Friday, March 9, 2012

To Life

I just finished reading Ruth Minsky Sender's memoir To Life. She's a Polish Jew who describes how she and her comrades pieced together new lives after they'd lost almost everything in the Holocaust.

A post-Holocaust memoir was an unusual book choice for me. Reading things like that, I worry I'll get depressed. But even though Sender's book described the aftermath of hell, much of the book is about hope. After being liberated from the camps, she and her fellow survivors were completely focused on rebuilding their families. They spent years traveling around Europe trying to find lost relatives, grieving each time they learned of a loved one who did not make it out of the camps alive and rejoicing when they found those who had survived.

The young survivors were also determined to build new families as they searched for pieces of their past. Soon after liberation, Sender met and married another survivor. She describes the joy of bearing children even in a refugee camp, of bringing new life into a shattered world. As they are trying to leave Germany, her husband tells her:

“We must not give up hope. The place where our children are born does not matter. What does matter is that we are alive. We are a family. We have each other. We are rebuilding.” He holds me close. “Riva, our children are the future. We must live with hope for a bright future.”

The book made me think about empathy. I work in a psychiatric hospital, and in such work you hear about staff who get so worn down they just don't care about helping patients any more. There are always more patients who need our help, and we will never be done helping them. They call it “compassion fatigue.”

There are times when trying to save the world creates this kind of exhaustion in me. In the face of so much suffering out there, some of which I can help but most of which I can't, there have been times when I've written the whole endeavor off as useless. Maybe, I reasoned, people living in horrible circumstances get used to it somehow. Maybe once you've experienced starvation or genocide or a broken society, it destroys your psyche enough that you're barely human anymore. You probably don't have much capacity for happiness. So my help wouldn't really even mean much to those people - I might as well just take care of myself.”

Ruth Minsky Sender and family in Lodz ghetto

Sender's book heartily refutes this kind of thinking. Surviving trauma does not disqualify you as human. Sender writes about the struggles of everyone she knew to rebuild relationships, to create new life, and to give their children a stable and happy life. In short, they were real people with normal human desires despite the extraordinary suffering they had endured. Sender describes arriving in yet another camp, pregnant and exhausted, and meeting the strangers with whom she must share a room.

[Esther Kop] puts her arms around me. “We are alive. I feel you are my family....Now you rest a little. You are an expectant mother. I will take care of dinner. You'll get organized later. Right now, rest.”

My eyes fill with tears. I just met this woman and her husband, and already I feel at home with them, like a family reunited again. I stretch out on the bed, thinking of the Kops, their warmth, their gentleness, their caring. Each time I see these qualities in the survivors of horror, degradation, death, I am awed.

If these people didn't lose their caring and generosity, surely I can manage to keep mine too.

1 comment: