Lena Berg was a Holocaust survivor.
She survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Maidanek extermination camp, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
At the end of her husband Alexander’s memoir, The Holocaust Kingdom, Lena tells her story and gives an explanation of the skill to which she attributes her miraculous survival. Lena’s understanding of what made it possible to come through this ordeal challenges almost everything I believe about the spiritual life. Lena wrote:
I spent a year and a half at Auschwitz, and I was lucky, incredibly lucky. I lived through that time as if inside an ivory tower just on the edge of an inferno that still cries out for its Dante. How was I able to survive? Why didn’t I have a nervous break-down? The answer is simple, perhaps too simple: I did not see; I did not hear; I did not want to see or hear or know. I wanted to live. When I got there, I was already a graduate of two great universities of human suffering – the Warsaw Ghetto and Maidanek. I had already developed a heart of stone and nerves of steel, although that is at best a metaphor. I who had formerly almost died of fright at the sight of a mouse now slept at Auschwitz with enormous rats crawling back and forth over my face. I handled corpses without either fear or disgust. I trampled on human ashes but refused to permit myself to be aware of it. Not only my nerves, but my very senses were blunted, and I succeeded in creating in myself an induced amnesia… I curled up inside my shell and was cut off from the outside world. I never looked into the faces of the murderers and only once, by accident, did I see a procession of the doomed being led to a gas chamber…. deafness and blindness were my armor. … For those reasons I am neither competent nor accurate in chronicling the monstrosity that was Auschwitz. I never saw the gas chamber because I didn’t want to see it. (Donat, Alexander. The Holocaust Kingdom: A Memoir. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963, pp. 304-306)
Breaking down the walls of “the ivory tower,” removing my “armor,” letting my “shell” crack open, and being willing to see as clearly as possible the reality of the human condition, are the cornerstones of my understanding of how we might move toward an authentic spiritual life. The fundamental tool of the spiritual journey is the desire “to see or hear or know.” Having “a heart of stone” and “induced amnesia” are a certain path away from a deep spiritual life. Refusal and resistance are the death-knell of human becoming.
But Lena did survive. She went on to emigrate from Poland to the United States with her husband and son, both of whom also miraculously survived the murderous intentions of the Nazis.
Or did Lena survive? It would appear that, although she survived physically, something in Lena died during her ordeal under Nazi reign.
Lena draws from her horrifying experience the sad conclusion that,
I cannot describe even a fraction of the horror that was Auschwitz, but what I did see was enough to make me lose forever the notion that man was created in the likeness of God. (p. 306)
Who could blame her for drawing such a conclusion. But, is it possible that, had Lena gone through the torment of the holocaust with greater consciousness than she apparently managed, she might have emerged with some faith in the beauty of the human creation still in tact?