Concentration Camps, Elie Wiesel and Goodness

Concentration Camps, Elie Wiesel and Goodness

It all seems to be coming together in some strange way but I’m not sure to what end.  Last month I went on a week-long  history trip to Poland to visit the new and old of Jewish Poland.   We went to the concentration camps  of Treblinka and  Auschwitz-Birkenau, the forests which contain  the mass graves of horrific numbers of tortured and shot bodies of babies, children and adults, the Warsaw cemetery, the new and beautiful Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews which stands in what had been the Warsaw Ghetto, and many small towns depicting the complete wipe-out of a people.  We also visited farm houses tucked into a beautiful countryside where some incredibly humane and brave Polish gentiles hid Jewish families at the risk of their own lives.  Hearing a first-hand account from a 90 year- old Polish woman of how her parents (she was about 18 at the time) had saved  a family of eight Jews was a most poignant highlight of the trip.  The little boy that her family hid is now a grandfather living in Israel.   A few years ago this same woman spoke to a group of students from Israel  whereupon a girl came over to her at the end of the talk and said, “that’s my grandfather you saved!”  We can only imagine the tears and emotions that flowed into the wee hours of that night.

“He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.”  Talmud

Needless to say, it’s pretty hard to take all of this in.  It’s one thing to read about it in books, see movies, hear about it, and another to actually see it… the hair that was cut off from the camp inmates and made into pillow and blanket stuffing, the open group latrines where one could only ‘go’ as permitted which was a rarity, the railroad tracks and spots where with the point of a finger to the ‘wrong side’ one was sent to the death showers, where soon after the intense black smoke signified – mission accomplished.

The key question at our last night’s dinner as we processed our overall week was one I continue to ask myself:  What do I do with all this?  What’s my take-away?  I can’t simply tuck it away as if to cross it off my bucket list and say, ‘OK, saw this, felt it, learned some more history by an incredible historian, David Bernstein.’

What do I do with what I saw and felt?  What will be different for me having visited some of the places where the worst form of evil was perpetrated, to the silence and passive indifference of the world. Adding this to my archive of trips, albeit a most meaningful and powerful one, is simply not enough.  And so I struggle.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.  And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”  Elie Wiesel


Just this past weekend I joined a group of synagogue members who visit the sick in a local hospital (Bikor Cholim).  Ironically, two of the patients we visited were personal witnesses to the horror of the Holocaust.  One elderly man had been in the American Army during WWII, stationed in Germany.  As he had his army cap above his hospital bed, he began telling some war stories.   And he ended by telling us what he has never been able to relinquish from his being, and what brought him to tears as he expressed so vividly:   the burning smell of human flesh coming from chimneys (crematoriums).  He can still smell it today at the age of 90.  How did this happen, he rhetorically asked as we stood in front of his bed.   I couldn’t utter a word; it was all too fresh for me as I had just returned from seeing the remains of those chimneys and crematoriums.

The perennial question – how did the world and God allow this to happen;  a question to  which Elie Wiesel hopes for an answer as he ascends up to heaven.

The next patient was sitting in a chair hooked up to oxygen, quite feisty stating how strong she is at 98, flanked by her doting daughter and deliciously warm adult grandson.  She proceeded to tell us she had survived Auschwitz and came from the same town as Elie Wiesel where she went to school with his sister.  At which point the daughter said, “oh, he just died.”   I asked her to repeat herself as I hadn’t yet heard about his death and was shocked into tears.   I was in the middle of re-reading his most recent and now last book, Open Heart.   I had been intending to write him a letter this coming week wanting to express my thoughts in the hope of getting a response.

He was my hero from way back in grad school when I wrote a paper on influential people.  He, along with Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning), have been two of my ‘gurus’ who personify my life-long interest in people transcending adversity.  They were both concentration camp survivors who went on to do immensely meaningful, healing and helping missions with their lives.   They brought forth Goodness.  They made goodness win for them and for all the millions of lives they touched, and will continue to impact upon forever.

They both went on to create light out of darkness, goodness out of evil.   We all must do that, otherwise what’s it all for?!


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Latrines in Auschwitz

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