In Lea Fuchs Chayen's book From the Depths I Call (also written about in Feeling the Pain of Another Jew's Sin), a variety of responses to the horrific events are described.
I can't & don't judge them because it's impossible for anyone to know how any of us would respond in the same situation, may we never be tested by such things.
Of course, I would love to think I'd be like Lea or any of her awe-inspiring friends...like the group of 5 sisters who survived the death camps together — and even "adopted" another young teenage girl (simply because they felt bad that she was all alone), making it a group of 6.
This is particularly jaw-dropping because everyone was starving & freezing, and splitting food and other resources among 5 girls is already heroic, let alone adopt a 6th girl into the group.
Or the teenage girl who literally saved Lea's life by giving Lea the girl's own crocheted undershirt in the winter, which left the girl with only one layer to withstand the elements — and again, in a terribly emaciated state amid inhuman conditions.
It's all such mind-bogglingly heroic compassion.
So yes, I would love to imagine myself responding as gloriously as those Jewish girls, but I can't deny that I could just as easily respond like the girl Lea describes in the death camp who suddenly fell into the delusion that she was an SS dog, and spent the entire night outside the barracks barking terribly and trying to bite people — until she was "taken away."
Or the other teenage Kapo girl who'd been at the death camp so long, she lost her humanity. She screamed abuse at her fellow Jewish girls and used her metal stick freely.
(And even though Lea suffered the Kapo's terrible verbal abuse and gets struck in the head by the metal stick, she compassionately refers to this Kapo as "Poor girl, how long has she been here in Birkenau?...She looks totally mad.")
Early on, Lea notes that the conditions are created specifically to reduce the Jews to animalistic or lunatic behavior, to destroy their souls before destroying their bodies.
In other words, the mental deterioration was clearly part of the Nazi plot and not just a result of the ongoing genocide, but a deliberate part of the whole idea.
Somehow, Lea has the presence of mind to realize this and is able to mentally & spiritually resist this aspect of the Nazi destruction.
So yes, I would LIKE to think that I'd be like Lea and her friends.
But who can really be so confident of themselves?
So we don't judge the less ideal responses & we don't feel superior.
At the same time, we can still glean lessons that apply to us even now.
Stripped of Everything, What is Left?
Upon first arriving at the death camp, this lovely young gymnastics teacher whispers encouragement to Lea, confident that when their shaved heads grow hair again, their hair will be even nicer & stronger than it was before. Regarding their now-bare feet, the gymnastics teacher whispers that it's actually healthier to walk without shoes and that in a week or two, they will not even notice the lack of footwear.
It's worth noting that Lea and the others are only saved temporarily and "accidentally."
There was not enough room in the gas chambers when they arrived. So they're only being held until there's a lag in the deadly transports for their "turn."
And Lea was desperate to leave the death camp — but not to avoid death.
At that point, she didn't care about life and was actually disappointed she had not died with her family.
However, Lea could not bear the constant smell of burning Jews, accompanied at night by the sight of flames against the dark sky.
This is in addition to the vile conditions, the crazed Kapos, the demonic female SS commanders and their evilly trained dogs, the constant verbal & physical abuse, and the constant threat of a torturous death.
The girls soon discovered that one could volunteer for slave labor in a German factory.
Volunteering meant getting a number tattooed on the forearm before being sent off for slave labor, but that was not a deterrent for Lea or the other girls — except for one young woman: the former gymnastics instructor.
When she and Lea discussed the option of leaving the camp by volunteering for slave labor (which meant a tattoo on the forearm), the gymnastics instructor refused, telling Lea, "imagine what a tattooed arm would look like in an elegant evening dress."
We don't judge this young woman. We don't imagine we would be better.
Furthermore, holding onto the hope that she will survive and live again is a very strong aspect of survival.
For example, Lea also spoke of her old home life with her friends in the slave labor at the factories. This helped her retain her authentic self.
However, Lea remembered learning Tehillim with mefarshim with her father, seudah shlishis meals in the garden in the summer, her parents' chessed, her grandparents' piety, her older sisters' engagements & weddings & visits with their young children — not elegant evening dresses and the occasions that demand such dresses.
Also, Lea sat with her father at one point during the terrible time before they were transported, and received a clear psak about when she was allowed to commit suicide (only if she was about to be violated). Baruch Hashem, things never reached that point and she later wrote that this psak formed a strong foundation for her survival resolve.
Yes, Lea was lucky that her family remained sincerely frum amid the anti-Torah ideologies that infected Europe, so Lea's memories & inner world contained meaningful content that helped her survive, both mentally & spiritually.
What I mean to focus on is the attachment to the idea of an evening gown (and not a long-sleeved garment that would cover the forearm) and all that entails, and latching on to this idea to the point that, even as you smell your own people burning and see the flames against the sky, you are only concerned about how you'll look in an evening gown.
Meaning, I want to survive this horrific genocide of millions of Jews in Europe for...what?
And who brought the culture of evening gatherings with evening gowns?
The Magyar nobility & the cultured German elite.
These are the same people who crammed you into a ghetto in Hungary, tortured your wealthy ones for their hidden treasures, packed you into inhuman cattle cars, and are burning your people — with the intention of you next in line.
Lea doesn't say what the gymnastics instructor's background is, but if the evening gown culture is what she falls back on, then maybe she didn't have anything else in her background to cling to.
And who is to blame for that?
(Not her, in my opinion.)
Purim vs. Platinum
Lea's impression of the woman is that she led a rather "dissolute" lifestyle prior to the Nazi invasion. (In other words, she was not only not religious at all, but didn't lead such a savory life by social standards either.)
