“I will be speaking from experience and what I have learned from life,” explained Dr. Helen Fagin, former professor of English and Director of Judaic Studies at the University of Miami, namesake of the Dr. Helen N. Fagin Holocaust Collection at the Jane Bancroft Cook Library and this year’s New College commencement speaker. “This is a tremendous honor for me.”
After being invited to her home to speak with her, Fagin ushered the Catalyst inside and sat us down to have what can only be described as a dialogue of epic proportions. Even the room, which was decorated with sculptures, photos and books, reflected the history and culture of the woman who had not only survived a horrible past, but overcame it as well.
Dr. Fagin was born in Poland and then in 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, was persecuted by the Nazis for five years.
“It was very difficult to be a survivor,” Fagin stated. “People would ask such naïve questions: why didn’t you get out? Why didn’t you escape? For Polish Jews there was no escape, but German Jews had escape. September 1, 1939, the bombs started coming. On Saturday, September 2, at 2:00 p.m., my house was completely gone. Bombed.”
In 1946, upon arriving in the United States, she learned English and finished her college education, which had been interrupted due to the war. After earning her Ph.D., she enjoyed an illustrious career at the University of Miami. In 1979, Fagin was invited to serve as an educational advisor to Elie Wiesel, another prominent Holocaust survivor. Later, she was appointed chair of the United States Holocaust Council’s Education Committee and was charged with the development of an educational track for the future Holocaust museum. 1993 brought the Committee for the World War II Memorial and President Clinton appointed Fagin to serve. The group was commissioned with the building a national WWII memorial in the nation’s capital.
“I remember getting a phone call and answering and someone said, ‘Dr. Fagin, this is the White House, would you mind being investigated by the IRS and the FBI?’” she remembered. “I thought I was in trouble, but then they explained to me that President Clinton told me wanted me for the Committee and I told them, go ahead, I’ve got nothing to hide.”
After moving to Sarasota following her retirement from the University of Miami, Dr. Fagin became involved in the group the Sarasota-Manatee Holocaust Survivors. In 2006, to honor her as a survivor and for her work on Holocaust education, the group reached out to New College of Florida to develop the Dr. Helen N. Fagin Holocaust Collection, which was dedicated on January 20, 2008.
“I consider [the collection] a very important legacy that I am leaving,” Dr. Fagin divulged. “I personally pick every book that is in my collection. It does not just have books on the Holocaust, [but also has] resources about global genocide and humanitarianism. All genocides are represented in my collection.”
This year, Dr. Fagin was invited by New College President Gordon “Mike” Michalson to be the commencement speaker. She described the choice as one for which she was completely unprepared. She had originally been aiding Michalson in the search for the perfect speaker, even attempting to get her nephew, science-fiction writer Neil Gaiman, when she was approached herself.
“What I like most about New College is the freedom and openness with which most students approach any kind of dialogue,” Fagin said. “This is a tremendous feeling for me. Commencement is a giving, transferring, transmitting time, and I am going to be very serious, so you can learn from [me] and so you can translate it into something meaningful.”
Fagin stated that the speech is completely finished, edits and all, and stresses how her speech will not be funny and lighthearted, but rather serious and inspirational. Her message, instead, revolves around the consideration of an individual moral compass.
“I use the past to influence the future,” she remarked. “There was a time when the world did not have a moral compass … I’m not giving you advice — I’m just giving some road signs to consider, and some attention to a moral compass … I’m serious about my message, just as I am serious about my connection with New College.”
Although willing to speak to the Catalyst, Fagin usually refrains from being interviewed. “I try not to give newspaper interviews,” she said. “I did not like to talk about my experiences because talking about it would give me psychosomatic episodes.” However, her friend and fellow Holocaust speaker Elie Wiesel later told her, “If you and I who are survivors don’t do it, we allow people to do it out of their own imagination.” After that, Fagin made a point to be more active in educating the world about the events of the Holocaust, especially the treatment of Jews.
“I still don’t speak about my experiences,” Fagin responded. “I speak about the lessons, the constructive moral lessons. I teach the constructive moral lessons … You have to have had the experience to understand it.”
Due to her association with the Jane Bancroft Cook Library, Fagin has taken it upon herself to attempt to establish a tradition wherein the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. would donate different exhibitions to the Library for the months of February and March. She spoke at length about her desire to share these collections with not only the students at New College, but also to use the tradition as a way to influence the Sarasota public to become more involved in New College.
“It is good to feel at the end of one’s life to know that you gave meaning to your life,” Fagin concluded. “I don’t have any regrets. I don’t have any resentments. I just feel good.”