The courage to survive
I’ve already written about my visit to Poland and the concentration camps.
I’m not sure I would have survived the holocaust.
Literally. My family were Jewish so some didn’t survive. My great grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz. Their names are not recorded by the Nazi’s as they weren’t worth recording; they just got straight off the transport wagon and went to the gas chambers.
Until I went to Auschwitz, I hadn’t considered which kind of gas killed them. Kyklon B was used for pest control. It is hydrogen cyanide. One SS doctor described what he saw:
…shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives. If the gas chamber had been crowded, which they typically were, the corpses were found half-squatting, their skin discolored pink with red and green spots, with some found foaming at their mouths, or bleeding from their ears.
It could take up to 20 minutes to die; depending on the weather. I hope the weather was right on the day my great-grandparents died so that it was over quickly.
Children were killed. Mothers who were fit enough to work chose to stay with their children. Of course they did, what other choice is there to be made?
On World Holocaust day we watched a live webcast of a holocaust survivor. Her father had been murdered, her mother died in a rat filled cellar of typhus, her younger brother was shot by her side by an SS officer who then didn’t kill her. How do you carry on living through that? But she did. She walked for miles and the snow, alone, aged about 10 and was taken in by a family as their ‘Catholic’ maid, until she left to find her one remaining relative at the end of the war; a cousin.
We stood in Birkenau as a school group, cold in spite of thermals, hats, gloves, layers, solid boots, full tummies and the knowledge that we were leaving soon. The cold was unbearable. How did people survive not just the brutality of pointless forced labour, 150 calories or less a day, shoes that didn’t fit or had holes in if they were lucky and a pair of striped pyjamas? I’ve seen the films, I’ve read the books, but the reality of that cold in late February with a weak sun and snow on the ground spoke more than words or images can or could.
I don’t know that I would have had the courage and the will it must have taken to live each day. To get up from a wooden shelf which might have been spattered with other people’s vomit or shit, to line up for roll call for an hour or more, before going out to build or dig in cold so piercing that all my modern layers or clothes could not keep it out. How do you walk, let alone lift a shovel or a stone when you can’t feel your hands or feet and are starving?
I think I might have thrown myself on the fence; 750 Volts seems a better option than the freezing hard labour or the Zkylon. Maybe I would have been shot running (would I have had the energy to run?) to the wire. Shooting would have been preferable too.
Yet so much of what I have read or watched is that people didn’t make that choice. That they had the courage to continue; the will to want to live.
We see it the world over; the refugees who risk and too often lose their lives escaping wars in overcrowded boats, telling their children it will all be alright and they are on their way to safety. We see it in the individuals we know who are living with cancer and wanting more than anything to live, in spite of the pain, the treatment, the fear. We see it in premature babies who shouldn’t survive, because the odds are too high and they are too young and too unfinished.
So what is it?
What it is that makes us want to survive even in situations akin to hell?
For me I wonder if it would be connection. The desire to be with the people I love once again and if not them, if they had been gassed, then maybe, the connection with the people who also got up from wooden bunks to iced floors, maybe connection to them would be enough? Any maybe the thought of future connections, of finding people, of meeting new people, maybe that would have been enough. I hope I will never know.
Or maybe connection to nature. I don’t know if it would have been enough to ward off the shadows, but there was a beauty in the cold sun and the wide, un-fenced sky.
Or maybe connection to god. Was their God enough? Was their God with them in their suffering? Would I find god and found strength in that?
Or just connection to life. To the one foot in front of the other. To one breath in and another out. To these hands which are blistered and filthy, to these legs which are shrunken and bruised?
Viktor Frankl found meaning, others found love. I don’t know if I could have found what it takes to keep on going.
It doesn’t end there though.
Because there is a courage in not only living, but living without the desire for revenge or retribution. Could I have managed what so many Jews did which was to build their life again after the war and many had children. Throughout the following generations there has been no vengeance, no recrimination from the Jewish community, nor has any bitterness of enmity been passed or developed through the subsequent generations in a way which has led to the creation or continuation of hostility.
My dad would tell you he doesn’t easily trust people, who can blame him when he spent some of his pre-school time in hiding for his life. But he has never preached hatred, or retribution or vengeance. He and mum brought us up to be self-sufficient and able to earn our own money. There was never any question that we as girls would be educated and would have careers. We were taught from a very young age that intolerance of any kind, or prejudice was not acceptable.
So I reflect on myself now and my first world problems; the peri-menopause, a dodgy toe joint, existential angst about plastics, pollutants, and of course, endlessly, the happiness of my kids.
I consider myself, my kids and what it is we all spend our time worrying about; exams, hair, friends, fitting in, being good enough, being loved, being in the right relationship, the right job, the right house, the meaning of life. So much of this blog has been exactly that over the years, the search for meaning.
I wonder if it that we are so far removed from what really matters that we have lost our compass and so are navigating by Facebook likes and shared Tweets? We have forgotten that what matters is that we are alive and safe.
Maybe we don’t have to enough adversity to stretch our courage muscles. Life is comfortable for us most of the time so we are rarely called upon to be courageous. Maybe courage is like a muscle which needs building through use? Courage and hope.
How do we develop courage in peacetime? Is it possible? I think we have to chose to train ourselves into courage by taking risks, speaking out and walking our own path.
I have been noticing that my courage is waning. I have taken risks; travelled, changed relationships, jobs, locations, spoken out, tried things and failed. I notice there is more fear in me nowadays and I don’t want it to be there. I know that anxiety can be a symptom of the hormonal changes I’m going through and I also know that there is nothing in my life to be fearful of.
I need to stretch that courage muscle some more. I need to remind myself that although I may feel nervous, it is just a feeling and that I get to chose whether to let it inform my actions or not. I need to remind myself that life is safe and that I am not facing what my ancestors did and what people all around the world face where there is war and famine and fear.
I need to give myself a metaphorical kick up the backside to remind myself that my ancestors didn’t survive so that I could live a half-hearted life. I need to remind myself that I come from a line of Lions, a line of courage and that I need to make the most of this life for those who couldn’t.
Because if those men, women and children in those camps could keep getting up, keep putting one foot on iced mud in front of the other, then frankly I have no excuses.
So I’m going to muse on the question; what would I do if I had more courage? What would you do?
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