The Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah is a chance to remember the victims of the Holocaust. For me, the tragedy of the Holocaust was brought to a more personal scale by a man I met at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial museum outside Jerusalem. He was being filmed there for a documentary, and for a long while I stood and listened to him telling his story, how he and his family were put on a train car in 1941, along with all the other Jews in their Italian village, and taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. When they arrived, some were too weak and exhausted to stand. His family stayed close to one another, until the Nazi soldiers began separating the men from the women. His mother and sister were told they were being taken to the showers. He never saw them again.
He, his father, and his two brothers were forced to strip naked for examination by a doctor. He was only fifteen years old, and was judged to be strong enough for the work camp. A dentist came next, and pulled his father’s gold teeth. This is the first time he was really afraid, he said, because he had never before seen his father bleed. As he continued his story, he pulled up his sleeve to show the camera the tattoo on his forearm. His number was right between those of his two brothers. That number was the first thing he learned in German, he said, because if the soldiers called your number, you had to respond immediately, or there were consequences. As incredible as his story was the way in which he told it, without anger, without bitterness. There was sadness, of course, but even more powerful was the love with which he spoke of his family and of God. Even through Auschwitz, he had held on to that.
When the camera crew took a break in filming, I approached him, standing off to the side while he finished his conversation with two Australians. I marveled at the vigor in his speech and movements. If my math was right, he had to be eighty-one years old. As the others walked away, he turned to me with a smile. “Shalom,” he greeted me. “Um, hi,” I fumbled. He laughed, and it was musical, joyous, absolutely incongruous with the horrors he had just related. “I was – I just wanted to thank you for sharing your story. . . I’m so . . .” I could say nothing else. I stood before him, embarrassed and sobbing, heartbroken for all that he had been through, he and millions like him.
Without a word, he embraced me. After holding me for a long moment, he kissed my cheek in sweet, grandfatherly fashion, then took my face in both his hands. Looking into my eyes with an honesty and intensity that was almost frightening, he said, “Bless you.” I was staggered by the weight and power of his words. It took me a few breaths to collect myself, and he had already walked away.
Merely meeting this man was a gift, to be in the presence of one who had survived what must surely be the closest thing to hell on earth and overcome it. At times when I wonder where God is in the midst of tragedies in my own life and the lives of those I love, when these wrongs challenge my faith, I remember this man. He was generous and loving and vibrant and full of faith, even after all he had endured. If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of him and the blessing that God gave me through him. I will never forget.
God, help us to remember those who have suffered and died. May they never be forgotten. You are always present and working even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, and it is because of you that love always survives. Help us to bless one another in love today. Amen.-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent