For nearly five years, beginning in 1940, Rachel Roth and her aunt Hela endured unspeakable torture, unimaginable deprivation, and unbearable suffering.
Starting in the Warsaw ghetto in the fall of 1940 and proceeding through the Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen camps, Rachel and Hela were abused, tortured, beaten, starved, and subjected to a level of violence it is hard to imagine any human being surviving. During this period almost every member of their family was murdered. They lost countless friends and companions.
Against all odds Hela and Rachel survived.
When the day finally came that they were freed from Bergen-Belsen camp, how would they respond? What would be their first reaction? Would they rail against God, attack their attackers, seek revenge and attempt to destroy those who had sought to crush them?
What would emerge from the hell Rachel and Hela had endured for more than four unimaginable years?
In her brutal account of suffering through the years of the war as a young Jewish woman in Poland and Germany, Rachel Roth, who at the time of liberation was only nineteen years old, describes the moment when she and her aunt, along with thousands of other women, realized they were going to survive and that freedom had come. Roth writes,
Hela looks at me with eyes filled with tears. Then she hugs me and assures me that this is not a dream. “We are free! This is the end of our misfortune. Shehchianu, v’kimanu, v’higgianu, lazman hazeh.” Hela recites a prayer of thanksgiving. From a thousand breasts, the prayers pour forth: “May the Lord our God be blessed. Praise the Lord who has supported us in life till the present moment.” And a thousand more voices answer, “Amen.”
This beautiful day is April 15, 1945. In my memory it will remain forever as the most beautiful day of my life. As my beloved poet, Adam Mickiewicz, said,
“I see you now, by beautiful vision
Born in slavery, swaddled in chains
I had only one Spring in my life.”
(Here There Is No Why, p. 360)
The first response that arose from the hearts of these women who had been beaten down and cruelly oppressed was not bitterness and resentment. They did not find violence and anger rising in their hearts. They did not rush to seek revenge.
What emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust was a spirit of thanksgiving and praise to God. In the face of their unfathomable loss, there was no word of bitterness or resentment, but a hymn of praise.
Wherein lies this indomitable human spirit? What is the source of this strength that can live on edge of the abyss enduring years of suffering and injustice, and yet return to the land of the living with undying hope and light?
It is certainly not that Rachel did not experience a lifetime of grief after these tragic years. Nothing could restore the lost years of her young life. No power could bring back her mother, two sisters, brother, beloved grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and dear friends all of whom were consumed in the maw of the Nazi killing machine.
But, deeper than all the pain, the indomitable force of life persevered in Rachel. She possessed something greater, stronger, and more enduring than all the hatred, bigotry, and violence perpetrated by the Nazis. In the end, despite all the death she encountered, life was not defeated.
Rachel concludes the account of her terrible suffering affirming that,
Despite the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people and wipe them off the face of the earth, we still exist. I was in the Warsaw ghetto, where we fought the mighty Nazi army longer than France or Holland. I was in Auschwitz, an extermination camp, but I am alive. Because I have tasted death, I appreciate life. I have started a family and I am trying to lead a normal and happy life. I am leaving a legacy not only of suffering but also of triumph.
After all the suffering endured, gratitude prevails. The power of life triumphs. Love carries on; there is reason for hope and thanksgiving.
We, whose circumstances give us so much to be thankful for, need to find within ourselves that deep resilient place of spirit and light that sustained Rachel and Hela through the horror of the Holocaust and enabled them to emerge with thanksgiving in their hearts.