching of Holocaust studies a very large part of my future in education. I have come to realize that one of her biggest fears is that people will begin to believe that this tragic event never happened and she wants to make sure that history never has the chance to repeat itself. Although I know that each speech was emotionally difficult and draining for her, I have never heard her complain.
Should anyone doubt that Helen has indeed made a strong impact on children, one need only look at their responses. Their faces show sympathy, caring, and respect for a woman who has survived hardships that they can barely understand. Their thank-you cards and letters express their admiration, and I know in the case of my own students, their poor spelling and sometimes mangled grammar could not disguise their heartfelt gratitude. Their reactions to Helen’s visit amazed me. For example, one student warned me at the beginning of our Holocaust unit that he did not really believe that it ever happened, or at the very least, the Holocaust had been blown out of proportion. He went on to explain that a relative of his is a famous Holocaust denier. By the time our unit ended, he was a believer, the evidence of which can be seen in a photo of him hugging Helen after her speech.
Another embrace was given by a student who made little effort all year and was failing miserably. His interest was piqued as our Holocaust unit began, and he began to write and quite well. By the time Helen visited, he was so involved that he waited for everyone to leave the auditorium, after the dismissal bell had rung, and asked for permission to meet her. When this big bear of a young man wrapped his arms around Helen none of the educators present could hold back tears. After hearing of Helen’s struggles, he changed his attitude and study habits, passed the eighth grade, and is now in high school.
Those are just two of the stories of her effect on students. She spoke to 430 that one day. I cannot fathom how many others she has taught and impacted over the years. I will forever be grateful for the selfless service she has given in her lifetime, because I truly believe that there is not a single person who has ever heard her speak and walked away unchanged. Those of us who have heard her speak, and especially those who have had the opportunity to get to know her, realize that Helen Garfinkle Greenspun has in fact accomplished exactly what she intended. She has brought history to life in a way that makes it impossible for anyone to ever disbelieve the reality of the Holocaust, and she has made it impossible for anyone to forget. I may be a trained teacher, but on my best day, I can never accomplish what Helen has. Helen is a true educator on a far greater scale, and her lessons have the ability to change future generations.
Middle school teacher/ adjunct college instructor
Ed.D. student completing dissertation