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Our Year 11 and 12 ATAR Modern History students recently had the privilege of hearing from Holocaust survivor, Hetty Verolme. 92-year-old Hetty is a celebrated author and passionate advocate for ensuring young people learn from the tragedies of the past. She shared parts of her story from her time at the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and how she was saved from almost certain death by an act of kindness in the form of a cup of sugar.
Hetty’s mum had traded her wedding ring for two cups of sugar and a cup of salt – vital commodities in the near-starvation environment of the Bergen-Belsen camps. She was able to get the cup of sugar to Hetty in the Children’s House – a safe barracks set up by the ‘Angel of Belsen’, a Polish nurse who took the youngest children in the camp under her wing. Many of the children were orphans, their parents falling victim to the gas chambers, starvation and illnesses such as typhoid, which was rife in the horrid conditions in the concentration camp.
The Bergen-Belsen camp hospital had a female doctor, and the staff of the hospital scraped together just about everything they needed to make her a birthday cake – all they needed was sugar. Hetty gave the cup of sugar to complete the cake without expecting anything in return. Not long after, the doctor was able to petition the camp commander for Hetty to stay in the Children’s House. Hetty, being 15, was ‘too old’ for the Children’s House and scheduled to be sent ‘away’ – the likely destination: the gas chambers. The commander, who had a fearsome reputation, surprisingly gave permission for Hetty to stay – all because she willingly and without hesitation, kindly gave away a cup of sugar.
Hetty wrote about the Angel of Belsen, and her time in the camp, and many of the students were able to purchase copies of her heartbreaking – but inspiring – life story. At the conclusion of the discussion, Hetty answered questions from the students on everything from what they ate in the camps to how she found her way to Australia. Her final words to the students where the ones she said she hung on to during her time in the camps: “Tomorrow will be better”. A message of true hope.
If you would like to learn more about Hetty’s life, or purchase a copy of her books, please visit her website. Helena College was very privileged to be able to host Hetty, who has said that her visit to the school was likely to be one of her last public speaking engagements, due to her age and health issues. A great privilege indeed, and we thank Hetty very much for taking the time to share her story with our students.