Holocaust Survivor, Professor Dies at 87

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Helen Segall was a people person.

She had a dynamic personality, her family said. The word they most often heard about her from others as they learned of her passing Aug. 29 at 87 was “inspiring.”

Helen Segall | Photo provided

Segall died when taking a swim at her and her husband’s summer home in Maine. She reportedly had congestive heart failure.


“She would always encourage people to find the strength in them to do more than they thought they could do,” son Hal Segall said. “She just was a very outgoing person and she was fundamentally a person who was optimistic in the sense that she didn’t believe in impossibility.”

She was a teacher, a writer and a survivor who began to share her story in the ’90s of escaping Poland in 1941 with her mother and her aunt — her father and his two brothers were killed by Nazis — as her mother obtained false papers identifying them as Polish Catholics.

She was in the Mizocz ghetto, which she later wrote about, when it was liquidated, husband Stanley Segall said.

She did speaking engagements in schools, churches and synagogues, but most significantly she wanted to speak to middle schoolers as she was their age during the war.

“She connected with the kids and she could somehow reach back and say, ‘This is how I felt when I was 10 or 11 years old and my family was taken away from me,’ and she made those kids feel it,” Stanley Segall recalled.

After she began sharing and writing about her story, including in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, she felt an obligation to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive, Hal Segall said.

As a professor of Russian language and literature at Dickinson College for 24 years — and previously at Montclair State University and Bryn Mawr College — she began speaking about her experiences in an academic capacity, as well.

But in her professorial role, she was able to give her students an immersive education in the subject. She took students to Russia to deepen their experience. Russian professors would visit Dickinson, where she was chair of the Russian department.

“She went well beyond the syllabus,” said Stanley Segall, who once took a language course of his wife’s — and she didn’t go easy on her husband.

“The students took pity on me, they would whisper answers to me,” he laughed. “I saw her as a teacher as well as everything else a husband sees when they marry someone.”

The two met during Helen Segall’s first year at Simmons College, after she came to the U.S. in 1949 from a displaced persons camp, and they enjoyed taking in cultural experiences — they were longtime supporters of the Philadelphia Orchestra and opera enthusiasts — and traveling together.

“She was my cultural guru,” Stanley Segall said.

Judaism was important to her as well, and she instilled a sense of Jewish pride in her family.

“She was in a Polish DP camp, not a Jewish DP camp,” Stanley Segall noted, “and the Poles took her in as one of their own. She could have easily stayed that way. But something had triggered in that 8-, 10-, 14-year-old kid it was important to be Jewish.”

From his mother, Hal Segall learned “the value in aiming high, believing in yourself, reaching a little bit beyond what you think you can do.”

Helen Segall is survived by Stanley Segall, sons Hal and Wynn, four grandchildren, and a cousin.

Contributions may be made to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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