A pioneer in the field of behavioral and cognitive neurosciences, Helen Mahut was born Walentyna Dudekzak in Kiev, Russia, to a Polish Jewish engineer and a Russian aristocrat mother. She was a student at Oxford in 1939 when her father, sure Germany would not invade, insisted she come home to Poland. Along with her mother and brother, he would later perish at the hands of the Nazis. She joined the Polish resistance in Warsaw, posing as a Catholic girl from the countryside. After the war, she helped administered refugee camps in Austria before marrying a fellow resistance worker and immigrating with him to Montreal. She received her doctorate in physiological and comparative psychology from McGill University in 1955. In 1966, she joined the psychology department at Northeastern University in Boston, where she taught until her retirement 23 years later. Her major research interests were brain function, learning, memory, and motivation.
My friendship with Helen is one I shall always cherish. Although tumultuous, our relationship had an enormous impact on me.
I met Helen through my brother-in-law, who lived in the same small apartment building as Helen. Formidable in her demeanor, she could embody righteous indignation like no one else I knew. Admittedly, I was a bit afraid of her, but I was also curious about her. I ended up moving into Helen’s building soon after meeting her, and our friendship began.
Helen was mercurial, to say the least; a woman of extremes, you never knew quite what to expect in encounters with her. Some days she was warm and funny and cheerful; other days, not. But that was just Helen. Helen was a passionate woman; she loved proper behavior, jazz, good cooking, her garden, literature, teaching, her students, and most of all, her work. She was a neurophysiologist, and worked with dedication and determination. She immersed herself in her research, committed to finding answers about the mysteries of the human brain. Helen enjoyed her work immensely, and wanted her students and her subjects (rats, then monkeys) to do the same. She would spend time in the lab literally playing with the animals, explaining “They need to have fun, too!” Helen honored me by taking me to her lab and into the monkey habitat, instructing me very carefully on how to behave so as to avoid upsetting the monkeys. She also took me to another part of her lab to learn how to mount brain tissue on microscope slides, not an activity I ever expected to engage in. She demonstrated, watched me make an attempt, and grinned, telling me to “Have fun!” as she exited the lab. It was a truly thrilling day.
Helen was very quiet about her personal life. I knew that she was from Poland, a Holocaust survivor, and had ended up in Canada after the war. I never asked her about her history, but she sensed my curiosity. After years of friendship, we were sitting at her kitchen table drinking coffee, as we often did. Out of the blue, she said “My name was Valentina.” I held my breath. “Do you want to hear about it?” Of course I did. And she proceeded to tell me her story over the course of time, often in snatches, sometimes in long narratives. When I urged her to have her story documented, she became very upset; she had given a formal interview about it once, and it was a very bad experience for her. She said “Never again!” But she did want to pass it on, and told me that I was the one with whom she wanted to share it. Helen wrote memoirs since our talks, but some of what she told me differs from what she wrote, and some things are omitted completely. I hope her story will be written someday, but what she shared in confidence shall remain her gift to me.
Hearing her story helped me untangle Helen’s very complicated mode of interaction. She was judgmental yet compassionate, serious and funny, demanding yet generous, unforgiving and loving, all rolled into one. She fascinated me from an objective viewpoint, and I wanted to understand her. When I asked her why she chose her particular career field, she told me “Because I have seen things I cannot explain, and I need to understand them.” She was referring to her war experiences, which included becoming an orphan and a widow by the age of 21, assuming a false identity, surviving the Warsaw uprising, participating in the resistance, constantly fearing for her life, nearly starving to death, enduring interrogations and having her body parts measured for ‘Jewish traits;’ the list goes on. But to her, the most horrifying memories were witnessing unspeakable acts committed by people against other people. These she could not understand, and it was to this end that she devoted her entire academic career. She was a pioneer in discovering the purpose of certain areas of the brain, and the implications regarding human behavior. Without Dr. Helen Mahut, modern medicine would have a very different view and understanding of memory, the human brain, and resultant human behavior.
And through her friendship, my life has been deeply enriched.