I have just got back from the Memorial Site Visitor Centre, where we heard Professor Livia Bitten-Jackson, a Holocaust Survivor, talk of her experience as a fourteen year old Czechoslovakian Jew who ended up first in a ghetto, then in Auschwitz. It was a fascinating talk (not least because for once it was in English and I could understand every single word) in which she shared many personal moments, many of them clearly painful. I will not bother to share with you all of them, as you can read them in her memoirs "I Have Lived a Thousand Years" just as I intend to. However, three points struck me deeply.
Firstly, Bitten-Jackson's talk was very down to earth and humble. She laughed a lot, indeed she had a fantastic rapport with the audience given almost everyone had English as a second language. Someone at the end asked her how it was possible for her to laugh after the events of those years. A good question, given she had most probably repeated this story thousands of times before. "It's all I can do," she responded. "When I stop laughing, I cry."
Her account of the Selection process was one such moment. It is a very common image now, the tales of people arriving at Auschwitz, being forced off freight trains and lined up for 'selection', led by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. In Bitten-Jackson's case however, Mengele spared her life. She and her mother were walking off in the wrong direction, with the invalids, children and elderly towards what they would eventually find out were the Gas Chambers. Mengele caught sight of her Ayran features, pulled her out of the queue with her mother and sent them off with the healthy people. This was where she said goodbye to her aunt, who would be dead within the hour.
All survivors stories tend to include moments of fate, points at which they are given work duties indoors for example, or manage to discern quickly enough when a selection is taking place.I think that one of the reasons many survivors feel obliged to tell their stories is the guilt they feel knowing that all that kept them from death or hard labour were small lies and their savvy. Part of the dehumanising process of the Holocaust was not just the moment they demanded you strip and hand over your belongings, but the moment they removed your ability to hold any real control over your very existence.
I leave you with the answer to her final question. Bitten-Jackson, who has lived in Israel for over 33 years, is a practising Jew and regularly attends Synagogue. Somebody asked her how she could remain religious. She replied, simply enough, that she maintained her practices because so many people died because of them. I heard the same response from the Israeli ASF volunteers in Wuensdorf back in September when somebody asked them whether they got annoyed when all public transport in Israel stopped at sunset on Friday evening. Judaism is as much a tradition as a faith, and for many it is perverse not to carry on. This was not to say, however that she did not have regular disagreements with God.
She then tackled the question that was implied by the first: what about Faith? She proceeded to tell the story of a man who saw a light emanating from a closed window. He peered in to see people dancing, yet without the music they looked as if they were simply making strange movements. She concluded the talk saying this:
The man did not understand that they were dancing because he couldn't hear the music. If you cannot hear the music, you cannot understand the dance. I consider faith to be a gift. It stands on a level beyond logic and allows you to understand the world in a way impossible for those who do not have it.
From a woman who lost her father and her aunt to the Nazis, as well as having her relationship with her mother forever strained, I found those to be extremely powerful words. She asked the audience to pass her story on. This is my small way of doing that.