Characters Unite

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Characters Unite Award Winners

Helen Greenspun


Helen Greenspun lost her parents and her two youngest siblings in the Holocaust. Miraculously, she and four other siblings survived the death camps and were reunited after the war. Helen’s life story is remembered in the book, Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnick, written by Suzie Hagstrom.

Helen was born in Chmielnik, Poland, in 1926 to proud parents Sara and Kalman Garfinkel. She and her six brothers and sisters (Rachel, Fishel, Nathan, Bela, Regina and Sonia) grew up in an orthodox Jewish home.

Kalman, a flour miller, attended synagogue daily. The family strictly observed the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut) and spoke only Yiddish at home. In addition to public school, the children also attended Yeshiva where they studied Hebrew, Torah (Bible) and Jewish History.

Though Helen and her siblings were somewhat sheltered from any anti-Semitism, having grown up in a Jewish neighborhood in Chmielnik, anti-Semitic remarks and skirmishes in the school yard were not uncommon.

Helen was 13 years old when the Germans entered Chmielnik in September 1939.

The Nazis swiftly imposed new laws governing Jews. Children were not allowed to attend school. Jewish merchants were prohibited from conducting business. Special taxes were levied. Strict curfews confined people to their homes, and Jews were required to wear the Star of David as identification.

Helen’s parents arranged for her to stay on a nearby farm.

“The Polish farmer coached me and Fishel on how to pray and cross ourselves so as to appear Catholic. We would often sneak into Chmielnik to visit our family and bring them food.”

In September 1942, Helen’s older siblings were rounded up for deportation. Sent by her mother to give her older brother a package of bread and warm socks, Helen was also herded onto a truck.

Helen survived two labor camps and five concentration camps: Skarzysko, Chestochowa, Bergen Belsen, Turkheim, Burgau, Dachau, and Allach.

“We were squeezed into cattle cars. We were bewildered, disoriented, screaming, crying, and moaning. In the camps, we starved and suffered beatings and torture. With no change of clothes or showers, lice and disease were rampant. We were crammed into wooden bunks. People died and it took days to remove them. The stench was unbearable. We were taken on a death march from Dachau to Allach. We walked in the cold for over six weeks with no food. The girls all around me were getting closer and closer to death. The weak and dying were left behind. ”

Helen was liberated from Allach by American soldiers on April 29, 1945.

Miraculously, Helen’s brother, Nathan, and her sisters Bela, Regina, and Sonia also survived the death camps.

Tragically, their parents and youngest siblings, Rachel and Fishel, had been deported to Treblinka. There, in October and November 1942, the Nazis gassed most of Chmielnik’s Jews.

Helen, sick with typhus, was hospitalized for three months. She was then sent to a displaced persons camp in Ainring, Germany, where she resumed her schooling and explored her passion for theatre. In 1949, Helen and her siblings emigrated to the United States.

In Detroit, Michigan, she married Joseph Greenspun in 1951 and the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Joe became a successful builder. They had two daughters, Rita and Pauline, and five grandchildren, Talia, Joey, Ben, Jake and Chad. In 1973, they moved to Orlando, where Joe died in 1985.

Helen is on the board of directors of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center. She often speaks to local students, teachers and community organizations about her experiences.

In Her Words:

“My obligation is to remind the world of the darkest chapter in the history of mankind. We must create awareness among the youth of today so that history does not repeat itself. I share my memories with the next generation no matter how horrible or painful they are. I speak for those who have no voice. I read the children’s thank you letters and I can see the kind of impact my story has made upon their lives.”