100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Her Letter About How Books Save Lives

"Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?" Helen Fagin, who poses that question, doesn't have to imagine it: she experienced that grim reality, and worse besides. "At twenty-one," she continues, "I was forced into Poland’s World War II ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death." There she operated a school in secret where she taught Jewish children Latin and mathematics, soon realizing that "what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility."

That hope, in Fagin's wartime experience, came from books. "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."




The next day she retold the story of Margaret Mitchell's novel in her clandestine classroom, where the students had expressed their desire for her to "tell us a book," and one young girl expressed a special gratitude, thanking Fagin "for this journey into another world." To hear how her story, and Fagin's, turned out, you can listen to the 100-year-old Fagin herself read the letter that tells the tale in the video above, and you can follow along with the text at Brain Pickings.

Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova has included Fagin's letter in the new collection A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World. The book contains "original illustrated letters about the transformative and transcendent power of reading from some immensely inspiring humans," Popova writes, from Jane Goodall and Marina Abramović to Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne to Judy Blume and Neil Gaiman — the last of whom, as Fagin's cousin, offered Popova the connection to this centenarian living testament to the power of reading. There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts," writes Fagin, one suspects as much to the adult readers of the world as to the children. "To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive."

via Brain Pickings

Related Content:

Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

96-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Fronts a Death Metal Band

Helen Keller Writes a Letter to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: “History Has Taught You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Brian Eno Lists 20 Books for Rebuilding Civilization & 59 Books For Building Your Intellectual World

Stewart Brand’s List of 76 Books for Rebuilding Civilization

Ray Bradbury Explains Why Literature is the Safety Valve of Civilization (in Which Case We Need More Literature!)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Lubomir says:

    well well, another brave survivor from the Nazi’s camps…Nothing new, eh?! they used to survive. But let me know some survivors from the USSR terror camps, established from 1918 by direct order of lenin.

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