It’s been another week of drama, trauma, fear and triumph. The dramatic: ‘Deal of the Century,’ President Trump’s peace plan. The fear: the spreading Coronavirus reaching our shores. The trauma: ongoing bush fires raging – this time near Canberra. The trauma: Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.
The triumph: An Australian laboratory, the Doherty Institute, is the first outside of China to re-create the Coronavirus which will be vital in developing a vaccine. The triumph: the remarkable survivors of the Shoah still telling their stories with hope and courage.
And it’s their hope, resilience and faith in the future that lifts us and reminds us of our capacity to face fear, to cope with trauma, to assess drama and to triumph in our lives.
It doesn’t matter how many Shoah stories I’ve heard, I’m still stunned by the suffering, the unbearable pain, the loss, the shock of the surreal disorientation. Irene Fogel Weiss was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. She recalls “When I was eight years old Czechoslovakia broke apart and we became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started, because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and we received no compensation. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools. All of a sudden you are told to leave it all and walk out with a single suitcase.
I remember the night of the packing very well. Things went in the suitcase, things were taken out of the suitcase. In the end my mother filled it with food she had cooked and warm clothing and bedding. Then it was full. Plus we took a watch, some earrings, a wedding ring with us to exchange food for if necessary. The next day my father was forced to hand over his remaining money to a delegation that included the mayor and the school principal as they rounded us up at the town hall.
We had been absolutely unaware of such a place as Auschwitz. It was a stunning reversal of the life we had had up until then. And I cannot emphasise enough how utterly scary it is to be at the mercy of your fellow human beings. As a child I could not understand what we had done to deserve going there.”
BBC’s Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur did a remarkable interview this week with a diminutive, remarkable and eloquent survivor Mindu Hornick. She recalls her family’s arrival at Auschwitz: “We heard this terrible clutter, the gates opened and the shock and disorientation that set in was unbelievable.”
During the interview Sackur remarked that he was struck by the ability of the survivors to start again, refashion their lives and continue without being damaged by their horrific experience. Mindu immediately corrected him by saying how all survivors were damaged; some sought psychiatric help, some repressed their memories, others chose to look forward and put aside the trauma, but all had nightmares and were wounded souls. He asked her about forgiveness. Mindu said she could not forgive those who had murdered her parents, young siblings and extended family. She then went on to say that despite this, she made a decision not to surrender to hatred because hatred destroys the one who hates. I was reminded of the words of our rabbis: hatred knows no boundaries, it destroys all in its path. Sackur’s message that the 21st century can be a different, more caring one, despite the resurgence of antisemitism, racism and Islamaphobia, is simply breathtaking in its faith in the future; it’s belief in humanity.
Another survivor who confronts the issue of forgiveness is Dr Edith Eger. In 2017 she published her sensational biography “The Choice”, a memoir but also a guide to ‘embracing the possible’ – she became a therapist (inspired by Victor Frankl).
In her book she grapples with the question of forgiveness and writes that she was only able to move forward after she had jettisoned her feelings of rage and hatred. She found a way not to allow her painful past destroy her, but to transform it into a gift to help and heal others. She has changed the lives of countless people – the patients she has healed, the leaders and helpers she has inspired. Adam Grant of the NY Times may be exaggerated in his assessment of her autobiography but he puts it finely: “It is more than a book – it is a work of art. It gave me goose bumps, the kind that grace you in transcendent moments of appreciating a Mozart sonata, an Elizabeth Barett Browning sonnet or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
Reading and listening to these memoirs during this week of Parashat Bo (our Torah reading) as it outlines the final stages of the Egyptian servitude and the promise of freedom, I couldn’t help but think of the startling parallels – it’s a story of the dark and murderous impulses of humanity – the first attempted extinction of the Jewish people through a process alienation, enslavement and finally genocide. The murder is not restricted to the adults but aimed at the baby boys. The observation of Irene Fogel Weiss comes to mind: “We could not have imagined they would kill little children until we realised that killing children was their primary goal to prevent any new generations.” In view of this Moshe’s words to the ruthless Pharoah make sense “We will leave (Egypt) with our young and our old…”
To refuse to go along with the Nazi machinery was dangerous. It was only in 1946 at Nuremberg that the argument that people were merely following orders given by a democratically elected government was rejected. A new legal concept was introduced called crimes against humanity that implicated the architects and administrators of genocide.
Jonathan Sarna has pointed out that centuries before this, there was a group of women who refused to obey immoral orders. These were the midwives of Egypt who would not follow Pharoah’s ruling: “The midwives, however feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17).
Their act of courage and disobedience, their commitment to life is a tale of fear and victory. These women like their descendants in Nazi Europe centuries later remind us of our capacity to face fear, cope with trauma and triumph against evil. A timeless message for our beleaguered age.