[Hat tip: Open Blogger at Ace’s.]
[NOTE: Part II can be found here.]
Here is a fascinating interview with an elderly concentration camp survivor. If you’ve read or heard many camp survivors’ tales, the horrors he faced will not surprise you. But that’s not why I’m linking to the interview, because I assume you’re all familiar with the almost unimaginable type of brutality this man experienced.
No, I’m linking because of statements such as these:
Q: In those dark days how did you find the strength to survive? Did you ever want to give up so the suffering would end?
A: Well, the answer to that question is simply that it’s human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them.
But I didn’t think that I was any different than any other person. At least at that time, I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to survive – to get by every day, to stay out of the way, not to be as visible, because these – I don’t know what to call them – these monsters…just look for any kind of reason to pull someone out to kill them, to set an example…
And I was always very… don’t know how to say it? I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.
I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important, and I had to do everything humanly possible to survive, not to give them a reason or a cause to pull me out, and kill me.
The speaker (who is not named in the excerpt) seems to think he wasn’t unusual. But I would say he is quite unusual. In fact, since most people did not survive the camps he was in (Auschwitz and Dachau), there is no question he had unusual mental and physical strength. He says it is “human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them”—and that’s true, up to a point. But some people in the camps did give up, and it hastened their deaths (that is, if they had been spared to work in the first place; most people who arrived at death camps were killed on arrival).
The speaker had been a young man during the war, probably in his early-to-mid-teens. He was smart; he figured out that keeping a low profile would be a good thing under those circumstances, and that helped. But I think the most revealing statement he made in that passage was “I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.” He had a vigorous and naturally optimistic life force that held him in good stead throughout some of the most trying circumstances human beings can ever experience.
Perhaps he was born that way.
Perhaps it was also due in part to his happy family life, which he describes this way, “I came from a wonderful loving home, a family of 7.” This can help to give a person unusual strength of will and personality, the ability to be a survivor. And yet somewhat paradoxically it was not his happy memories that helped him, at least not consciously, although I believe the joy and loving support he had experienced while growing up gave him tremendous internal strength. But in order to get through the ordeal, his mind seems to have suppressed those loving memories and kept him in the present moment:
I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important…
He wasn’t comparing this to what had been; he was just focused on the act of survival.
After tremendous horrors, he was liberated and restored to health, and then came to America:
Q: What was your initial experience of America when you first arrived in 1947?
A: Well, when I was arrived, I was very, very overcome. I was impressed. It was just overwhelming to me.
First, I arrived in New York harbor, and of course, the skyscrapers, the lifestyle… I made a sort of promise to myself then: This is going to be the first day of your life. From this day on, there is only ONE place to go: SUCCEED. I will build a family, I will do whatever I can in my power to succeed in this United States of America.
And this was my first impression. I liked what I seen. I met people who I thought were industrious, with businesses and families and love…there’s respect. I loved what I saw in America. I became American in my heart immediately. So I adopted America, and I am glad America adopted me, and allowed me to be part of it, and become a citizen.
Again, it seems as though he had a rare ability to blot out the past and in this case to focus on a happier future. He also was one of those people who—no matter where they are born—have an American spirit and immediately recognize America as the place for them. America suited him.
The following passage in particular shows the sort of extraordinary emotional fortitude and upbeat nature this man has:
Q: Have you or any other survivors you’ve met had to deal with PTSD or other mental health issues after the war ended? How were you able to go through it?
A: Post-traumatic stress, is that what you’re saying?
I didn’t have very much of that.
I knew…there were no surprises. I knew exactly what was happening in the camps. I went through it every day.
So after liberation, I really did not have that much stress, because after going through hell, everything is paradise.
I knew I had to work hard in order to achieve my dream, to be successful in this world, but to have post-traumatic stress… I didn’t. I dunno. Maybe because i was too young, I didn’t realize. But to me, every day was a gift from heaven.
So after going through what I went through – everything was easy. It was simple.
To some people – things may look hard, like hard work, or digging ditches, or who knows what you’re doing that’s hard. To me, it was a pleasure, work. I’m doing this as a free man, a free person!
But this feeling was certainly not universal. Some survivors were so overwhelmed by what had happened to them in the camps that they committed suicide. In fact, the suicide attempt rate for Holocaust survivors living in Israel has been found in one study to be three times higher than the suicide rate in the rest of the aging population there. In addition:
Earlier studies had shattered another myth, that despite the intense suffering in the concentration camps, few inmates tried to commit suicide. These studies found that while 100 suicides per 100,000 people is considered a very high rate in normal times, the rate in the camps was about 25,000 suicides per 100,000 people, or almost one out of every four people.
“As far as is known, this is the highest suicide rate in human history,” Barak said. “We’ve learned that religious people in Auschwitz and other camps made formal applications to rabbis in the camps seeking permission to commit suicide.”
People exposed to similar experiences react differently. I make no negative judgement on any of them, because what they were subjected to was so extreme that I am astounded that any of them could go on to live a relatively happy and normal life.
[Part II coming soon.]