Holding Life and the Reality of Death on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust that resulted in the annihilation of six million European Jews as well as millions of others by the Nazi Regime during WWII. The day was designated by the United National General Assembly Resolution on November 1, 2005.
The resolution urges every member nation to honor the memory of those killed and encourages the development of educational programs to help prevent future genocides. It condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief.
“A grief so heavy I shiver and moan under the weight of it.”
Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography “When Breath Becomes Air” documents his life after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He wanted to write about facing his illness and facing death as an expression of his openness to a full life. Paul was in the last year of his residency proving himself to be an extraordinary neurosurgeon and researcher. As he wrote – “I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land.” Sadly, he was not to enter.
The book is very moving but what grabbed my gut were the words of Lucy, Paul’s wife who wrote the epilogue. She wrote “I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.”
As the child of Holocaust survivors, it struck me with great intensity that these words could be the words of a survivor who carries this dichotomy of feelings for a lifetime. The love for a new family, cherished as part of a new life, and the grief for the loved ones lost – a grief so heavy that one shivers and moans under the weight of it. While Lucy can look forward to the healthy process of resolved grief, many Holocaust survivors are doomed to unresolved grief where the pain may be hidden but never disappears, burdened by deeply felt fears that the new life could also be lost.
For Holocaust survivors, who lost almost everyone in their families and their communities, who lost their homes, who lost all humanity, and almost lost their lives there is only unresolved grief. How does one bear grief for 73 years? It is important to acknowledge that as human beings, survivors bear their grief differently. But once this is acknowledged – the question remains how does one bear the enormity of grief for a lifetime?
It is incomprehensible to imagine what millions of people went through during the war. I say that for me it is incomprehensible. I am the child of Holocaust survivors, I have seen the documentaries and films. I have read hundreds of survivor testimonies. And yet, it remains incomprehensible.
I recently read the book, “Vale of Tears” by Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung. He was a survivor from Poland who wrote a memoir right after the war based on his daily diary of years of suffering until he reached safe harbor in Kobe, Japan. He was never in a camp – but was always on the run. He lost his entire family. Rabbi Hirschprung wrote about daily experiences. I have read Holocaust histories and I have read biographies. But in reading Rabbi Hirschprung’s book reporting events day after day after day – where each day had suffering and loss, I found it impossible to imagine how each individual was able to cope and go on with the next day. He, of course, asks the same question of himself, “How was I able to go on?” This is in contrast to our days, where difficulties stop us in our tracks with frequent thoughts of I don’t know how I can cope with this. What took place during the war years and how people went on day after day after day, is still incomprehensible.
Consider the wars, genocidal actions, and suffering of the people around the world today. I see pictures of refugees whose children are starving to death and I can’t imagine how a mother bears it. My feeling is disbelief. And yet, Holocaust survivors rebuilt their lives after the war. Suffering people today endure while seeking refuge and a respite from suffering. If we think about it, it is incomprehensible.
In my work as Director of the Transcending Trauma Project, I study coping, adaptation, and resilience and I bear witness to the will to survive. I have studied how the will to survive is expressed in each survivor and how they rebuilt their lives one step at a time – in spite of all the challenges.
Paul and Lucy Kalanithi openly proclaimed that they had a blessed life and that Lucy along with their baby daughter would go on to live a good life based on the foundation that they had created. Paul’s death was a tragic loss but the intensity will dissipate with the capacity for healing that is part of the human spirit.
Look at a survivor of the Holocaust. Look closely. Look into his or her eyes. You will see an elderly person who has, remarkably, rebuilt an entire life, launched a family and fulfilled life’s responsibilities, but there is still pain. What are the feelings when thinking of loved ones that were destroyed? They feel the grief so heavy that at times they shiver and moan under the weight of it. You will never see the shiver nor hear the moan but they are there. Robert Krell, psychiatrist and child survivor, describes survivors as suffering from depression of the soul, bearing the grief so heavy – that the soul shivers and moans.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day I memorialize those who were annihilated by the Nazi Regime. I honor those who survived and rebuilt their lives with nothing but the will to live and the love for their new family. I honor the day-to-day endurance of those who went through the war and those around the world suffering and enduring. We can learn much from survivors. Let us not succumb to our day-to-day challenges. Let us keep perspective and recognize our capacity to cope with what comes our way. In today’s world it sometimes feels hard to persevere. But we can and we must face each day with the perseverance to overcome adversity. We may shiver and moan but we must build towards a better future – what choice do we have?
Bea Hollander-Goldfein is a Staff Therapist and Director of the Transcending Trauma Project at Council for Relationships.