Grey in the Greyness of Dawn

“Slowly, almost hesitatingly, the train moved on as if it wanted to spare its passengers the dreadful realization as long as possible: Auschwitz!”With the progressive dawn, the outlines of an immense camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; searchlights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know. There were isolated shouts and whistles of command. We did not know their meaning. My imagination led me to see gallows with people dangling on them. I was horrified, but this was just as well, because step by step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.”from Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

It’s Sunday, and so I reach for something from my bookshelves that delves the depths of the soul, that wrestles with the meaning of our existence. How can one find anything of beauty in the darkness of World War II?

Here are a few reasons I am willing to read even the nightmares herein…

  • “Frankl approvingly quotes the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.'” – from the Foreward by Harold S. Kushner, Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts.
  • “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.” from the Preface to the 1992 Edition by Viktor E. Frankl.
  • Because in my own life, during my youth, life was very dark. Not dark to this degree, but in my opinion at the time, during Junior High, it was as dark as life could get. About that same time, around 7th and 8th grade, I became fascinated with the stories of people who had survived the concentration camps, the stories of the Resistance and the stories of everyday heroes who lived to tell the tales. I think perhaps, my own stories grew pale by comparison, and I learned to hunker down and bear the unfortunate moments because others had survived so much worse.
  • And because, once before, when my second-oldest son, Joey, was in Junior High, he was assigned the book Night, by Elie Wiesel. It broke my heart, and ripped me apart, and I felt it imperative to share even these most horrific stories from our history with our children. As much as we want to shield them from horrors, sometimes it is only by exposing the dark side of our history, that we can hope to keep these sorts of things from re-occurring. We get dangerously close to history repeating itself when we forget how easy it is to villainize a whole group of people and remove their humanity from our own perception of them.

For these reasons, I will be pulling this book out of my bookshelf on Sundays until I have finished it. What I remember from Night, was that in the midst of the horrors, there were always tremendously moving accounts of people sacrificing themselves for their friends, whether in an ultimate sacrifice way, or in little things done selflessly to benefit others in some small way. These moments woven throughout the text kept the tears fresh, and hot, and the belief in the beauty of humankind resurfacing in flailing, arms around the world, deep sobs sorts of ways.

I guess describing a book like this will keep most from wanting to read it. I apologize. I remember that the author wrote it in hopes that it might be helpful for those prone to despair, and that buoys me and helps me keep my eyes open to the hopeful, the helpful, and the beautiful.

“We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Harold S. Kushner, from the Foreward.

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