David Mandel
Chief Executive Officer, OHEL Children's Home and Family Services

Who Am I?

Standing at the precipice of death longing for starvation as a more suitable alternative, witnessing the annihilation of my family what am I capable of doing?

Do I dutifully follow the minions ahead to my abbreviated death?
Do I turn and run to a freedom I cannot fathom?
Do I seize the opportunity, any opportunity to stave the executioner by saving myself sparing no human dignity or moreover sparing no other human?

A word spat universally recognized by every Holocaust survivor depicts revulsion as penultimate treason against a fellow Jew.
It is the counter tipping point to Hillel’s dictum of Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.

The inner recesses of the mind can often protect the soul from asking a self horrifying question. The rational portion of the cortex prevents us from answering it.
It doesn’t allow you to penetrate that emotional abyss of your inner self to exact emtional harm on your soul.

That is why we cannot dream about our own actual death. We can conceptualize the before and after but our mind envelopes and protects us from the most ghastly thoughts.

The serial murderer is a sociopath or psychopath with no remorse or contact with reality. They kill to kill not to protect themselves or loved ones. They are not blackmailed into becoming a murderer.
Their mind is not functioning rationally.

The question of what would you, or I, have done facing a similar fate as our parents and grandparents in Nazi Germany in Kristallnacht 1939, in occupied Poland 1941 or at Auschwitz in 1944 is often abruptly concluded with an inner thought such as, I don’t know what I would have done.

Could I have survived the death march,
the starvation, the beatings and
degradation as my parents did?

As the generation of survivors dwindles we continue to seek stories heretofore unknown about our families history during that dark period. We listened in the last decades since liberation as stories unfolded slowly, painfully, or even not yet spoken.

Yet, as much as was shared by survivors no one dared ask a parent or any relative certain questions. One doesn’t ask a question of another that you yourself wouldn’t want to be asked. It is too personal. Too penetrating.

Seasoned professionals who specialize in working with victims of rape, incest, horrific trauma, infertility, sexual dysfunction know the boundaries of eliciting such memories.  It can be exhilarating to release such a long held secret or painfully searing even dangerously re-traumatizing.
It remains a boundary crossing even after 30, 40, 50 years.

So there remain some personal recollections, secrets, that survivors carry never to be revealed.

Yet what would we do facing death?
Who among us would have stolen our bunk-mates meager stale bread and raw potato?

How would we have enslaved ourselves to live one more day?
Would we have surreptitiously exchanged another’s baby to keep our own alive?

Would some of us not have been ready to die al Kiddush Hashem and done the unimaginable to survive?
Who within us is capable of being a capo?

On October 13, 1972 a plane carrying 45 passengers crashed in the Andes mountains in Uruguay. Faced with starvation and radio news reports that the search for them had been abandoned, the sixteen survivors fed on the dead passengers who had been preserved in the snow. Rescuers did not learn of the survivors until 72 days after the crash when two of the passengers trekked ten days across the mountains to find help.

The saga was chronicled in a book titled Alive!
One word says it all. The will to live.

Why even think of ourselves as a capo?
Why go there?

First, to remember the degradation the Nazi’s successfully inflicted on their victims, and their intent on eradicating a race a nation.

Second, to understand that the human frailty is desperate to survive and in the face of death, of watching your children dying man may be capable of acts never imagined.

Dare you ask yourself what would you have done facing a similar oblivion in a concentration camp?

It is a way to remember the atrocities of the Shoah.
It is a way to honor the survivors.
It is a way to search the depth of our soul even knowing some questions are better not answered.

About the Author
David Mandel is CEO of Ohel Children's Home and Family Services. For more than 50 years, Ohel has provided a safe haven for those suffering in the community. Ohel cares for more than 17,000 individuals in the New York metropolitan area and across all communities offering a broad range of mental health services including outpatient counseling, trauma, anxiety, eldercare, respite and housing.