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.”

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