Extraordinary life brings honorary teaching licenseby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
As a boy, Henryk Gurman thought he'd be a math teacher. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of a Warsaw educator he admired. Then World War II intervened. But 74 years later, that dream has come true.
St. Paul, Minn. — Henryk Gurman is finally a school teacher. The state of Minnesota has presented him with an honorary teaching license.
As friends and family celebrated the occasion, Gurman remembered a very different milestone, 68 years ago in Poland. He'd just finished his last year of high school back in 1940, and...
"The graduation was scheduled for Sunday, June 30. That Saturday morning, a Soviet officer and a soldier came in with a list of names. And he read off my father's name, my mother's name, and my name," Gurman recalled. "And he said, 'Guys, you have 15 minutes. Pack up. No more than two suitcases per person. And no knives.'"
It was an ominous command. The KGB shipped his family to Siberia and back, finally imprisoning them in a labor camp. His parents were too old to work, but Henryk spent two grueling years there as a slave laborer.
"I was a lumberjack. We were cutting down trees for the glory of the socialist fatherland," he said.
Gurman was also Jewish. His family fled the Nazi blitzkreig only to end up in Soviet captivity. They were released in 1941.
"I believe we would have died there, from hunger and overwork," Gurman said. "It was exhausting. Ten hours a day, six days a week, very, very poor nutrition."
When he got out, Gurman joined the Red Army and fought back the Nazi invasion. He eventually slipped out of the Soviet Union and brought his parents to the U.S.
The three of them started out with only $15. Henryk went to work as a bookkeeper for a real estate company.
He got an accounting degree to support his aging parents. But all along, he wanted to be a teacher, to honor the memory of someone he'd learned from.
"I had an excellent teacher in elementary school, in fifth and sixth grade," Gurman said. "His name was Ludwick Burman. And I am certain he perished in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust."
Gurman moved to Minnesota and became an accountant for Zayre's, a chain discount store. He put two daughters through college and started his own accounting firm.
But despite all that he'd accomplished, he never forgot that fifth grade math teacher. After Gurman retired in 1980, he started taking teaching classes at Lakewood Community College, St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota.
But he took a shortcut into the classroom: One of his daughter's high school teachers brought Gurman in to speak to a history class, and Gurman has been a fixture in east metro schools since. He's tutored kids in math and retold his life story for decades.
And as of today, he's also a licensed Minnesota teacher. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren presented him with an honorary lifetime teaching license at the assisted living center where he lives with his wife, June. Gurman completed an application for the license and still has a test to take, but Seagren decided he'd more than earned the honor.
"We thought he deserved to have his honorary license, and be honored by the state of Minnesota for his pursuit, all these years, of getting a license, and for his love of math," Seagren said. "It's something that we think is very important, and he needs to be in the classroom."
His new teaching license is in his briefcase now, along with his Russian identification papers and a Red Army medal.
His hearing isn't as good as it once was, but he says he'll put his new license to use for as long as he can.
- All Things Considered, 06/09/2008, 5:50 p.m.