Who The Folk?! Helen Siegel

Why would you want to go back to a place of so much loss and suffering? Helen Siegel wonders that, but it’s not stopping her from going to Auschwitz-Birkanau for International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of those camps’ liberation. Helen talks about growing up the child of survivors, what this trip means to her, and why she continues to work to educate about the Holocaust, on this week’s Who The Folk?! Podcast

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You and much of your family are about to travel to Europe. Tell us a little bit about what this what this trip is and what it means to your family to be taking it.

Last August, my mother, who is now 95 years old, was invited to attend and participate in a survivor’s delegation to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in Poland, and she was entitled to bring a companion with her. The trip invited pretty much survivors from all over the world, including Israel. And there are survivors actually on this trip from Australia from different places in Europe, from Israel and from the United States. The foundation that is sponsoring this trip is called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation. And they are doing it in partnership with a with a program called JRoots, which organizes all kinds of trips to Europe with the Jewish focus. I have always been committed to Holocaust education from as far back as I can remember and I think in many, many ways, the Holocaust has shaped who I am as a human being and I have never visited the camps. I actually have never visited Germany in spite of the fact that had been to Europe because I wasn’t ready because of my own emotions.

Have you and your sisters talked about what it’s going to be like for you emotionally being the children of a survivor whose story you know intimately and you grew up with as a part of you?

There were three daughters, and each one of us has internalized the experience of my mom and my father in different ways. And we’re all dealing with I think, post traumatic stress because I truly believe the research that says that that can be passed on from generation to generation. My parents did not intentionally try to harm us in any way, in terms of coloring our lives negatively with their experience. They were celebrating life, never thought they would be doing that. And so each of our experiences was very different. My self-imposed role was to be the protector of my parents. So I was Miss Goody-Two-Shoes daughter; I was obedient. I did everything I was supposed to do and then some, because my parents had suffered enough. And particularly my mom, who honestly, did not speak about anything related to the Holocaust until I was in middle school.

When did you know that you wanted to be not just an educator, but somebody who could be a resource to the community in terms of educating about what happened?

My first 14 years in education were spent in New York City public schools. I always had my hand in Jewish education. I was a Sunday school teacher or beginning Hebrew in a congregation. But I never really thought about myself as an educator of the Holocaust or Holocaust educator until I moved here, and that was 32 years ago. I chose to work in a Jewish Day School, which really filled my Jewish soul and it was already part of the curriculum. So it wasn’t anything that needed to be taught in that context. About 40 years I spoke publicly at my parents’ congregation as a child of a survivor. And then the JCRC was a motivating force for me. They have a speaker’s bureau, and I wanted to be involved in that. Since I’ve retired, I probably have been doing more of that. Having the opportunity to speak to different groups of people, and I’m dedicated to it.

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