With Eyes Open

I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.

Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.

One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.

As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.

However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.

Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.

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Remembrance in the Living Room

In 2010, some friends gathered in a living room to discuss the Holocaust, the testimony of survivors, and its impact on society over time in an intimate and familiar setting.

Since then, this experience has become an annual international initiative called Zikaron Basalon, which means “remembrance in the living room.”

The event usually takes place on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official date of commemoration for those who perished in the Holocaust.

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How To Become Something

I was struck today by something I read on the Anne Frank House website:

On this Q&A-style page, there is question: “What does writing mean to Anne?”

The answer that follows is this:

Writing meant a great deal to Anne. It was her way to vent.

The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate. – Anne Frank, 16 March 1944

She hoped one day to become a famous writer or journalist. Although she doubted from time to time whether she was talented enough, Anne wanted to write anyway.

That last sentence is so key! She hoped to become a famous writer and, in fact, she did but not in a way she could have ever expected. Anne Frank perished in the Holocaust at age 15, and her diary went on to be published after her death. Since then, more than 30 million copies of the diary have sold in more than 70 languages.

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“In half an hour, I’ll know more than you do”

On this Ash Wednesday, I am recalling those words spoken by Fr. Alfred Delp to a chaplain shortly before the Nazis executed the priest by hanging.

Throughout history, there are certain persons who display such a remarkably supernatural outlook toward death.

Here are a handful of examples excerpted from St. Alphonsus Maria De Liguori’s Preparation for Death:

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How I Will Live after the Pandemic

There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”

In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”

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What is Done When at a Loss of What to Do

I just flipped open to an essay by Elie Wiesel entitled, “The Death of My Father” which begins with the words: “The anniversary of the death of a certain Shlomo ben Nissel falls on the eighteenth day of the month of Shevat.” Since it was just recently Tu B’Shvat [the fifteenth day of Shevat], it so happens that today is the eighteenth day of this Hebrew month.

Since his father was murdered in Buchenwald, Wiesel discusses finding himself unable to conform to the ritual traditions of Jewish mourning that include going to synagogue, studying the Mishnah, saying the orphan’s Kaddish, and proclaiming God’s holiness.

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The Holocaust and Fruitfulness

Today is both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. The coinciding of a solemn commemoration with a celebration of the trees and fruits of Israel makes me reflect on all the tenacious ways that new life is sometimes brought forth from barren situations.

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A Child’s Right to Die

Janusz Korczak is a name I wish everyone could know. A Polish Jewish author, pedagogue, and orphanage director, he refused offers for his own safety during the Second World War and was deported, along with all of the children of the orphanage, to the Nazi death camp Treblinka where he and they were killed in 1942.

Over the years, I have come upon monuments commemorating Korczak and the children at Treblinka, in Warsaw, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.

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