In the fall of 1939, nine-year-old Janina David moved with her mother and father into the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. It was  a calculated risk.

Janina’s parents had become convinced after the German occupation of Poland that life in the Jewish ghetto surrounded by their own people would be safer than attempting to survive in Gentile Poland under Nazi rule. So they abandoned their familiar comfortable life in the quiet village of Kalisz 235 kms south west of Warsaw and moved into the crowded noisy squalor of the ghetto.

After nearly four years surviving starvation, disease, violence, and deportation, Janina was smuggled out of the ghetto. At the age of thirteen, without either of her parents, she began the struggle for survival in the hostile environment of war-ravaged Poland.

For the remaining twelve months of the German occupation, after escaping the ghetto, Janina survived living at first with a family friend, then in the often uncomfortable shelter of the sisters in two convents. She existed on the edge of starvation, suffering from constant sickness, and  living with the unrelenting fear of denunciation and exposure as a Jew hiding among non-Jews.

During her time with the nuns Janina, who grew up in a non-religious Jewish family, converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Her conversion seems to have been heartfelt and genuine. Through the process of catechism instruction, baptism, and First Communion, Janina found a measure of peace and a sense of belonging. But it did not last.

After “liberation” by Soviet forces, living alone in devastated Poland, Janina’s faith faltered and eventually caved in completely under the assault of the reality of the war years.

Janina describes sitting in a movie theatre in 1945, being assaulted by newsreel footage of Nazi death camps and hoping beyond hope that, by some miracle, she might catch sight of her lost parents.

one day I found myself watching a film taken in a concentration camp. It must have been Auschwitz or Majdanek, at the moment the Russians entered.

The piles of naked bodies, the crowded bunks, the ash-strewn fields, and teeth and toys and, in the white cubicles later, army doctors examining the living skeletons, who looked into the camera with wild, sunken eyes, bewildered, questioning, demanding an answer…

I sat pushed back into my chair by the horror before me. Whenever the camera zoomed for a close-up and another naked body was examined, my heart stopped in anticipation. Now! Now it will be one of them, now in the next second I shall recognize…

I didn’t, but there were so many of them, ‘millions’, someone said in the darkness. Why?

They are there, I must see them, I thought, and the indecency of what I was witnessing made me cover my eyes for a second, but I lowered my hands immediately. I had no right to hide now. Never again will I have the right to hide, to shirk, to turn my face away in fear or disgust. If they could die this kind of death, then I would have to carry its image as long as I lived.

In the cinema the spectators wept, fainted and prayed aloud. I came out into the cold winter night with clenched teeth and murder in my heart. My last childish dream was dead: There was no God.

(David, Janina. A Square of Sky: A wartime childhood: from ghetto to convent. London:
Eland, 1992 [orig. pub. 1994 and 1996], 408)

Faith is not an easy choice.

Confronted by the horrifying realities that afflict so much of life, it is tempting to abandon any confidence in the transcendent power of love, beauty, goodness, and truth. Faith in goodness at the core of life can seem, indeed, nothing but a “last childish dream.”

Who could blame a fifteen year old girl for giving up her fledgling faith after losing both her parents and living for five years with the horror of rejection, isolation, and constant danger under which every Jewish person lived in occupied Poland throughout the war?

Standing on the edge of the dark abyss that is so much of life, it is tempting to “cover my eyes for a second.” But, I must not “turn my face away in fear or disgust.” The choice of faith must be made and learn to live in the face of “The piles of naked bodies, the crowded bunks, the ash-strewn fields, and teeth and toys,” otherwise it is not faith; it is just denial.

 

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