Now is the Time for Unity: Lessons on Survival From the Holocaust

Dawn Bevier

Science even supports the idea of “we” not “I” during these treacherous times

Image by Michael Pace on Pixabay

As we sit in our warm comfortable homes and anguish over the uncertainties of our jobs, our health, and our future due to the presence of the virus that surrounds us, we all engage in a bit of self-pity. And while it is not a very noble quality, it is a natural part of human nature to wish for days gone past, to hunger for pleasures lost, and to feel sorry for ourselves when there are more clouds in our lives than sunshine.

But in trying times such as these upon us, perhaps we should meditate more on the common platitude that “it could always be worse.”

And for what reason should we ponder this idea?

Because looking at someone’s else experiences of unimaginable grief and suffering helps us put our own into perspective.

And if we are truly wise, not only should we contemplate the lives of people whose miseries were infinitely larger than our own to be cognizant of our true blessings in life, we should look to these examples of overwhelming anguish to better learn how to overcome our own adversity.

And there is no greater source of information for how to get through these difficult times than to heed the words of those who found themselves victim to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

In a Newsweek article written as a tribute to persons who endured those darkest days of human existence, it highlights the horrors of this moment in time by citing words written in a letter by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the U.S. Army chief of staff after he visited a concentration camp during World War II. His words were as follows:

“ The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room where [there] were piled up 20 or 30 naked men, killed by starvation,[General] George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. ”

Though it is common knowledge that multitudes of innocent victims’ lives were ended prematurely at this time through the cruelty and selfishness of others, the fact remains that many also managed to survive through this unfathomable period.

And their ability to manage such a feat provides valuable lessons to us concerning how we may best endure the international crisis that is currently redefining what we know as normal life.

So what is the key to survival that threads its way through Holocaust survivors’ stories?

The idea of selflessness and human compassion.

For those who survived the Holocaust, most say that it was due to a sense of unity and camaraderie kept alive by the kindness and self-sacrifice of others.

Here are some examples that display these beliefs:

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel recounts in his autobiographical novel Night the words of a young Polish man in charge of his barrack block. When Wiesel and others first entered Auschwitz, the Pole’s first words to the prisoners were a profound statement on the importance of unity in order to survive:

And now, a prayer — or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.

Olga Lengyel

Olga Lengyel, a Hungarian Jew and author of the book Five Chimneys: A Woman’s Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz, echoes Wiesel’s comments on the importance of camaraderie. She states:

[In order to] prevent similar atrocities from happening again, people should come together the moment there is danger. Endangering one group means endangering all.

Lengyel remained true to her philosophy when she worked as a physician’s assistant in the Auschwitz infirmary, covertly working with a French underground cell in order to help destroy a crematory oven.

Edith Eger

Edith Eger and her family were sent to Auschwitz as well, and it was there Eger found herself in the presence of the cruel Doctor Mengele. Through Eger’s commentary on this moment in time, one can see the cause-effect advantages of human selflessness as an agent of survival. She states:

I danced for Doctor Mengele and he gave me a piece of bread. I shared it with everyone. We were a family of inmates, we had to care for each other. If you were just for the me, me, me, you never made it. [Later, during one of several death marches] when you stopped you were shot right away, and I was about to stop. I was getting weaker and weaker, and the girls that I shared the bread with…formed a chair with their arms, and they carried me so I wouldn’t die.

Scientific validation for survivors’ stories on the importance of unity and sacrifice

Holocaust survivors’ emphasis on the idea of survival through camaraderie is a bit hard for some to understand, as it defies the evolutionary idea of natural selection based on Darwinism, or the old adage that “only the strong shall survive.”

And while in these times some may use this adage to defend actions such as the hoarding of essential supplies or to uphold their arguments that the treatment of the elderly must not be a focus during the pandemic, what they fail to realize is that Darwin generally meant only to ascribe this idea to the earliest most primitive version of man.

This misinterpretation of Darwin’s ideas is discussed in a research article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America).

The article argues that Darwin’s theories are more complex than “natural selection” would imply. It states Darwin also had a second set of beliefs that applied to the moment in time when man first gathered into societies in the early stages of civilization. For example, it relays that in Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, he embraced the idea of “community selection.”

This term emphasizes that “those proto-human tribes whose members had the instinct for cooperation, fidelity, sympathy, and altruistic impulse would have the advantage over other tribes.”

The bottom line:

This pandemic is one that leaves no country, no man unscathed.

And truly, there are only two responses to this situation, two tactics which humans may embrace in this physical and emotional war for survival: selfishness or selflessness.

It seems both human experience and science would say the latter is the most effective method.

Eger, mentioned above, shared additional commentary on her belief in the importance of community by defining the idea of true heroism in her book The Choice: Embrace the possible.

She states:

Each of us has an inner hero waiting to be expressed. We are all “heroes in training.” Our hero training is life, the daily circumstances that invite us to practice the habits of heroism: to commit daily deeds of kindness; to radiate compassion, starting with self-compassion; to bring out the best in others and ourselves; to sustain love, even in our most challenging relationships; to celebrate and exercise the power of our mental freedom.

We have countless doctors and nurses on the front lines during this pandemic, each a living testament to Eger’s words. But all of us can also use this opportunity to be “heroes in training.” We can work to serve our fellow man in daily acts of sacrifice for the common good, ignoring our baser instincts in favor of human compassion and service to all mankind.

And if we can accept the truth that “we are all in this together,” we must also allow for another truth: that the only way out is together.

So let us learn from the suffering of others and not allow their realizations learned under such horrific conditions to go to waste.

And let’s start putting their knowledge to use now, for as Anne Frank said:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Here’s our moment: let’s not waste it.

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