It happens at different times and in different contexts. Often it’s when the weather is bad. I bundle up in my warm black winter coat, wrap the scarf around my neck, pull on the gloves, grab the watchman knit cap and put that on, and finally start my car from my iPhone so the car will be nice and comfortable and the seat warmer will be fired up.
As I walk to the car, insulated from the terrible wind and cold, it comes to me like a chyron at the bottom of a tv screen. What was such weather like for people in concentration camps? How did they endure the unspeakable cold dressed only in pajamas and wooden clogs? How did they tolerate standing in the cold every day as the SS guards did the daily count?
When I read survivors’ accounts, it’s not as if they have a simple answer to the question, “How did you survive the concentration camps? How did you persevere? What was your secret?” They simply did whatever they could to stay alive. The angel of Death was so present in every second of every day. I doubt many believed that they would make it.
To be fair to the survivors and to the ones who did not survive, bravery and courage didn’t have much at all to do with it. The simple fact is that, for so many survivors of the camps, it was all about luck. Sure, we know that victims did better when they had someone else to depend on. Two people scrounging for food, looking to grab an extra blanket from someone who had just died, and just looking out for each other was very powerful, and more efficient than being on one’s own. It also helped, according to survivors with whom I’ve spoken over the years, to have a friend who could remind you that you were still a human.
With the capriciousness of every moment, just being in the right place at the right time was crucial. Which, of course, could not generally be planned for at all. An angry or bored SS officer could just as easily shoot someone standing in a line as he could walk right by them. One could get assigned a very dangerous work detail – or pick up stones from a field. Life was reduced to the most basic elements: stay warm, quietly obey orders, keep your eyes down, eat whatever you could find, keep moving. There was no moral order, no organizing principle beyond the imperative to keep breathing.
As I reflect on the insufferable, detestable ordeals of our people during the Holocaust, I inevitably absorb these moments of horror, and I wonder: what would’ve happened to me? Would I – could I – have ever survived such unmitigated privation? I can’t imagine surviving a week in a concentration camp. Not to mention that so many people of my age were gassed right away. But in fact, the randomness of life and death, particularly in the camps, makes such speculation specious. Who in their right mind could ever imagine surviving in Hell?
This much I know. I have been blessed in my life to know many survivors who came to this country, injured, traumatized, orphaned, alone. Some, like my father, were permanently damaged by their wartime experience of death and cruelty and loss. Others, who experienced far worse torture and pain than my father, ended up able to build a new life, despite it all. Such people have proven to me that it is actually possible for humans to move through deepest darkness and not succumb to the night.
We officially remember the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. But unofficially, there are those of us who think of the Holocaust every day. Because of the weather. Because we see smoke stacks. Because we hear a story. Because the Holocaust opened a wound the size of 6 million people. Because it’s testimony. Because the Holocaust is our story, a story that still reverberates across time.