Survivors and the Holocaust

Yesterday was Holocaust Rembrance Day. I’m reposting from three years ago, but first this excerpt from Elie Wiesel from his book, Open Heart, which he wrote after having heart surgery:

Illness may diminish me, but it will not destroy me.

I don’t believe Mr. Wiesel referred to his physical body when he said it would not destroy him. Only an unquenchable spirit survives the ruins of a body wrecked by illness, whether in life or in death. Elie Wiesel surely knew something about that. And now, here’s my three-year-old post, which holds as much truth for me today as ever.

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From the time I was diagnosed with cancer to almost five years later today, I have gained strength from reading about the Holocaust. I’d consider the horrific suffering of those who survived and think: If some could survive that, I can surely get through cancer. It’s not “nothing,” but cancer is minuscule, perhaps nothing, by comparison. As I looked at the worst suffering I could imagine, I learned how to find strength within myself during cancer and its aftermath.

Much suffering has taken place among many peoples throughout the ages, but the Holocaust hits home because it happened to those of my personal lineage. If my grandparents had not left eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century, I likely would not exist today. Since today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, I can’t think of a better time to pay homage to those who were tortured and murdered in the Holocaust, all the amazing non-Jews who risked their own lives to save others, and those who by some miracle survived.

I look at the survivors and wonder how they managed to hang on and how they found the strength to pick up the pieces and resume normal lives. While all were ecstatic to be liberated from the camps, life didn’t return to normal just because they gained freedom. They left the camps sick, emaciated and malnourished, owning no clothes but the striped camp attire on their backs, no money and no home. Those who went back to the homes they had before their imprisonment found strangers living there. Sometimes those strangers shot and killed the survivors who tried to get their homes back.

Most left eastern Europe so they wouldn’t have constant reminders of the hatred and destruction they endured. This meant learning new languages, acclimating to new cultures, and learning new professions, all while bearing the trauma and scars that would never go away. Certainly, some healing occurs over time for any type of survivor, but the passage of time still leaves one with a permanent limp. Some things cannot be healed, but one learns to live and laugh again despite the memories and scars.

Joy of liberation at Dachau

Joy of liberation at Dachau

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature. I wondered how anyone could survive years of brutality and suffering beyond anything imaginable. How did they do it? In everything I read, there is one word that is often given as a reason for survival:

HOPE

Hope of liberation. Hope for a better day. Hope of change and freedom.

In speaking of the strength of the human spirit and the will to live, one can’t say it better than the words of survivors themselves:

In spite of it, there’s something which we are born with, a desire to live. No matter how difficult it is, you somehow get used to it. All for one reason — hope. –Benjamin Jacobs, The Dentist of Auschwitz

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
―Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer – or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.”  — Elie Wiesel, Night

While Anne Frank died at Bergen-Belsen, I must end with this beautiful quote from her diary, which she wrote while in hiding:

… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
– Anne Frank

Comments

  1. Powerful, powerful stuff Eileen. Sometimes difficult to read but I can see where you have found some of your strength and purpose. The quote from Anne Frank is just beautiful – the faith that good will come from evil. Uplifting. Linda

    • Linda, I’m so glad you felt uplifted. There IS inspiration from those who have been through such darkness. It’s been said that when darkness prevails, you can see the flickers of light that shine that much brighter. Although I wish our world would stop having stories like these. I can’t make sense of such hatred and brutality, and the suffering is heartbreaking.

  2. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Eileen,
    This is a beautifully written post. Thank you.

  3. Eileen, I could relate. I am an Ashkenazi Jew whose father and some of my father’s side escaped Poland. Had they not, I, too, would not exist. I love this post. Hope is such a powerful emotion; it’s why people hang on. I love Frankl and Wiesel; they are my heroes. Thank you for writing this insightful piece.

    • Beth, I’m so glad your dad got out and you are here to tell his story. I also love Frankl and Wiesel. Powerful stuff! Frankl in particular was a big help to me in processing cancer and the aftermath. Thanks for commenting. I knew you’d relate. xo

  4. The Accidental Amazon says:

    Yes. I felt the same way remembering a woman I met in my job, whom I wrote about earlier this year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. xxoo, Kathi

    http://accidentalamazon.com/blog/2015/01/31/a-carton-of-eggs-remembering-auschwitz/

  5. Did you watch “Voices from Auschwitz” a couple of months ago on CNN? It was very moving to hear the stories first hand from the people who lived them. I had a friend from the Netherlands in elementary school whose family escaped being sent to a concentration camp with the help of a doctor who lied about the mother being pregnant. Somehow they managed to get to the U.S. I also had Japanese-American friends whose families had been sent to internment camps and lost everything they’d owned up to that time. Yes, it is amazing how resilient people can be in the face of such losses. Great post!

    • Melissa, thanks for sharing your stories. I think we are all affected in a collective way by the suffering of others. Their stories also have so much to teach us. And, no, I hadn’t seen “Voices from Auschwitz” but I’ve seen similar documentaries. There is even actual footage of the camps when they were liberated taken by Russian, English and American soldiers. It’s hard to watch, but I’m glad I did.

  6. Beautifully expressed, Eileen. Your poignant vwriting brings me to tears. xxx

    • Thank you, Jan. The subject matter itself provokes so many tears. What a dark time in the world’s history. Thanks for reading and commenting. You are appreciated. xo

  7. hope-powerful word

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