Isaiah 40: 31—“Those who hope in God will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
John Pavlovitz—“Hope is the pulsating lifeblood for weary hearts in dispiriting days. The steadfast belief that somewhere off in the distance, terrible things will get better, and everything that is upside down will be right side up. That despite hate’s booming voices, love will have the last, loudest word.”
The Last Survivors
I had planned to begin the Documentary Sermon Series in a couple of weeks, but I recently watched a PBS Frontline video called The Last Survivors, which interviewed Holocaust death camp survivors who were children or teens at the time of their imprisonment. Since Holocaust Remembrance Say was this week and this is such a powerful documentary, I decided to go ahead and start the series by sharing some of the survivors’ stories. (You can watch the documentary for free at PBS Frontline) Manfred Goldberg began by saying to the interviewer, “Sitting in the car coming here, it began to dawn on me that this would be a first for me, and I wasn’t quite sure just what I had let myself in for. I’m here today to record some testimony of my experiences during the Holocaust. Time is marching on, and it will not be long before there will be no firsthand survivors alive, and it is important to record this testimony as evidence for future generations.” Manfred was 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He said that he felt lucky that he and his mother were in the same camp, and that they both survived. But his younger brother, Hermann, one day, just disappeared. There were rumors that the SS picked him up, but they never again heard from him or about him.
Frank Brichta said, “I can’t really communicate with others properly, because they don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean, how many people have seen their parents murdered or seen a gas chamber in action? It has affected me.” At age 16, he too arrived with his mother. Immediately, they were put into different lines. She broke free and came to him for just a moment, before she was led to the gas chamber. He said that someone told him what was happening, and later, looking at the flames of the crematories, he wondered to himself, “Which flame was my mother?” Frank has kept a class picture that he calls Red for Dead. For every child in the photo that did not survive the death camps, he put a red square, which was almost all of them. He shared the picture with the interviewer, telling him the children’s names, when they were born, and when they died.
Susan Pollack, who was 14, lost over 50 relatives in the Holocaust. She remembers that the train trip to the camp took 6 to 8 days. There was no food or water, and many babies and children died along the way. She said that as soon as they arrived, the German guards started shouting orders at them. Susan is Hungarian, and another Hungarian girl in line with her whispered to her to tell them that she was 16. She did, and that saved her from the gas chamber. But she watched as her mother was marched in.
Maurice Blik was only 5-years-old when his family arrived at Bergen- Belsen. When his little sister was close to her first birthday, he found a piece of discarded carrot and carved a little boat out of it to give to her. But she didn’t live to see her first birthday. And he remembers his older sister taking her out and putting her on top of the pile of bodies. Blik is a sculptor. He said he was not one that looked forward to starting a new project. More often than not, it is a tormenting experience for him. He shared that his therapist suggested that since his first sculpture was for his baby sister who died, that memory recurs each time he starts a new one.
Finally, Anita Laasker-Wallfisch was 19 when she entered Auschwitz. A cellist, she became part of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz, which helped her survive when most women and girls did not. At age 95, she is one tough woman. Her daughter was there for the interview. She is a psychologist and wanted to talk about second generation trauma. Anita interrupted and said, “To me, anybody who’s got a roof over their head and enough food, forget the trauma, you know?” She gave a speech before the German Parliament on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. She didn’t talk about what she witnessed or endured at the camp. She talked about antisemitism and the human capacity for evil. She included a plea to the German people to make sure that it never happens again and ended on what was for her a note of hope, saying, “Hate is poison, and ultimately those who hate poison themselves.” We can only hope that you win this fight. The future lies in your hands. I really hated the Germans. I’m trying to build bridges. And as long as I can do it, I’ll do it.”
Living through the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust, almost all the survivors said that what kept them going was the help that they got from each other. And the hope that someday, this would end. Help and Hope kept them alive, and gave them the opportunity to create families of their own after having lost so much. Help and Hope are their gift to us. May we learn from them to help one another in our hard times. And remember that no matter what we are going through, there is hope for better days ahead. No matter the amount of darkness that surrounds us, the light will shine again, and it will overcome the darkness.