I feel deeply at all times, but never more than when I see or hear of unnecessary suffering of one soul at the hands of another. One of the coping mechanisms that I employed to deal with my trauma was to minimize it – really quite a helpful strategy. If can tell myself that “it wasn’t really that bad” and “others have been through much worse” – it minimizes the whole thing into a nice package. Convenient, yet I found I am not so neatly dealt with.
I have recently read some of the work of Elie Weisel and Victor Frankl. Both recounted their personal experiences of imprisonment during the Holocaust. I was horrified at how much of their respective stories I related to – feeling waves of guilt for making the association in my mind. It came to me however, that I am not the first to draw a parallel between the Holocaust and childhood abuse. In his book Soul Murder Revisited, Leonard Shengold draws the same thin red line.
The imprisoned and the abused child both find themselves at the mercy of a self-proclaimed despot. In some cases the inmate may have had a history of normalcy and held onto the hope of restoration to life as it once was. Those who lost that hope, died within days. A child born into the despot’s home has no former memory of freedom and comfort to draw up from his or her soul and wrap up in psychologically. There is no hope of rescue – the tyrant and the savior are the self same person.
The Nazi regime had to dehumanize and devalue the Jewish people in their own eyes; this is true to all who misuse and mistreat others. If you are not a person in your own right, then your body, soul and spirit are inconsequential and therefore expendable. All abuse does one thing well – treats the victim as a non-person subject to the perversions, privations and psychological manipulations of the captor.
I recall a story of a woman on her release from the concentration camp. I have searched at length for the source, only to find that it eludes me. She was huddled among the corpses when she was found – the living among the dead. A sturdy but gentle officer opened the door of the hut she was hiding in. I imagine that light streamed through the door into the dank and deep darkness. At his gentle coaxing, and with great assistance, she rose from the rubble as he guided her to the door – which he then held for her. That moment, she looked at him bewildered. It was the first kindness she had been shown in years; the first reminder that she was indeed a person. I hang my head in my hands and weep from somewhere deep. It has been kindness throughout the years that has thawed my frozen soul and reminded me of my personhood in likewise fashion.
Protracted, long term abuse and neglect has a similar effect on the soul of the child as the holocaust survivor – you somehow manage to get used to it. The day in day out starvation of the body, endless ridicule, chronic degradation and emotional humiliation become commonplace. Kindness is a rare gift that often came from complete stranger, or can be seen just outside the prison walls.
Another commonality is the silence of the surrounding community. All in my sphere knew what was. No one said a word. Nothing. I recently went back to the community where I spent most of my childhood years. A dear friend was celebrating her centennial birthday, as such the community at large turned out to rejoice in her long and fruitful life. I recognized many of my teachers and a few neighbours and cautiously approached each of them. For just a fleeting moment I feared I would be seen as my ‘fathers daughter.’ Once they discovered who I was, they crooned over me, exclaiming how pleased and proud of me they were and how much they despaired over what they knew I endured. I really did appreciate their love, praise and kindness in that moment. I simultaneously and silently wondered however why it didn’t move them to action back then. I agree with Martin Luther King’s statement that it is not the shouts of our enemies we remember best, but the silence of our friends.
This brings me to the issue of bread. Frankl and Wiesel both speak of the same banality that bread can bring. Prisoners were given the smallest possible rations of bread and watery thin soup; chronic starvation has manifold consequences. Psychological warfare rages in the mind of the deeply deprived, when the most basic of needs remain chronically unmet. Frankl insists that there are however, two types of men – the decent and the indecent. The extreme conditions of the concentration camp revealed, not created the man. Wiesel speaks of how people dealt with their ration. Some would hungrily devour it all at once, others would hold onto their bits of bread, tucking it away in their pockets and nibble periodically throughout the day. I would have been the tucking sort, and indeed have been. Scraps here and there of nourishment, tucked away in secret pockets of my soul. The knowledge of its presence alone was enough to comfort and compel me to press on. Periodically, I would take out my bread, breathe in its stale stench, take a nibble; placing the rest back into the seams of my soul for another time when ravenous hunger consumed me. Oh God help me… I know intimately what it is like to live on a little, and to make it last.
When we hear the word holocaust, we think of destruction or slaughter, of mass murder on a large scale. The wholesale slaughter of 1.5 million children boggles the mind, in an overwhelming, difficult to process way. The sheer enormity of the number leaves one grasping for an explanation that remains just beyond your fingertips on the fringes of a sane soul. These children mattered – they matter still.
It pains me to recall another story where fellow Jews was assigned positions at the gas chambers. A job, whose tasks included, among other soul searing atrocities, the shovelling out the gassed bodies of their fellows into a crematorium. The story goes that these two attendants, while completing their gruesome task found a young girl who miraculously survived the gassing. The girl about 16 years old moaned when hit with a shovel, was found to be alive – once again, the living among the dead. Suddenly, she became a person to them rather than a hunk of human flesh. The attendants got her a blanket and a cup of tea, attempting to fan into flame whatever sparks of life remained in her. How amazing when only a moment earlier they were about to shovel her like refuse into a mass crematorium. For a moment, time stopped, they were lifted above their circumstances by love, by the value of life, by personhood.
I have not ever seen 1.5 million of anything… my minds eye does not hold the capacity to absorb the enormity of it all. I have however, seen one soul murdered, and I know her well. She is in my shadow, she come with me to work, sits along side me as I move about my day, she watches as I embrace my children, wipe their tears, fix their meals and hold their hearts. She sees me tickle tummies, pull the small and the tall into may lap and assure them of my love, care and acceptance. She observes as I defend my children, love, protect and guide them. She waits in quiet desperation, wondering when someone will notice her, hold her heart, care about her feelings, listen to her thoughts and let her words fall out – and hold not only them- but her. She is starving, silent, emaciated, and weak. Periodically when hit with a shovel, she moans.
While the parallels are many, the last I will draw is the long road to freedom. Once the gates of the camps were opened, the long hoped for release came with joyless, yawning apathy. Frankl tells of their first day with descriptive language. He and his surviving companions had walked through the now open gates, past fields of plenty, saw beauty and other people and somehow felt distant – external to it all. The rapture and thrill that had long been anticipated was eerily absent. The prisoners had lost the ability to feel much of anything.
“ In the evening when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, ‘Tell me, were you pleased today?’ And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know that we all felt similarly, “Truthfully, no!” We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.”
It has been a long road back to personhood, to freedom and to feeling. I have had to relearn it slowly.