In early 2001, before 9/11, I was recruited to write religious education materials for Christian Sunday School youth about the Holocaust. I had visited the Holocaust Museum and the Children’s Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem once in the early 1980’s and again in the early 1990’s.
I took the first part of my writing grant to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. At the time, a part of their display was an area called “The Righteous Gentiles,” which I believe has now been re-named “The Righteous among the Nations.” It was a collection of commemorations of non-Jews who had helped European Jews to escape the Nazi “final solution.” It appealed to my mind, that for young people attending a Christian Sunday School, the best way for them to relate to the Holocaust would be to imagine the kind of role that they might have played, as Christians, had they been living in Europe during the Holocaust. To provoke them to question themselves, “What would I have done if I had been living in Germany, or Poland, or Russia, at this time.”
I read several biographies of “Righteous Gentiles” in preparation. The most famous of which was certainly Oscar Schindler, about whom the award winning 1993 movie, Schindler’s List was made. But the story that has stuck with me the most clearly over these past twenty years, was the story of a young Polish nursing student, Irene Gut. Her autobiography, “In My Hands,” is one of the most compelling, yet disturbing books that you will ever read. Still, I highly recommend it. But like reading Elie Wiesel’s book about his experience in the Holocaust, “Night,” you may find it difficult to be alone for a while after you read it.
It is a war biography, and the story is horrible from its first pages. She was a 17-year-old Catholic student, when she was first recruited to care for Polish soldiers but then she was captured by the Russian army where she was repeatedly raped by soldiers. Her account of this chapter of her life always comes back to me with nauseating clarity whenever I hear about the war crimes of Russian soldiers in Ukraine today. She was taken to a Russian hospital but even there, she was going to be sexually assaulted and managed to escape, fleeing back to her home, only to be rounded up by the Germans and sent to work in a slave factory manufacturing weapons for the war.
She used her German name and her mastery of the German language to get out of the camp but she was forced to be a housekeeper for a German officer and to work in a hotel restaurant where German soldiers ate. From there, she could look out of the second story windows and see into the Jewish ghetto.
Othering Paves the Way for Brutality
A lot of Polish Catholics saw what was happening to the Jews. They knew about the war crimes, even if they could not yet imagine the murders on the scale the Germans were planning. But some people were sympathetic with the extermination of the Jews. Some people just tried not to think about it; tried not to get involved.
Irene described a scene she witnessed from that window one day: “As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother, too. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird."
The Germans could commit such horrible war crimes because they no longer saw their Jewish prisoners as being human. They were “other,” they were “different,” and so they could be despised and literally killed for sport.
Irene’s mind wanted it to be a man shooting a bird, but she kept saying to herself, “But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird.” I hesitate to draw to many comparisons to the holocaust because, seriously, nothing is like the holocaust. But, you know, we hear about a shooting in a poor neighborhood here in town, and we don’t react the way we would if it had happened in our neighborhood. Because the people who live in poor neighborhoods, am I going too far to say that they are somehow “other”?
We read about the police breaking up a homeless encampment, and taking what belongings they have, their ID, their birth certificates, their drivers’ license, their Social Security cards, and photos or correspondence that might have held meaning for them, something that reminded them of when they too were seen as being fully human. . . and the police bag all of that stuff up and throw it away. As if to make the point that the homeless are not so much people as they are vermin, a drain on social services, a blight on a neighborhood, a threat to commerce.
Irene eventually becomes a freedom fighter, smuggling Jews out of detention and helping them to escape but she emphasizes that she didn’t become that person all at once. She was still a teenager, a waitress for German officers, but she had to clean their plates, and scrape their leftovers into a garbage can. She began, very timidly, very carefully, just setting aside some of the better food scraps and filling a little tin box which she would take at night and bury under the fence between the hotel and captured Jews in the ghetto.
She made sure that one of the captives saw her. They retrieved the box and put the empty box back where they had found it. This became Irene’s ritual, putting food scraps under the fence every day. It was a drop in the bucket, honestly, it couldn’t have made much of a difference, but it allowed her to assuage her guilt, a bit, and, more importantly, it allowed her to continue to see the Jewish captives as being humans.
She found herself being given more and more responsibility in the restaurant and when she pleaded for help, she managed to persuade her captors to let her have the assistance of some of the Jewish prisoners in the kitchen. Moving four or five people back and forth daily allowed her to raise the stakes on smuggling food, and news, and letters, in and out of the ghetto. She eventually made the very difficult decision to become a mistress to the German officer in whose home she lived in exchange for him pretending not to know that she was hiding Jews in the basement who were being smuggled out to freedom.
At some point, having been raised an ardent and obedient Catholic, she confessed all of this, the stealing of food, smuggling Jews out of the ghetto, and even sleeping with the German officer to her priest who condemned all of it. He insisted that she stop helping the Jews, that she end her stealing and sexual favors which, is what made her realize how irrelevant the Catholic faith had become in war time, in the midst of a holocaust.
Irene survived the war, and eventually moved to the United States and had a family of her own. She actually just died in California in 2003 at the age of 81, having remained in touch with several of the Jews she had helped to escape from certain death.
Another author I read a good deal of was the Jewish psychoanalyst, Viktor Frankl, who survived the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, even though his parents, his brother, and his pregnant wife did not. It was in his nearly dead nightmare that Frankl imagined himself standing at a lectern and delivering lectures on the psychology of the death camps.
