The Holocaust of European Jewry impinges on my consciousness more often than is probably normal. It is tempting in thinking about the Holocaust, to think only of the Nazi-operated concentration and extermination camps.
Images of skeletal men, women and children fill the imagination. It is hard not to be preoccupied with thoughts of the millions of people who died inhaling deadly Zyklon-B dropped through the ceiling into the midst of hundreds of innocent people locked into a large bare enclosure masquerading as a shower.
But, the violence and horror of Nazi camps were certainly not the only suffering experienced during the terrible years of 1939 to 1945 throughout Europe and many parts of the world. There are countless stories from these years of human suffering that appear to exceed the possibility of human endurance. How is it possible to account for survival of so many in the midst of the unimaginable misery they were forced to endure?
In her book, When Light Pierced The Darkness, Polish sociologist Nechama Tec, tells the story of fourteen Jews “fortunate” enough to have escaped imprisonment or death in a camp. But, their plight was no less horrendous and their suffering as they hid with the help of a Polish farmer on a farm in a small village. Tec describes their strategy for survival:
…imagine a barn in a Polish village with a small attic with a low ceiling. The attic has no toilet facilities, no water, no light. A square opening with a steep ladder leaning against it serves as the entrance and as the main pathway for air. The only other way through which air reaches the area is a small window on the side of the barn, close to the roof. Both of these openings make for poor ventilation. The attic was built as an extra storage room. Most of the time it was empty. In the summer the heat beats mercilessly upon its thin roof making the inside unbearably hot.
In the past no one was affected or worried about the poor ventilation or heat. The war changed all this. Fourteen Jews, ranging in age from they-and-a-half to sixty are brought into these cramped quarters by an old Pole who wants to save them. The straw scattered on the ground serves as their beds. A single pail becomes their toilet. Most nights their protector comes to take care of them. He brings them water, bread, and potatoes. It is not easy to feed fourteen people. It is dangerous. Here in the village people are suspicious of one another, the neighbors are inquisitive. Some nights seem especially threatening. The old man is afraid. At such times the Jews have to do without food and water. They wait.
Washing is out of the question, as is the changing of clothes. Dirt, lice, and different kinds of vermin, no one can even identify, become their constant companions. Names of the vermin don’t matter. What matters is that fourteen human beings are defenseless, and at the mercy of these small and yet terrifying intruders that crawl all over them and bite. Their skin becomes infected and full of sores. Reduced to this pitiful condition some of the fugitives seriously consider giving up. Instead, they make a superhuman effort not to complain, especially not in the presence of the Pole, their savior. The alternative is death. As they wait and wait they cannot even decide which season is less desirable, bitter winter or the oppressive summer.
This is the summer. The vermin are viciously active. Water is in short supply. The stench coming from a variety of directions is srong and nauseating. Now one more problem is added. Someone is sick. Medical attention is out of reach. No one knows what is wrong with the “old woman.” She lies on her infested dirty straw, unable to move. She is too weak to defend herself against the crawling, invading pests. They take advantage of her. They are merciless. Her face is red. Her fever must be high. Her lips are parched. She does not ask for water. There is none. She does not ask for anything. Only her distorted features tell that she is in agony. Her eyes speak, not her lips. Her eyes are conscious and knowing. Those eyes see the approaching end.
Only from time to time, she makes an effort and moves her lips. And it is then that those around her hear again and again the same whispered words: Oh my God, my body may bring disaster to you, what will you do with my body. How will you manage…? The patient died. At night, secretly and in states, they buried her dismembered body in the garden. (Tec, Nechama. When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986, 76, 77.)
How does a human being survive such conditions?
Wherein lies the indomitability of the human spirit that in such a situation continues to cling to life?
What ferocious life-force compels people to continue in hope despite such overwhelming violence and suffering?
We are on baby-watch in our family, awaiting the arrival of grand-baby number four. The birth of a baby is a miracle of the human spirit’s determination to endure pain to embrace the gift of life. Life is stronger than death. Despite all evidence to the contrary, love does triumph. There is no rational explanation. It is a miracle to be embrace with thanksgiving.