Lea was around 20 when deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
Lea’s mental & spiritual resilience is astounding. Brought up by a refined and upper class frum Hungarian family, Lea never felt dehumanized regardless of how the Nazis degraded her and her fellow Jews.
“Strict adherence to my normal behavior, religious observance, and prayers, whatever I could remember by heart, gave me a feeling of superiority over the German barbarians.”
And indeed, those very aspects are exactly what made her (and us, if we adhere to them too) superior to any kind of Amalekite barbarians, no matter how polished & cultured they otherwise seem.
It also should comfort parents of vibrant children that, much to the distress of Lea’s parents, Lea would pitch back the stones that the non-Jewish Hungarian children pitched at her when she was a child walking home from school.
This strong-willed girl grew into a wonderfully strong Jewish woman.
Her ability to remain so mindful throughout her torturous enslavement attests to her extraordinary soul.
At one point, she stated a tremendous zechut for Am Yisrael, telling Hashem that no other people would remain as loyal as the Jews throughout such suffering.
When Lea joined 40 other girls for Chanukah candle-lighting in the death camp, Lea told them that this light—a potato that held some oil and threads ripped out of their own clothing—represented the spirit of freedom and Netzach Yisrael—the Eternity of Israel.
And she was absolutely right.
Lea also describes the different types of mental & character deterioration she witnessed, and also the heroic acts of compassion and support she both witnessed and personally experienced.
Learning to Live Again
At one point, Lea was faced with the opportunity to travel on Shabbos (not for pikuach nefesh) and at that tipping point, she chose to refrain from unnecessarily transgressing Shabbat.
“Had I done so,” she recalled of the opportunity to be mechalel Shabbos, “I should have missed meeting my future husband and would probably never have known what true happiness is.”
Captain Mark Chayen was a frum British medical officer who met Lea in the Displaced Persons camp and immediately started courting her in a gentle and respectable manner.
When at a couple of points, Lea despaired of ever being “normal” again and begged Mark to not make the “mistake” of marrying her ("I can't get used to living again"), Mark cared for her enough to promise that if she still felt she could not lead a normal life after a year, then he would let her go.
They remained blissfully married for 56 years until Mark’s death. 3 children blossomed from this union, along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Chayens married in England, and then moved to Eretz Yisrael, where Lea braved the role of an Israeli housewife (a massive challenge in 1951!) and her husband found work as an anesthesiologist at Hadassah hospital.
There’s a lot to learn from Lea Fuchs Chayen, but one thing that stands out is her compassion and her profound ability to judge a fellow Jew favorably in an honest way.
Lea's Refined Response to Appalling Behavior
(Either that, or else sideways leaps to justify what was sometimes forbidden behavior.)
There was lots of encouragement to feel pity (rather than hatred) even though many people feel that being hated is preferable to being pitied.
So I didn’t see how melodramatic pity was a better option (although it is certainly appropriate in some situations, as is hatred). It is also NOT okay to pretend that forbidden behavior is okay, cute, or funny.
But Lea came at it from a different angle: Bad behavior in her own people pained her.
For example, she briefly mentions a group of anti-religious anti-Zionists who assaulted Rav Baumgarten, a revered rabbi who, together with Rav Munk, "worked unstintingly for the survivors, helping them in every way they could."
(Anti-religious anti-Zionists? I can only assume they were Torah-hating Commies.)
Why did they carry out such a horrible act against such a courageous baal chessed as he exited the shul after Shabbat Shacharit?
Well, Rav Baumgarten met with the British authorities and, on humanitarian grounds, insisted that they open the gates of Eretz Yisrael to the now-stateless Shoah survivors.
Yet the anti-religious anti-Zionist ideologues, despite having been persecuted by and thrown out of Hungary, still felt that their homeland was...Hungary! And that's where they wanted to return.
Because Rav Baumgarten insisted that the British open up aliyah to Eretz Yisrael (which was the heart's desire of so many survivors), the anti-religious zealots felt that Rav Baumgarten's goal of aliyah detracted from the anti-religious anti-Zionist goal to return to their "homeland" of Hungary.
(This mentality is so typical of Erev Rav, I have no other explanation for such behavior.)
Yet what does Lea say about it?
"It was a shameful thing to have happened and even now as I write about it, I smart with shame for these fellow survivors."
And she refers to them in such a refined way (unlike me).
Shame. Pain. Pain is different than pity—and far superior.
She smarts with shame on their behalf.
