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A survivor’s gift: Happiness

The secret to how her grandfather, who endured unimaginable suffering, smiled and laughed more than people

As a grandchild of a survivor, I’ve always had a special interest in Holocaust studies. I have read many memoirs and attended numerous classes on the subject. But, from the very first class in a small Israeli school in the suburbs of Afula, to the courses I attended in a large North American university — I had always felt that something I had learned from my Grandfather was missing from these lectures.

For years, I had trouble pinning down that missing piece. It frightens me that my grandfather’s gift may have been lost all together: No one would have known that there once lived a man named Srulik Ackerman, who challenged our understanding of human nature, and with that, could bring hope in even the darkest of times.

Grandpa Srulik should have lived a simple life. He was born to a Kosher meat salesman and homemaker in the small Polish village of Nowosiolki. There he spent his childhood running around in the fields with his two brothers, picking berries in the forest, and bathing in the lake.

Had a terrible tragedy not hit the European Jewry when he was a small boy, he would have likely spent the rest of his life in that small Polish village. Maybe he would have taken over his father’s business, married a beautiful Jewish girl, and had three children of his own.

Fate had something different in store for young Srulik. When he was only ten years old, the little boy with wild curly hair lost his entire family to the hands of the Nazis. Utterly alone, and with no food or shelter, he was left to wander the forests.

The worst was yet to come. Several weeks later, the Nazis captured Srulik, and forced him to join a long procession of cars and carts that led to the city of Miedzyrzac. There, he found himself within the confines of barded wires, with electricity running through them.

In the Ghetto, he witnessed and suffered some of the worst atrocities to ever visit humankind. Nazis threw living babies against brick walls. People were shot into mass graves, thousands at a time. To be discovered by the Nazis spelled certain death, and yet starvation and disease took the life of many who managed to hide from the enemy.

Through incredible personal strength, the kindness of strangers, and a good dose of luck, Srulik survived countless close encounters with death.

Needless to say, the Holocaust left its mark on my grandfather. Indeed, his physical body spoke of the severe trauma that he had endured. After the murder of his family, ten-year-old Srulik discovered that his dark hair was already turning grey. And although his father was tall and mother was of average height, Grandpa grew up to be only five feet tall.

What was unusual, however, was his psychological response to everything that happened to him. As one would expect, Holocaust survivors typically suffer from severe post traumatic stress. Even in times of peace and prosperity, many of us find ourselves unable to live happily due to trauma resulting from terrible, but unfortunately common perils, such as parental neglect or bullying.

Yet, after just a few minutes with my Grandpa you would see the mystery that had perplexed me for so many years. The first thing that would strike you would be his wide, welcoming smile. Grandpa smiled and laughed more than anyone I knew. He took every opportunity to tell jokes and bring joy to others. Without a doubt, Grandpa was the happiest person that I had ever met.

How was that possible? I spent two years writing his memoir, hoping to discover his secret. But, even after the book was complete, I still had no idea what gave him such unparalleled resilience.

So, I decided to ask him directly. “How do stay happy on a daily basis?” I asked during one of our conversations.

“You need to learn to be happy from any success. Any success at all,” replied Grandpa. “Even good weather counts. When some misfortune happens, we need to view it with humor and think of it as temporary. Distract yourself with something. Think of something else.”

I asked him what he told himself when misfortune hit. “It’s only temporary and there is no need to turn it into a tragedy,” he replied. “For instance, if something hurts, there is no reason to panic. You know that the doctors will heal you. This is how it happened many times.”

“You need to have a good mood. Good family, good children, good work, and then you’ll be happy,” he added. “You need to be a sociable person. I love and respect all people. After what happened to me, I don’t only value my own life more, but I deeply value the lives of all human beings. It’s very important to have good company and good friends. I view everything with optimism, it’s very important.”

Interestingly, Grandpa’s secret to happiness aligns well with what research suggests. Indeed, having strong social ties through both family and friends is invaluable to one’s sense of well-being. Similarly, having a good attitude and an optimistic point of view can greatly contribute to our happiness.

What is incredible is that these simple tools have worked to turn a man who had suffered through the worst of tragedies into the happiness person I had ever met.

Grandpa passed away five months ago, leaving a powerful message: You can be happy, no matter what.

If a Holocaust survivor can lead a joyful life, then surely there is hope for the rest of us.

Read an excerpt from Running from Giants, Margareta Ackerman’s book about her grandfather’s life as a child survivor of the Holocaust.

About the Author
Margareta Ackerman, PhD. is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman and author of Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Child," an illustrated memoir of Srulik’s experience in the Holocaust. She also authored over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. Born in Belarus, Margareta spent much of her childhood in Israel. She lives with her husband and son in San Jose, California.
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