Many people have already written about the semblance of blaming the victim when we extol the bravery and determination of cancer survivors, thereby implying that those who don’t survive somehow haven’t fought as hard or had the right positive attitude. A recent article about the medical understanding of the quality of random-ness in the formation of most cancers - with the exception of those forms caused or exacerbated by external toxic agents (cigarettes) - is another indicator that individual efforts to stay healthy or recover from an illness may have less to do with sterling character traits than we give ourselves credit for. This thought came to mind while watching Wolf Blitzer’s one hour program focusing on four “Heroes of Auschwitz,” survivors who managed to get to America and create new lives after the war. Though there have been studies showing a correlation between survival and religious belief as well as a purpose in life , it surely is the ultimate chutzpah and dishonor to the millions of victims who were felled to pretend that survival was largely a factor of strong will and therefore within their control.
Many people who arrived at Auschwitz never got the chance to show their mettle - they were immediately sent to their death in the gas chambers. Others were subject to vicious experiments and other forms of torture besides starvation, cold and disease. One of the subjects in Blitzer’s documentary was a woman who arrived in Auschwitz at the age of 10 and was imprisoned for only 9 months before liberation. Even though she was a twin used by Josef Mengele in his medical tortures (which never yielded any scientific value), how can we compare her endurance to that of someone imprisoned twice as long or longer? This same woman has “forgiven” the Nazis since according to her, not forgiving them would have made them the victors. This type of psychobabble is an insult to the ability of the human mind to hold two thoughts at once: that what was done was unforgivable and that survivors had the opportunity of choosing to go on with their rescued lives productively. The discussion between Blitzer and Stephen Spielberg further emphasized that the people who survived were heroes, that it wasn’t accidental that they were capable of withstanding the subhuman conditions of the camps. Though that may be true, it’s also true that the majority of the million Jewish victims of Auschwitz or the total number of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust were people who weren’t fighting a fair battle in which their personal character traits were the ultimate determinants of their survival.
Particularly on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, an occasion that is after all, a visit to the largest cemetery in the world, there was no need to make distinctions between the living and the dead. It would have been sufficient to praise the survivors for what they managed to make of their lives, for their continuing to be part of a humanity which had ignored , subverted or persecuted them during and after the war and for their shining example of endurance beyond imagination. And then, to end with a prayer of Kaddish for the innocent dead.
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