A Look at the Holocaust Through OCD-Tinted Glasses

Sometimes I wonder how long I would have lasted in Auschwitz.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Tics, too. The Nazis not only murdered Jews in the concentration camps, but also killed Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners, as well as people with disabilities.

I would have been one of them.

These ruminations haven’t been long in the making. In fact, I only started thinking about this a few months ago — when I began my efforts to donate an interview I conducted in seventh grade with two Holocaust survivors, Jack and Bella Bajnon, to an institution that would preserve it…an endeavor that resulted in its admission to the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, along with my reconnection to the Bajnons’ children. (To read the article that the Times of Israel ran on this story, click here.) But my musings of late are no less upsetting to me than those that infiltrated my mind when I, as a child, first learned about the Nazi genocide. And they’re particularly disturbing in light of the Bajnons’ ordeal, which I revisited this year after finding the original transcript of my interview following my move to a new apartment.

What they went through was beyond frightening. They were brutalized, humiliated — all because they were Jews. Yet their courage, stamina and willpower enabled them to survive. They didn’t let the Nazis beat them.

That wouldn’t have happened for me.

My double issue — being a Jew and having a mental illness — would have been my downfall. I think about how the Bajnons lived in Auschwitz and know that I would not have been able to stand it. Repetition of day-to-day behaviors, such as washing my hands and checking to see if the stove is turned off, is an excessive ritual for me, while counting in my head the number of times I perform certain actions is a regular occurrence. I often have to “see” complete sentences in my head before recognizing their meaning, even though such comprehension would be obvious to anyone else viewing the text. Add to this a peculiarly strong aversion to dirt and grime, as well as irrational fears of “contamination,” and you have me: a package of complex, frequently detectable neuroses that the Nazis would have put down right away, had I lived during their era. If I survived transport to a concentration camp, I wouldn’t have continued my existence too much longer; an inability to follow orders when pressed because of my need to follow the powerful directives of my disease would have led to my termination. I wouldn’t have been tolerated. I would have been viewed as disposable.

Such an idea makes me respect the Bajnons even more. Tortured psychologically and physically, they endured an experience I wouldn’t have been able to get through. I admire their commitment to life, the fact that they didn’t give up. Because I would have, certainly, if giving up hadn’t been prescribed for me first.

I’m writing this piece now with Paris — a city I’ve visited many times — and the vile terrorist attacks of the past day in my head. I’m thinking about them, connecting my contemplations about hate, about ISIS and the Nazis, about anti-Semitism and the need, for some people, to kill others who don’t subscribe to their beliefs, to murder those who don’t meet their standards of human perfection. My OCD is the catalyst for the preponderance of intrusive thoughts in my brain, and I reflect on the deaths of individuals who could have been my colleagues, as well as recognize the idea that I could have been among them. I ate in Jo Goldenberg a long time ago, observed the residents of the Marais, the city’s hallowed Jewish quarter and the restaurant’s own neighborhood, saw the bullet holes from a terrorist shooting of yesteryear. I realize that I and everyone else in the free world will never be safe from the machinations of those who want to annihilate us, but I also realize that we, like Jack and Bella Bajnon, can survive such plots and destruction, can even flourish. Ordinary, normal souls can defeat evil by existing, by using their minds and bodies to resist such villainy.

Can I do that, too? After mulling the idea, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can…but of course, I’m not “normal.”

Maybe I wouldn’t have survived Auschwitz. Maybe my OCD would have beaten me if I’d lived during the Holocaust. But today, I attempt to battle my illness like I fight hate speech on the web: with words, text, writing, concentrating on my literary initiatives, transforming my musings into prose. Like the Bajnons, I can’t give up, let the wrongdoers win. My combat is a mental one, perhaps not as devastating as what Jack and Bella had to deal with, but similarly strenuous and draining from a psychological standpoint. I identify with them, understand the agony they went through. And I also understand their need to conquer it.

I have the same need.

We’re going through a terrible time now, a hesitant, troubling time. But we can’t retreat into ourselves — and that order applies to me, too, despite my tendencies to abide by the mandates of my illness. Confronting the malevolence of our era is as necessary today as it was during World War II, when the Allied powers defeated the Nazis; the fear perpetuated by terrorists in the world reminds me of my OCD, my own fear of doing things without ritual, without feeling “right” …yet I know both can be overcome. We can take a page out of Jack and Bella’s book, use their determination as a staff. They were normal people, too, you know; they just experienced extraordinary hardship. Despite that, they came through.

Humanity will, I believe, as well.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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