Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

A Brilliant Woman — An Education Cut Short

April 14, 2014

By Phyllis Hammer

HBI Board Chairwoman Phyllis Hammer delivered these remarks about her late mother-in-law, Helen Gartner Hammer, during the inaugural Helen Gartner Hammer Memorial Lecture on April 9, 2014.

I would like to tell you a bit about Helen Hammer so that you will understand why underwriting the scholar-in-residence program at HBI is such a fitting way to commemorate her.

If you were to meet Helen Hammer in her later years, you would have been charmed by her engaging manner, delighted by her quick wit but perhaps, above all, you might have been struck by her beautiful facial complexion. That smoothness of skin, however, belied a complex and difficult life.

Paradoxically, that smoothness also "symbolized" her fierce determination to create for herself, a normal life, a smooth life.

Helen was born and raised in Tarnow, a city in Poland not far from Krakow. Always a brilliant student, with her near photographic memory and fluency in many languages, her dream was to go to university and enter the academic world. But that was not to be — WWll intervened. Instead, she spent those years first in the Tarnov ghetto working as an accountant in a "Shindleresque" factory and then in five concentrations camps — Plaszow, Birkenau, Auschwitz, Ravenbruck and Malchow. Then, she was forced to the infamous death marches across Poland and Germany at the end of the war. She was the lone survivor of her family.

Years later, a newspaper reporter asked her about her war time experiences. She answered, "It would take me six years to tell you about them."

In 1947, in Paris, she married another survivor, my father-in-law, Henry Hammer, and they left for America, and eventually settling in Annapolis, Maryland. Helen set about recreating her life. She learned a new language and honed her skills through voracious reading, eventually becoming a master crossword puzzler. She prided herself on speaking English fluently yet if you listened closely you could hear the soft accent that haunted her words. She continued to challenge her mind studying philosophy, literature and history.

But her deepest intention after the war was creating a family, another family. She had a child, Michael, and her child had children, Jessica, Alison, Dana and David. She fostered in them a love of learning and nurtured their intellectual curiosity. Her granddaughter, Jessica, said of her, "She lovingly taught me how to cultivate my mind — she has had an impact on my life in ways I didn't understand until I was much older."

I think it is safe to say that her message got across — her son Michael became a university professor and a best selling author. Her grandchildren span the academic, business and arts worlds — all the while deeply committed to their Jewish heritage.

In thinking about how to honor Helen's memory, my late husband Michael and I felt strongly that we wanted to celebrate the life that Helen Hammer would have had, were it not for the Holocaust — a life of scholarship and community. What better venue than HBI whose very mission is to produce and promote scholarly research, artistic projects and community engagement in their exploration of the issues surrounding Jews and gender.

HBI gives life to Helen's highest aspirations and for that I am grateful.