Many of us live in the company of “ghosts” – those who have passed away, but whose stories remain vivid in our minds and impart strength to our hearts. For some, the ghosts are relatives: parents, grandparents, ancestors from generations past. For me, they have names like Corrie Ten Boom, Trudi Birger, Irene Gut Opdyke, Nanda Herbermann, Piera Sonnino, and a dozen others who live on through stories I will never forget.
Though my world looks very different, their legacies set the example for me: to remain calm under pressure; to risk myself for the sake of a loved one; to rise above circumstances rather than be crushed beneath them; to acknowledge a sufferer’s humanity even when I have nothing tangible to give.
I have met dozens of tragic heroes through the pages of their memoirs, but three in particular come to mind when I explain why I became an avowed part-time Holocaust scholar:
Calm Under Pressure
Trudi Birger and her family, German Jews who fled to Lithuania, were first confined to a ghetto, then “liquidated” to the Stutthof concentration camp. Stepping out of a crowded and stuffy cattle car, fourteen-year-old Trudi and her mother found themselves alone in a sea of skeletal strangers and foreign languages. On their way into the camp, they faced the “selection,” where a Nazi camp doctor determined who would live for the time being and who would die immediately. He sent Trudi’s mother to die.
Trapped in a barbed-wire-enclosed compound and surrounded by guards with guns and police dogs, Trudi had every right to be terrified. She kept her wits. Convinced that the guards had condemned her mother because of her drab, baggy clothing, Trudi snuck through a gap in the electric fence, passing from the “life” side to the “death” side. She exchanged her colorful, fitted clothes for her mother’s over-sized black garb and pulled her mother with her back into the selection line. Both were sent to the “life” side.
Risks for Others
Separated from her family during the German invasion of Poland, Irene Gut Opdyke was captured and abused by Russian soldiers before escaping westward – only to fall into the hands of the Germans. She was sent to work at a German munitions factory, where she took charge of housekeeping for the barracks. Her laundry room staff consisted entirely of Jews from a local labor camp. She befriended and began to help them after witnessing one soldier murder a Jewish baby in cold blood.
At first, helping the Jews was simple: hiding food under a fence. It didn’t stay simple for long. Two separate events converged at just the right time, and she reacted in just the right way. First, the munitions factory commandant, Major Rugemer, decided to move from the barracks to an abandoned villa nearby. Second, Irene overheard plans to liquidate the labor camp shortly after his move. Under cover of darkness, she smuggled all sixteen Jews from her laundry to the basement of Rugemer’s villa.
Although Irene managed to keep her friends concealed for some time, Rugemer eventually discovered them. He offered to keep the secret if Irene would become his mistress. To save their lives, she agreed. As the German army finally retreated from the city, she smuggled her friends to the safety of a nearby forest occupied by Polish partisans. All survived.
Compassion for Suffering
One snowy winter night, German guards forced all of the women in a particular barracks to strip down and take a cold shower. They ordered them to remain outside – naked and dripping wet – all night. Marching as best they could to maintain circulation, the women huddled together, attempting to stay warm enough to survive.
Though there was nothing tangible that other prisoners could do to help these women, the Catholic nuns in the next-door barracks held vigil at their window through the night. They prayed for the tortured figures outside and stood in solidarity with them. By affirming the suffering women’s humanity, the nuns countered violence with compassion.
In the Shadow of Giants
Extreme circumstances call forth extremes in human character – not only the worst, but also the best. When life strips away our everyday comforts, we display our raw character. The character of some is twisted, vicious, malignant. That of others is noble, sacrificial, indomitable.
These vignettes illustrate the bravery and beauty found in dark places. In the shadows of these giants, I find hope: hope that I might one day be as brave if called upon – hope that I might actively fight oppression in my lifetime and help ensure that these things never happen again.