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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