Each day she woke up to that blaring siren call, she’d drag herself up from a cement floor or a frozen solid ground and line up for role call.
Another day of starvation and work. Another day in the filthy clothes she’d worn for months, lice toppling down her fragile shell of a body with one shake of her matted hair.
Another day of torture, but another day she was alive. She never missed a single siren call.
“The worst thing in life is starvation,” Helen Greenspun said. “You don’t think about anything; you only think when the piece of bread comes.”
Greenspun, 86, has spent more than 30 years telling her story of how she was taken from her orthodox Jewish home in Poland in 1942 at just 15 years old. Greenspun is a Holocaust survivor, and she’ll never forget the noise of that siren each morning. That memory — of the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t get up — has kept calling her. She has vowed for the last three decades to tell her story and to educate anyone who would listen about the Holocaust so that it might never happen again.
“There’s a lot of Holocaust survivors that can’t — I do it,” Greenspun said. “I’m alive, I talk about it and that’s all I can do.”
Greenspun’s educational work is being recognized. She recently won USA Network’s Characters Unite Award, from her nomination by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland and Bright House Networks. The public service campaign is dedicated to combating prejudice and discrimination and promoting greater respect and acceptance. Ten people across the country were chosen. With the award, Greenspun received a $10,000 grant for the Holocaust Center from USA Network and Bright House Networks.
“Helen Greenspun has worked tirelessly to raise awareness among young people, educators and community organizations of the atrocities of the Holocaust,” Toby Graff, USA’s senior vice president of public affairs wrote in an email. “We and our affiliate partner, Bright House Networks, were honored to recognize Helen with a Characters Unite Award for her extraordinary courage, commitment and contribution to ensuring that hate and religious intolerance are not tolerated.”
Greenspun has spent years working with the Holocaust Center to reach students all over Florida and the country. She’s told her story as a full-time job, visiting as many as three schools a week before she retired. Tucked away in her Longwood home are piles and boxes of letters from people thanking her for sharing what happened to her.
Greenspun feels like she can change how people see the world and treat others. She hopes they won’t be afraid to stand up against discrimination.
“For them to see living history … that is more enlightening,” said Greenspun’s daughter Pauline Korman. “I think they’ll always remember it.”
“When they listen to her you can see such respect and such admiration from the students,” said Pam Kancher, the Holocaust Center’s executive director. “I have learned just by her grace and her steadfast belief in humanity … in order to make a difference you have to inspire others to make change.”
Greenspun said when she tells her story, many students cry for her. She doesn’t cry. She tells it with such detail, so frankly and without any wavering in her voice. Getting up to show how she shook off the lice, how the SS officers positioned her against a wall the day she was sure she’d be killed, and how the half-dead girls reached out for help up from the frozen ground during their death march.
She goes from beginning to end, from war to liberation, with a clarity and timeline developed from years of repetition. Only when she talks about the loss of her parents and two siblings does she seem to let that guard down.
“It’s still not easy for her,” daughter Rita Renshaw said. “I don’t think it’s anything you can get over.”
“It takes some kind of inner strength to be able to talk about it and remember,” Korman said.
For more information about USA Network’s Characters Unite campaign, visit charactersunite.com. For more information about the Holocaust Center, visit holocaustedu.org
But Greenspun also talks about the good. The kind Germans who secretly gave her food and clothes, and the miracles that she thinks kept her alive. One extraordinary part of her family’s story is that out of seven siblings, five survived, which is nearly unheard of — impossible even. She and her sister fought for their lives together with her brother close by most of the time, while her other two sisters did the same.
After she was liberated, which she barely remembers because she was sick with typhus, she lived in a displaced persons camp where she met her late husband and Holocaust survivor Joseph Greenspun. Family became the most important part of life for the Greenspuns, and they always surrounded themselves with their extended family members and many friends. Her daughters said they’ve learned to love family and everyone else, regardless of their differences in background and beliefs, from their mother.
The Holocaust taught Greenspun that.
“We all have a right to live,” she said.