Friday, June 12, 2009

A Lesson from the Holocaust

The holocaust has to be one of history's greatest teachers. Another of history's greatest teachers, my sister, shared the following story with me as we sat together this afternoon in her home. (I'm here while my husband and son close out our national park tour by kayaking and camping in the nearby Channel Islands.) Anyway, both of us were moved to tears by a highly evocative YouTube video, wherein an elderly man describes his experience of being rescued from a cattle car during the holocaust.

When he was 14 years old, this man's entire family found themselves locked in a cattle car with the certain knowledge that they were en route to their own executions. This awareness was shared by their fellow detainees, who were surprisingly calm in the face of impending death. Suddenly, one man moved to the sole window and managed to somehow bend the barbed wire in a futile attempt to escape. Extremely undernourished, he was still not thin enough to pass through the small opening. It was then that our storyteller's father swung into action...apparently with the support of his son's mother, who had said that if anyone could escape from the Nazis to tell their story, it would be this particular son. Quickly, the determined father of this young man moved to the window, telling his son in no uncertain terms that he was to squeeze through the narrow opening and escape. When the boy held back, his father lifted him in a swift motion. "Yes, you are going," he insisted, adding firmly in words that were burned into the young man's soul, "I will get you out using your legs; go out using your legs." Somehow the desperate man would force his son through the unaccommodating hole that proved to be his salvation. 

His heart in his eyes, the boy turned to look once more at his father, expecting words of love or a hug. He was 14, old enough to know he would not see him again. But time was precious; the train had started to move. His father looked him in the eye and spoke only four words, in yiddish, calmly and with great clarity. "Be a good man," he said, and shoved him out.

That was the last message...the most important message. "Be a good man." Strong words...words that resounded in this valiant survivor's mind and spirit, carrying him through years of loneliness and longing for a family he would see no more. Words that were not only remembered, but honored. Words that charted the course of a faithful son's entire life.

Of course, he tells his story much better than I do, and I hope you will take time to follow the link at the end of this post and hear it for yourself. But first, I'd like to share my reaction with you.

As a parent, I could not help but be struck by the father's choice of last words to his son. I went so far as to ask myself what I might say under similar circumstances. With no time to spare, what would be the most important thing I could say to a child of mine? Would I express my love, offer comfort, impart counsel? What would I say to my child, knowing I would never see that child again in this life?

I only hope I would say something as wise and meaningful as this man's father said. "Be a good man." Simple. Profound. Eternally significant.

These words really cut to the chase for me. Not only do they epitomize the worthiest goal of a loving parent, but they manage simultaneously to do it all: express love, offer comfort, and impart counsel...the trifecta of parenting.

In the final analysis, the outcome most desired by those of us who have borne and raised children is pretty straightforward. We want them to be good. Good men. Good women. Good people.

My own sons and daughter are good people, and I am grateful. I am also grateful that I, unlike this loving father, was never placed in a position where I had to spontaneously boil all of my loving and teaching down to that one and most important lesson of all...Be a good person.

And yet, what a marvelous lesson it was.

If you are interested in hearing more about this beautiful story from a holocaust survivor (I promise you will not be sorry), click here.

PS. Happy anniversary, Matt and Heather. While our country is experiencing considerable difficulty, we live in a world of freedom and privilege. May you continue to use the blessing of time well as you raise your family together, teaching each one to "be a good person."


Jill said...

What a story! This would be great to use in a Father's day talk in Sacrament meeting. It also reminds me of when my first husband was shot numerous times in a robbery at his store. As he lay there dying, with the paramedics on the phone, he said, "Tell my wife that I love her, tell my boys to be good." Although he did not die until 7 years later, we put those words on his grave marker.

Thank you so much for sharing this today!

KC Mom said...

That is incredible. A story of what love really is. I can't imagine letting my child go but I can't imagine him going to his death.
I'm off to check it out.

Charles said...

"Jacob's Courage" (Mazo Publishers, 2007) is a tender coming of age love story of two young adults living in Salzburg at the time when the Nazi war machine enters Austria. This historical novel presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It explores the dazzling beauty of passionate love and enduring bravery in a lurid world where the innocent are brutally murdered. From desperate despair, to unforgettable moments of chaste beauty, Jacob’s Courage examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality.

"Jacob's Courage is available at Amazon, through the publisher and most major retailers.

karen said...

Beautiful - I have tears in my eyes.

Em said...

What a heartbreaking story - I can't even fathom.

Thank you for this post. Em

(dropping by to welcome you SiTS)

Christina said...

What an awesome story... that is incredible.

Stopping by to welcome you to SITS!

VK said...

Our trip to Central/Eastern Europe was filled with brave stories of these sweet people. It is truly eye opening and puts me a little closer to my father who was there to witness some of the tragedy.
Thanks for sharing.
May we continue to learn from the mistakes of others.

Emmy said...

Thanks for sharing this and for the link. It gave me goosebumps!
That is quite the thought, what would you say? Wow! Thanks again!
Glad I stumbled on your blog today.

Lisa Loo said...

Wow--you always have the best stuff here!! I shall go straight away and watch this. And it is such a deep thing to think about--what we send our children out into the world with each day---thanx for sharing!

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