My eighth-grade Holocaust studies teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, once made an interesting observation. It did not matter, he said, how strong and muscular you were when you were in the ghetto – powerfully built 20-year-old men died in Auschwitz within days while scrawny 7-year-old boys survived the war.
I assumed at the time that the answer was a mixture of luck and the unknowable divine will, but I think now that the answer is at once both elementary and yet profound.
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, documented mankind at its worst – and at its best. Frankl and his fellow prisoners were being marched through the night in the bitter cold, icy winds chilling them to the bone. They stumbled in the darkness, over big stones, and through freezing puddles, along a road leading from the camp. Their guards kept shouting at them, butting them with their rifles. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. The man marching next to Frankl, hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, suddenly whispered, “If our wives could see us now! I hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
Frankl began thinking of his own wife as he stumbled along in the dark. He imagined her. He heard her voice. Saw her smile. Her encouraging look. She was so real in his mind, even though she was so far away physically.
It was then that Frankl had his epiphany. He understood a truth that is sung by so many poets and proclaimed as profound wisdom by so many philosophers. He realized, while contemplating his beloved, that a man who seemingly has nothing left in this world may still experience bliss, something to live for, something to hope for, a greater purpose, something to elevate him from his hopeless condition.
Imagine. A man’s thoughts, under the most horrific of conditions, were the key to his survival.
This is a theme we find time and again in accounts of the Holocaust. And not only in those harrowing accounts that end in survival, but also those that end in loss.
Hannah Senesh was a Hungarian who left her family and her home just before the war to fulfill her dream of living in Eretz Yisrael. And yet, although she made it safely to Eretz Yisrael, she still volunteered to join the British air force so she could return to Europe to fight the Nazis and save her people. She parachuted into enemy territory with two men, but she was quickly captured and tortured. But she would not talk. She would not release the names or whereabouts of her companions despite indescribable torture – even when the Nazis brought her mother to her and threatened to torture her as well. Hannah Senesh, or what was left of her, was then executed.
Another example: Father Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest imprisoned in Auschwitz. He witnessed 10 prisoners condemned to death by starvation. One of the condemned pleaded, “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” Father Kolbe stepped forward, took off his cap, and stood before the commandant and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. This man has a wife and children.” The officer accepted his offer and promptly threw him down the steps into a starvation cellar with the other nine prisoners. When, many days later, the Nazi guards came in to remove the bodies, they found only one man still conscious – Father Kolbe. And he was praying. A Nazi guard injected him with carbolic acid to finish him off, and Father Kolbe left this world uttering a psalm of David, from our tehillim, on his lips. The man he saved survived the war and dedicated his life to publicizing the heroic gesture and sacrifice of Father Kolbe.
Both Hannah Senesh and Father Kolbe exemplify Victor Frankl’s observation – not only are there some things worth living for, there are also some things worth dying for.
What all these people have in common, those who made it and those who did not, is that each lived, and died, for a greater purpose, a greater good. Each of these individuals was able to endure, both living and, yes, even dying, because of this.
Nothing sums this up better than the following suicide note that was discovered in the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. It reads: “HaKadosh Baruch Hu, there are many things You can and have taken from me. You can take my money. You did. You can take my home. You did. You can take my family. You did. But there’s one thing You cannot take away from me. My faith in You.”
As we have recently completed Pesach, that theme is ever-more present. There are many stories of Jews who lived and died in the Shoah so they could bake one sheet of matzoh or sneak in an extra potato. By all logic Pesach should have been the last thing on their minds. They had more pressing needs, especially the need to survive. But many of them saw something greater than their lives – a greater purpose, a God to live for, a Jewish holiday to be celebrated, regardless of the situation.