At one point, right before the end of the war, Lea, this thirtysomething woman, and the other girls found themselves being transported in an open boxcar full of snow.
They were all on the verge of death from starvation and overwork. Lea describes them lying there like "zombies."
Suddenly, Lea manages to pull herself together and remember her resolution to keep track of the Jewish calendar. Realizing that she has not announced the Jewish date for the last 2 days, Lea announces the Jewish date and day of the week, including the startling fact that the next day will be Purim.
Then Lea (despite her near-death "zombie" state) gives chizuk to everyone by expressing the hope that in a few years time, they would all be celebrating Purim in their own homes, surrounded by their families, and finding it difficult to believe then what they were going through now.
(Lea admits that she herself did not believe what she was saying, but her desire to give chizuk & hope on the verge of death in such hopeless circumstances was admirable. Furthermore, it ended up being somewhat true for Lea, who married a wonderful religious Jew with whom she had healthy children, and they indeed celebrated many Purims together.)
To this, the thirtysomething woman said, "Who is Purim?"
Lea then told her a Hungarian word: Farsang.
(Evidently, this woman was so far removed from Judaism, she hadn't even heard of Purim. Also, I looked this up and apparently Farsang doesn't even mean "Purim," but it simply refers to a seemingly pagan-based Hungarian carnival. Again, it probably wasn't her fault. If she'd never heard of Purim, then she was probably raised without any Torah.)
The woman then said, "Every one of you is crazy if you have nothing else to think of."
Then she turned to Lea and invited Lea to visit her "after the war" in her "elegant apartment in Budapest" where she would receive Lea in her "most elegant clothes" while sporting her "long platinum blonde hair."
Again, without being judgmental, the contrast here is striking.
Lea gives the girls real chizuk by encouraging them to look forward to a time when they'll be living Torah lives among a Jewish family home life.
This is something really live for.
Yet this thirtysomething woman not only derides merely thinking about Torah life as "crazy," but shares her own hope that she will be living a decadent, empty lifestyle once again.
What Their Response Says about Us
Well, not to point fingers at anyone except ourselves, anyway.
Because there are lessons here for us, mussar for us.
For our fellow Jews in those times, when everything was stripped away, you had people yearning for Purim & you had other people yearning for evening gowns.
In other words, you had people looking forward to renewing a Jewish life & you had people looking forward to renewing a non-Jewish life.
I'm not talking about people so traumatized that they couldn't believe in God anymore.
I'm not talking about people who became crazy or violent in a crazy & violent hell not of their making.
I'm talking about people who at their very essence (through no fault of their own) had nothing to hold on to except the very culture (Europe/Esav) that created this horror in the first place.
And I've been really thinking a lot about this myself:
- Who am I?
- How much Yiddishkeit have I really internalized?
- Do I have yearnings for aspects of a non-Torah lifestyle?
- Is there any part of me that still yearns for Mitzrayim and its ridiculous cucumbers and meaningless fleshpots even as I am surrounded by Ananei Kavod (Clouds of Glory) and feasting on mann? (so to speak)
Looking around today, how many people would chose to stay in a death camp in the hope of a WiFi connection or to see who wins in their favorite reality show?
How many people's main fantasy would be about regaining their Twitter account or their feel-good drugs (legal or illegal) or their Harry Potter books "after the war"?
You can go on and on with this list because the bombardment of "Mitzrayim" has never been as powerful or as all-encompassing as in our generation (which is melamed zechut on us, but still).
Am I Nourishing My Neshamah Enough?
That's not how I feel & that's not what this is about.
Like I said, how do I know that I wouldn't be a violent cursing Kapo or a barking & biting dog-girl or living for the sake of an evening gown?
I don't know that I wouldn't!
Who can believe in their own goodness with so much confidence?
The point is to ask myself:
- Who am I REALLY?
- How deep & internalized are my Torah values?
- How nourished is my neshamah?
And it's not to prepare ourselves for a similar test — b'ezrat Hashem, we will NEVER be tested in such a way!
On a practical level, we can ask ourselves what we're eager to do when we have some free time to ourselves:
Are we eager to:
- read that novel that's kind of kosher, but anyway, we just skim over the not-so-kosher parts
- check social media
- finish off the all the leftover Shabbos desserts
- fume & obsess (with no practical benefit) over the behavior of a co-worker, boss, family member, or someone I saw on the street
Or do we look to utilize that time to:
- Make some kind of cheshbon hanefesh
- Daven Mincha
- Talk to Hashem as we would our Best Friend
- Write or verbalize a gratitude list
- Listen to a shiur
- Read a dvar Torah or learn halacha
- Spend time with my child
- Spend time with anyone else who needs it
Of course, this list can also go on.
And yes, there are also mundane yet necessary things, like running errands, taking a much-needed nap, exercising, and so on, that are worthy endeavors.
For example, if you skimp on buying your child some much-needed new shoes or let necessary foods run out because you're saying Tehillim, then that does not make you a spiritual person.
The point is one of priorities.
Probably many of us wobble between the two sides.
Sometimes we spend our time wisely and meaningfully, and sometimes we indulge our baser nature.
Yet any step we can take in the higher direction can eventually lead to amazing spiritual progress.
The point is that by making ourselves as Torahdik on the inside as the outside (if not even more) and by nourishing our neshamah so much that it will naturally produce illumination in even the harshest times, then we are achieving both personal and National tikkun.
In other words, we'll be accomplishing what Hashem put us here for as individuals and also what Hashem wants to achieve through Am Yisrael.
It also sweetens din, both on the personal level and for the whole world.