Twenty years ago someone I trusted told me I had no faith. I heard what was being said to me, but I did not understand. I went to shul on the high holidays, and I was a good person. Where could I find the directions on how to obtain this faith that seemed completely elusive to me? Why was I not seeing the world in the same manner as this person and others who supposedly had this belief called faith? What was I missing? I have realized that the path to self discovery is not for the faint hearted and as David Brooks in his book The Road to Character describes, based on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s concept of Adam I and Adam II, “You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself…In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.” When you are ready to truly understand what you could not see before, G-d presents it. The answers to my faith questions would truly be crystalized during my recent graduate school social work internship doing case management with Holocaust survivors.
‘How are you doing today Mr. C?’
‘Comme ci comme ça.’ (Neither good nor bad)
This was the beginning of almost every conversation I had with 91 year old Mr. C for the four months I had the privilege of regularly visiting with him before he suddenly died. He was in better shape than I was since he went to the gym everyday at 7 a.m. and would remind me that exercise was his best medicine. Mr. C, at the age of 12, became an orphan and the sole survivor of his Ger Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland. He would often say to me ‘Oh, I could tell you stories, you would not believe the things that have happened to me. I can’t even believe they happened.’ He was a friendly, upbeat man who was missing half of his middle finger. He shared with me how he was working on cleaning a machine in the concentration camp and a Nazi intentionally turned on the machine and chopped off his finger. Mr. C would persevere and survive Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in Germany near the city of Weimar and would journey to France, Belgium, and Israel to serve against the British, and finally to the United States. His fierce determination and resiliency amazed me.
Many survivors were able to adapt to their new environments out of necessity. “…being resilient ‘implies the opposite of stability because individuals are engaging in a process of continual adjustment and they do not return to their previous state (like a rubber ball) but can actually adapt, learn, and change’” (Rubin, 2020, 139-140).
I saw the same resiliency repeatedly with each of the survivors I called on. Lola Mozes was the sole survivor of her family from Katowice, Poland. Upon meeting this 89 year old woman I shared with her that I had visited Katowice as well as Auschwitz and Birkenau. Her comment to me was, ‘You visited my playground.’ I would soon learn that at the age of nine years old, Lola was placed in the ghetto where her father and brother were shot in 1943. Then on the death march from Auschwitz, Lola’s mother was shot right in front of her. Her writing, published here with her permission, express her deep grief::
‘I light the memorial candles, one for my father, one for my brother. I should light more, for my cousins and for the others, but this would be a bonfire, a blaze. I say a short prayer, G-d remember their souls, keep them safe in your realm… as my memorial candles burn, a shiver still runs through me at the remembrance…’
Then there was 94 year old Mrs. F. from Crasna, Romania who was in a concentration camp gas chamber when the order arrived that women needed to work in the ammunition factory; an abrupt halt to death. Mrs. F and her sister would survive the war and be liberated from Theresienstadt, in northern Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). Mrs. F’s hearing would suffer tremendously from the beatings to her head by the Nazis.
The stories of these survivors penetrated my soul and shook me to my core. It is not that I lived under a rock before and I was ignorant of the history of the Shoah. As a third generation Holocaust descendant whose maternal grandmother bore the number 79211 on her arm, I have always logically understood that I am a Jew through and through. Yet, a small part of me has always struggled to understand how a person can endure so much emotional pain and still miraculously survive. Even though my grandmother spoke to me about the Shoah, her story was also my story and my legacy; when one is that close to someone who has endured unfathomable pain and suffering, I believe there is a maximum threshold to understanding their story because otherwise it is unbearable to live life. When I heard the stories from the survivors I was now working with, my faith was strengthened from a very deep place within my being; it was almost as if there was a gigantic hole that was being filled with gallons of emunah (faith) and more seeds began to sprout to have more bitachon (trust). I also recognized that life does not always make sense and one plus one does not always equal two. Survivors were somehow able to overcome insurmountable odds, pierce through the evil that existed all around them, and not only survive but go on to have families, to find reasons to live, and to continue to find faith in G-d.
Before my grandmother passed away three and a half years ago, she looked me in the eye and she said ‘Hitler.’ It was a fleeting moment in time, however, one that held a lot of weight and that perhaps could only be understood between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I was never to forget the atrocities of the Shoah and that I am a Jew. I believe it was hashgacha pratis (divine providence) that my paths crossed with these wonderful survivors during my internship who helped me to more clearly understand what I could not fully see before.
As we are about to enter the solemn day of Yom Kippur, one of the core tenants of this holy day is teshuvah, meaning to return to one’s real self and to strive to come closer to God. Sometimes it is a challenge to see and appreciate the beauty in the world. I must strive past my kelipot (shells, acting as barriers) to remind myself to always have a deep faith that G-d is watching, He knows my challenges and He only wants the best for me. I find solace in the poetic words of the Hungarian Jewish WWII resistance fighter Hannah Szenes:
My God, my God,
may it never end –
the sand and the sea,
the rustle of the water,
the brilliance of the sky,
the prayer of man.
Gmar chatima tova.
Brooks, D. (2015). The Road to Character. New York: Random House.
Rubin, E. 2020, Surviving the Holocaust: Trauma and Resiliency in Later Life. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 63(3), 139-142.