On this United Nations General Assembly designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day it is important to confront the challenge of what we believe it means to be truly human.

The horrifying events that ravaged much of the world from 1939 to 1945 demand that we face honestly the question of “What Is A Human Being?”

In May 1944 Olga Lengyel was deported from her home in southern Ukraine to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Miraculously, she survived the nine months of hell in which she lived at the outermost extremities of human experience in this place of death and destruction.

Having lost her parents, husband, and two children to the Nazi killing machine, Lengyel emigrated to the US where she wrote her chilling memoir, Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz, first published in France in 1946 as Souvenirs de l’au-delà.

In the aftermath of the horror she survived, Lengyel confronted, in the most stark terms, the troubling question of what it means to be a human being:

I recall endless discussions of student days when we used to seek an answer to the question: Fundamentally, is man good or bad? At Birkenau one was tempted to reply that he was unalterably bad. But this was a confirmation of the Nazi philosophy; that humanity is stupid and evil and needs to be driven with the cudgel. Perhaps the greatest crime the “supermen” committed against us was their campaign, often successful, to turn us into monstrous beasts ourselves.

To achieve such a degradation they employed a stupid, brutalizing and disconcertingly useless discipline, incredible humiliations, inhuman privations, the constant menace of death, and, finally, a sickening promiscuity. The entire policy was calculated to reduce us to the lowest moral level. And they could boast of results: men who had been lifetime friends ended up by hating each other with real repugnance; brothers fought each other for a crust of bread; men of formerly unimpeachable integrity stole whatever they could; and often it was the Jewish kapo who beat his fellow Jewish sufferer.  At Birkenau, as in the society extolled by the Nazi philosophers, the theory that “might makes right,” prevailed. Power alone carried respect. The feeble and the aged could not dare hope for pity.

Each camp, each barrack, each koia [tiered plank bunks that served as beds] was a little jungle apart from the others, but all were subject to the man-eating standards. To reach the summit of the pyramid in each of these jungles, one had to become a creature after the image of the Nazis, devoid of all scruples, especially of all feelings of friendship, solidarity, and humanity.

But, miraculously Lengyel managed to find her way through the horror, violence, and degradation of Nazi reign while keeping in tact some faith in the possibility of human dignity:

One required an extraordinary moral force to teeter on the brink of the Nazi infamy and not plunge into the pit.

Yet I saw many internees cling to their human dignity to the very end. The Nazis succeeded in degrading them physically, but they could not debase them morally. Because of these few, I have not entirely lost my faith in mankind. If, even in the jungle of Birkenau, all were not necessarily inhuman to their fellowmen, then there is hope indeed.

It is that hope which keeps me alive.

(Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz. London: Granada, 1959), 219, 220.

To keep some faint hope in humanity alive in the face of direct experience of the Holocaust is a miracle that bears testimony to the indomitable force of the human spirit. The tenacity of the human spirit is a testimony to me that a human being is much more than merely the circumstances of life to which a person may be subjected. There is a vast mystery at the heart of what it means to be human that for me suggests a depth that I can only designate using the term God.


For an earlier excerpt from Lengyel’s Five Chimneys see: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/the-arithmetic-of-death/