Today, Holocaust Memorial Day, I am revisiting a reflection I wrote about a brilliant man I met. A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet a holocaust survivor, from Italy. I am always uncomfortable asking survivors about the war, especially from people I do not know well. Yet I was seated at a table, and one of the other guests asked this gentleman “and what happened to you during the war?” He graciously shared with us stories about his life, and how he and his family had survived the war.
What struck me was the amazing optimism I heard in this man’s narrative. He started his story by telling us: “I am here today because all the probabilities went for me. In the game of chance that is life, the dice rolled in my favor.” He told us about the day in which his father went into work, and that his boss heard that the Nazis were looking for him. His boss called him to the main office, and said, “do not go back to your desk, even to close your drawers. The Nazis are looking for you. Go home and run away.” He ran home to get his wife and kids. Yet this man I met had gone with his friends camping in the woods. There were three boys, and by a game of chance he was the one sent back home to get the provisions they were missing. Had he not gone home, his family would have either left without him, or they would have been caught. Yet, “because the dice rolled in his favor,” he went home, and immediately ran away for his life with his family. All the other stories he told us featured prominently the way in which all could have gone wrong, but did not. I realized, as he was telling me his story that he had chosen a certain perspective in which to tell his story. He talked about his father’s escape from the DP camp, because he wanted to go home first, try to find a job and prepare everything for their return. When he, his mother and his two sisters went back, his father had found a wonderful place for them to live, but it was far away from the school he wanted to go to, so he ended up with a long commute. When I asked him why he could not go back to his family’s home, after being in a DP camp, he told me, as a matter of fact, that it had been occupied during the war, and his family could never recover it. He never dwelt upon the losses, or difficulties. I only found out about them because he wanted to illustrate another point, or because I asked about it. I was amazed at his choice to see things as happening in his favor. It is a rare gift, to have that kind of optimism, and to be able to recognize the positive things that happen instead of dwelling on the negative. As I listened to his story, I was struck by his positive perspective in life, and I wondered about how one gets to be that way.
I reflected upon his words later. As I listened to his story, I realized he chose to tell his story in a way that highlighted the positive. He did not dwell on the negative things. He did not allow the negative to grow and take over his narrative. If he had done that, I would not fault him. He definitely had reason enough not to have a positive outlook in life. Yet that was not the case. He obviously chose a certain way to tell his story, and that story allowed him to live a long life and see many generations engaging with our tradition. By not allowing negativity to grow and fester, by getting rid of the negative, he was able to focus on the positive. We just experienced Pessah, a holiday where our tradition asks us to get rid of hametz (the mixture of water and flour from either oats, wheat, spelt, barley and rye that is allowed to sit for more than 18 minutes), living free of it for a week. We have to get rid of things that might have come into contact with this mixture. Our tradition asks us to get rid of things that just sat there. Getting rid of hametz is the physical manifestation of a deeper spiritual action. At the same time that we do this cleaning, our tradition nudges us to let go of things that may fester inside of us, things that necessitate a spiritual cleansing. And we don’t experience Pessah in a vacuum. We start counting the omer (a measure of barley our ancestors would bring to the Temple in Jerusalem) and dwell in the daily miracle of life and growth, in preparation for Shavuot, the holiday when we receive the Torah, our Tree of Life. To me, the constant engagement with my tradition is a gift in itself, yet when I see my own child engaging with our tradition in a mature way now, I am delighted. I take this omer period to mean that during Pessah I started a process of spiritual preparation so I can receive the gifts that will come, remembering our collective past and celebrating the possibilities, bolstered by the daily reminder during this period that nature is blooming, growing, every day. Today, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, I look at the flickering memorial candle I lit last night and I try to learn how to face the adversities of the past with an eye towards the possibilities of the future. May we be hopeful for a bright future, may we have a positive outlook, and may we have the creativity to take the lessons from the past and pave a positive way for the future.
Rabbi Lia Bass