Today we visited the Holocaust Museum for a tour with Dr. David Oughton from Saint Louis University, co-author of “Jewish-Christian Relations in Light of the Holocaust”; and afterward we listened as Mendel Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor of Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps and ghettos, shared how he and his mother made it through hell. I was blown away by hearing an actual survivor tell their story. To be frank, I didn’t realize survivors were still alive.
I’ve heard so much about the holocaust all my life. I’ve seen so many pictures, watched so many movies and documentaries, read so many books; but never have I heard a survivor share their story live. Mendel was in his teens when he experienced the horrors of ghetto life and concentration camps. His father and brother died, and he witnessed nearly unspeakable tragedy in his own life and in the lives of others. I say ‘nearly’ because he is, of course, speaking about it. It still blows my mind how much courage it must take to have to relive those memories of such deep sorrow and loss over and over again to tell people what happened. I honestly can hardly face the prospect of watching harm come to my family, and to have to suffer and then speak is almost unfathomable to me.
Part of me just wants everyone—individuals, museums, universities, community programs—everyone to leave the survivors alone. After all they’ve been through, now they are condemned to telling their stories for the rest of their lives? But besides realizing how necessary it is for the stories to be told for the sake of preventing injustice from repeating, I also heard something Mendel say today that changed my mind a bit about the good of telling the stories for the survivors themselves. He said that for 30 years after being released, he had nightmares on a nightly basis about him and his family running from the Nazis. He said that he didn’t want to talk about his experience for a long time, but when he finally did decide to talk about it, the nightmares instantly ceased. When someone in the audience asked about this during the Q & A time, he said he thought it had something to do with setting a goal and working towards it. Maybe those deep sorrows and fears were finally channeled into a life-giving pursuit? I personally also think there may be something to the idea that expressing what’s inside the mind, even the deeper, darker fears and distresses, helps to provide a catharsis for the bottled up emotions and might even help work out the thought-kinks by full, un-stymied existence as opposed to suppressed cognitive travail. It is true that most things we hope to solve by critical thinking and creating a logical plan, or instead, actively not-thinking and hoping the problem disappears; but as the poet Rainer Rilke wrote, maybe we solve some things simply by existing them back into nature through the doorway of our own DNA:
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Either way, I’m glad to here that Mendel is finding some peace. And it was awesome to see photos of his sprawling family of kids and grandkids. He seems happy, and has a great sense of humor. And he’s doing great things in the world simply by keeping his stories from clotting and being forgotten. The gift of keeping the wounds of his memories fresh for new generations of people to see what he saw is not lost upon me. I am grateful.