He clung to a quote from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” He saw the difference between the prisoners who had something to live for and those who did not, recognizing that focusing on the fact that the world still expects something from you kept many of them alive. Simply enduring the suffering was often not enough. We need something larger to hold onto, a family that needs you, a book that must be written, a story that must be told, some accomplishment that cannot be simply dismissed.
These thoughts have lived with me since we first heard of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the stories of murder and rape and theft of civilians and in spite of the horror of it all, the courage and resilience that has been shown by the Ukrainian people. The war is not going well for them now and they may not be able to withstand the invading Russian armies much longer, but, you will recall, the whole world assumed that Russian would have taken the Ukraine in the first week of April and it is now late June.
Frankl reflected in one of his books about his experience in Auschwitz, that Freud had believed that under the right circumstances, virtually everyone will become a monster. Given enough suffering, enough hunger, thirst, deprivation, assault, the monster in all of us appears. And, you have to admit, there is a lot of evidence to support Freud’s belief. You know, the ovens in the death camps where millions of Jews were killed were operated by other Jewish prisoners. They assisted in killing their own people in order to buy themselves a little more time, a little more comfort, better rations, better clothes.
Hard times can reveal our very worst character. But Frankl noted that it could also reveal previously unknown saints, angelic human beings who would share their crust of bread with a starving prisoner, who might give up some of their own clothing or even their shoes to save someone dying from the cold. In his most famous book, the one that I wish everyone would read, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl writes: “Sigmund Freud once asserted, "Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge."
Crisis Brings Out the Worst and the Best
Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, the "individual differences" did not "blur" but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”
Despair, depression, cynicism can be the escapes we use to avoid dealing with hard times, if we are not the one at the tip of the spear. I will confess to you, these past two years have been hard on me, psychologically, as we have endured the regressive policies of the Trump administration, which ended in a horrible and deadly pandemic in which most of our neighbors refused to be vaccinated or to even wear a paper mask to protect the lives of the vulnerable around them.
We have watched our often obscenely religious neighbors demonstrating depraved indifference about the welfare of the children and the elderly around them. And even our own government seems determined to take away the civil rights of women, to cut funds used to prop up food and education programs, and to defend gun manufacturers profits even in the face of one mass murder after another, in schools, churches, shopping centers and bars.
I recognize depression as if it were a person living very near to me, longing to embrace me and hold me in its frozen bosom. Soren Kierkegaard once wrote in his journal, “My depression has been my most faithful mistress. Is it any wonder that I return her affection?” I have friends who speak of moving to Canada, my old scuba buddy has often mentioned moving to Iceland, and, at times, I have considered leaving the country permanently myself.
Watching Sports Won't Save Democracy
I can’t believe how corrupt our Supreme Court has become. I cannot stand the fact that our country has been so willing to go backwards in matters of race, gender, civil rights, the environment, and in economics. I fight depression with exercise, with exposure to nature, in conversation with friends whom I know I can share my concerns and I can be confident that they have similar passions. But I would be lying to you if I did not admit that none of these things work every day. I have spent sleepless nights. I have spent a day, here and there, closed up in my room away from the world and even the light of the sun, wallowing in despair.
You don’t need for me to tell you how often we turn to watching sports or mindless sit-coms, or pure escapist drama, as if an English accent and period costumes can anesthetize our awareness of how much is going seriously wrong in the world. We call our escapism “entertainment” when it really isn’t, is it? It is really just distraction. As if simply not watching the news could mean that our democracy is not under the very real threat of falling into fascism at the hands of our own elected officials.
Though I am always reticent to compare any current event to the whole Nazi movement and the resulting holocaust in the first half of the 20th century, none of us can escape the fact that Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, is acting like Hitler and the Russian armies are committing war crimes against the people of Ukraine that are similar to what the German armies did in Poland.
This is further compounded by the fact that our former president was publicly supportive of Putin as well as the violent royal government of Saudi Arabia and he was publicly envious of China’s president, Xi Jinping, who changed China’s constitution so that he could remain president for life. Something which our former president was attempting to accomplish for himself.
If You Are Awake, You Might Be Depressed
So, yes, if you are at all awake to what is going on the world and in our own country, depression may well become your most faithful mistress. However, I don’t think that this is the time to call your doctor to get your prescription for Prozac re-filled, nor simply to escape the country physically or figuratively by diving deeply into diversions. You need to realize that the future expects something of you.
You have a reason to live which can empower you to survive the serious challenges we now face. As Ellie Wiesel taught us in his account of surviving the holocaust, “We cannot simply be neutral because neutrality always favors the oppressor and never the oppressed.”
We are not spectators in life. We are participants, decision makers, and we can be world changers. Or, as one of my favorite internet memes says, “You can pray all you want but eventually David had to pick up a stone and act against Goliath.”
Don’t simply be depressed. Be determined. Maybe even angry, but you sure can’t be neutral. Vote, and maybe even be an election judge, or campaign, or even run for office yourself. Be vocal. Be public about your convictions. Be kind but don’t play dumb to make other people feel more comfortable.
Democracy, with all of its freedoms and civil rights, is in more danger today than at any time since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and there will be no awards handed out for just being sad about it if we lose our democracy. Now is the time for spiritual people to be more than simply concerned. Now is the time for us to be engaged.