She doesn't hate them. She doesn't excuse them. She's pained--on their behalf.
Lea's Incredible Response to Appalling Insensitivity
In the chaos of post-war Germany, Lea made her way to the hospital where her father was rumored to be.
Coming face to face with the fact that not only wasn’t her father there and never had been, it finally brought to surface the loss of all her other family members.
Until then, she hadn't had the opportunity to mourn over them.
For the first time, Lea was able to grieve over her profound loss.
She wandered around crying & crying in the pouring rain, forced to suffer the sight & sound of the German language she now hated and being trapped among the nation that caused such loss and trauma.
Suddenly, Lea chanced upon a branch of the Jewish Brigade sporting an Israeli flag.
It was “one of the most moving and beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.”
Seeing it as the first step in getting to Eretz Yisrael, Lea stepped inside, embarrassed and apologetic about her soaking coat making a puddle on the floor.
The Hebrew- and German-speaking “lovely dark-haired girl in uniform” behind the desk simply told Lea that the puddle didn’t matter and that Lea could come back in an hour when a German non-Jewish sergeant would be there.
Lea was shattered.
How could this girl sit in a heated room with a glass of steaming tea before her & look right at a cold, hungry, drenched death camp survivor, a fellow Jew, and not even offer this suffering lone survivor a cup of tea or a seat or a chance to dry off? How could this girl just send Lea back outside?
How could this uniformed Jewish brigade girl be so incredibly unfeeling?
The truth is, modern Israel was taken over by secular Leftists—who do not represent the average Jew in Eretz Yisrael and never did. While I can't know this uniformed girl's political affiliation, her behavior unfortunately recalls other incidents of callous behavior on the part of young secular Socialists sent to “help” their fellow Jews.
To add salt to Lea’s gaping wounds, when Lea indeed returned in another hour, the German non-Jewish sergeant looked at Lea with “compassion in his eyes” and offered her to take off her coat (“Look, you are so wet”), warm herself near the fire, and allow him to bring her a glass of tea.
“Please,” she begged Hashem, “leave me my self-respect and just let me reach Palestine.”
Then she added, “The most difficult thing to bear was the behavior of the Jewish Brigade girl compared with that of the German sergeant…”
Yet what did Lea say about this Jewish brigade girl?
“I was certain that she was a very nice and decent girl, who simply did not think. Today she is probably a highly respected grandmother somewhere in Israel and would be horrified to know what she did.”
That’s not pity.
That’s real compassion. That’s feeling pain over a fellow Jew’s misbehavior and genuinely finding a zechut and a way to judge favorably.
Honestly, no one can expect a profoundly grieving death camp survivor dragging around in the pouring rain to say, “Hmm...that girl was so insensitive. Well, gosh, I just feel sooo soooooooooorry for her!”
Nor is there any way to justify the behavior as okay, cute, or funny.
Feel the Pain
But Lea’s response resonated with me. HER response is the goal, I think.
We should feel pain on behalf of our errant brothers and sisters. (And hopefully, they will also feel pained, and not pitying or hating when we are the ones who flub up.)
Pain enables us to feel and respond with compassion. Pain enables us to educate others.
Sometimes, just seeing a pained face is rebuke enough.
There are many stories of someone expressing pain (rather than condescension or anger) toward an errant adult or child, which inspired the errant person to shape up.
In fact, I remember that as a teenager, I behaved immaturely with a group of girls. We all should have known better and I don't know why we behaved that way.
Anyway, a very nice gentle middle-aged geriatric nurse I'd seen around walked by at that very moment, and when she saw our behavior, an expression of pain swept over her face.
She watched us, clearly deliberating whether to say something and what to say. Somehow, I could see on her face that she knew we weren't being bad, but silly and unthinking.
The pain and deliberation on her face was like cold water on a drunkard. And I felt appropriately (i.e., not toxically) ashamed.
We sobered up right away, I think all of us realizing how we were really behaving.
She never said anything and I never did anything like that again.
So feeling pained over another's errant behavior can be so much more effective (and honest) than seething hatred or snooty pity.
Pity brings about condescension and despair. There’s not much hope for someone who is to be pitied.
And this is the big lesson to learn in ahavat Yisrael from Lea Fuchs Chayen, a survivor with a tremendous neshamah.
"I feel that the suffering has made me into a better human being and I learned to love my people with desperation. It is not that I do not see our faults, but they hurt me and make me feel responsible to do something about them and improve things."