Neil Gaiman

introduces Helen: a storyteller, teacher and a cousin

Internationally acclaimed author Neil Gaiman introduces his cousin Helen and describes her experience of living in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II.

“Helen is 96 and now lives in Florida. At the end of World War II, Helen and her two sisters wound up in a refugee camp in Southern Europe having fled Poland.  Homeless and displaced, they finally ended up in America.

In Poland, Helen had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. There was a corpse run every morning, transferring the corpses out of the ghetto and she snuck back in on the returning transport. I think she snuck back out that way, amongst the corpses, too.  Inside the ghetto, she started teaching the local girls arithmetic and grammar. At that point in time, books were illegal and there was a death sentence for anyone found possessing one. However, Helen had a Polish translation of Gone with the Wind and she kept it hidden behind a loose brick in the wall. She would stay up late every night reading so that when the girls came in the next day she could tell them what had happened in the chapters she had read the previous night and just for that hour these girls got out of the Warsaw Ghetto and they got to visit the American South.

Helen’s story – this story – made me realise that what I do is not trivial.  If you make up stuff for a living, which is basically what I do, you can feel kind of trivial sometimes but this made me realise that fiction is not just escapism, it can actually be escape, and it’s worth dying for.”

For more refugee stories from Neil visit: www.unhcr.org/neilgaiman

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The UN refugee agency emerged in the wake of World War II to help Europeans displaced by that conflict. Optimistically, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly with a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is dealing with over 50 million people of concern to the agency. An organization with a three-year mandate to solve the problem of refugees celebrated its 60th anniversary on 14 December 2010, aware that the humanitarian needs are unlikely to disappear. Since that landmark birthday, UNHCR has been faced with multiple crises and works in 125 countries, with staff based in 109 main locations such as regional and branch offices and 341 often remote sub-offices and field offices.