Sunday, 9 March 2014

Three Jews who went from death to life

Sometimes, the only possible reaction is one of amazement and profound awe. Within the space of a couple of days, the BBC broadcast two interviews with women who survived the Holocaust. The first was with an 84 year-old Eva Schloss, the sister-in-law of Anne Frank, famous for her diary, written before her death in Auschwitz. As children, the two girls had played together. Eva’s mother, after the war, married Anne’s widowed father, Otto Frank. By that time, just as he had lost his wife and daughter, so too, her husband and son had long been victims of the Holocaust which took some of Judaism’s finest and condemned them to a horrific death.

The second interview was recorded several years ago with the eldest of the Holocaust survivors. Alice Herz-Sommer, who lived in London and was originally from Prague, died recently at the age of 110.

At first it would seem that the two women had little in common. Certainly, the two interviewers had not planned that their broadcast conversations would be separated only by a few days. Yet they enabled their listeners to enjoy an unforgettable moment which celebrated the true meaning of freedom.

Eva, a former concert pianist, described the loss of her father and brother after she and her mother were separated in Auschwitz, surely devastating moments for all. When asked what music held special memories for her, she explained how, on Saturday nights before their arrest, the whole family would lie on the floor, in the dark, listening to the exquisite music of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as their “preparation for sleep”. This music, many years later, still conjured up the peace, tranquillity, and happiness of their family’s love and togetherness. No wonder this precious memory would, in decades to come, still bring joy to the only survivor of those evenings.

The surprise came with the second inheritance track. She, who had lost so much, explained that what she would like to pass on to the world is the message enshrined in Louis Armstrong’s song, What a Wonderful World. Instead of learning bitterness, Eva had learned to appreciate life and its immeasurable capacity for all that is good. In seeing the horrors of the death camps, she saw life and learned to value things that perhaps would remain unnoticed by those who had not faced the ultimate in human brutality. She finished her radio interview, repeatedly saying, “It is a wonderful world!”

Days later, when Alice Herz-Sommer died, the BBC replayed an interview recorded several years ago. When Alice was taken to Theresienstadt, she was a musician with a young son. Just like Eva, Alice lost most of those who were dear to her. Often starving, she declared that what kept her alive was her love for her son - and her music, “For in music I found God.”

The inmates of Theresienstadt included many musicians and other talented people simply because they were regularly displayed to visitors in an attempt to show the “humanity” of Hitler’s concentration camps. Some would describe the good food which would be placed on the tables in front of the prisoners, who knew only too well that, immediately the visitors left, they would be starved in compensation for the meal that they almost ate. Musicians would be required to give concerts to an audience of their fellow prisoners, again a facade to mask the reality of their suffering and deprivation. Alice, a gifted pianist, was also required to perform from time to time. She herself said, “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

The amazing thing was, in the interview, to hear the number of times that Alice said something to the effect of, “It was beautiful”. She appeared to have not an ounce of bitterness or resentment towards those who had done all that they could to make her life miserable. Her piano gave such joy and meaning to her life, that, until her death, she spent at least three hours daily at the keyboard, making music.

Alice and Eva had one important thing in common, their reason for living, the strength which allowed them to survive the concentration camp: they both had someone to love, someone who needed their care. For Alice, it was her son, Raphael, who died in 2001, but was one of the very few children to survive Theresienstadt. Eva had her mother and of her she wrote, “Her presence helped me a lot, and then of course, she very often gave me her bread ration.  She gave me courage and I gave her courage as well, so being together was a great help for us... But, in the camp, there came a time when the things reversed suddenly.  Suddenly I was looking after her, and I grew up, this was for me a very important moment that I felt.  You know she [was] not able to look after me anymore; I [had] to look after her.”

The two Jewish women, who might or might not have met each other during the course of their post-war experiences, were also supremely free. Their memories, however painful, however dark and beyond the stuff of nightmares which most of us can never imagine, did not destroy their lives. Rather, they found new life and new hope in the realisation that having been to the limits of all that might have destroyed their humanity, had they lost hope, had they lost love and the determination to keep on caring for someone else, they would really have lost everything.

When he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela declared that unless he was able to forgive his captors, he would remain in prison and their victim for the rest of his life. In forgiving those who hurt him, they had no more power to consign him to the iron bars and hard labour which destroyed so many others. So too, Hitler, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, the Holocaust and the worst excesses of the Third Reich were powerless when confronted by the power of love and two women who refused to stop loving. In that love, regardless what the outside world might have said or seen, they retained their dignity and sense of self-worth. They learned what was most important in life and celebrated it. This is exactly why some people would say that, on the cross, the heart of Jesus burst with joy. It was not a denial of evil or of pain, but of rising above it. In their suffering they found redemption and experienced the resurrection. Whether or not Alice and Eva, as Jews, would acknowledge the part they played in the history of salvation, Alice, Eva and Jesus were three Jews who went from death to life.

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