The story of the man being kind to his challenged wife introduces a vital element in the idea of miracles. Thinking of miracles as “objects of wonder,” calling forth “awe and admiration,” making you smile… does not presume a rosy and gleeful understanding of life.
To the contrary. Life entails suffering, and it is perhaps in the setting of suffering that the ability to pause and behold at least the shadow of the miracle can be most life-giving.
As we move toward the end of the second decade of this century, the cohort of women and men who survived the Holocaust is dwindling, but their powerful stories remain. Edith Herz was born in 1926 to a comfortable Jewish family in Germany. They lived in Worms, which had been a center of Jewish culture for hundreds of years. Her parents operated a small and successful business, and their extended family enjoyed the same opportunities of community life, travel and spiritual practice as other Europeans of the time.
With the rise of the Nazi movement, this began to change. The coordinated attacks on the Jewish community of Kristallnacht… the Night of Shattered Glass in November, 1938… witnessed the desecration of over a thousand synagogues, the destruction of several thousand Jewish businesses, and the internment of 30,000 Jews. Edith’s father, a decorated German veteran of the Great War, her mother and Edith were transported to Thereseinstadt, which was a labor camp and holding area for Jews who were later moved to death camps to the east. Edith’s father died there, and in the following months, Edith and her mother were sent to Birkenau/Auschwitz, where it is estimated that over a million people perished, and subsequently to Stutthof concentration camp, from which they were liberated by the Russian army in January, 1945. In addition to Edith’s father, sixteen uncles, aunts and cousins had been killed.
Edith uses the word, “miracle,” to describe a number of remarkable events that allowed her and her mother to survive. With dozens of other women, they are herded into the gas chamber and it malfunctions. She is called before Josef Mengele and he waves her to the right, to labor, rather than to the left, to death. A German officer on Christmas break offers her a morsel of food.
More broadly, she credits her survival to her partnership with a remarkable mother and to their shared spirit of “hope” and “optimism.” “What good would it do,” she asks, “to whine and cry? None. Those who did, perished.” She and her mother maintained a sacred commitment to be together, supporting one another in the inevitable times when one of them felt like giving up.
The world is full of suffering and of the overcoming of it. Is this not a miracle?
- Think of a time when you have made your way past suffering. How did this happen? Do you see some miracle, some object of wonder?
- Notice how you address times of challenge or disappointment in the coming week. What, indeed, would the miracle look like… how would you want to be addressing times of challenge or disappointment?
Helen Keller (1880-1968) is surely legendary in her overcoming the suffering of deafness and blindness with the support of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Appropriate to our subject, the theatrical and film rendition of the relationship of Sullivan with Keller was called “The Miracle Worker.”
Keller graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904, the first deaf/blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her adult life consisted of advocacy for causes related to disabilities and widespread political activity, helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union and speaking on behalf of women’s suffrage, socialist causes and international peacemaking.
The quotation comes from Keller’s 1903 book, Optimism. Readers might appreciate the larger context:
"I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, and make that Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good."
Edith Pagelson (b. 1926) eventually came to America and has been blessed in relationships with two husbands who have passed on. She aims to strike a balance between remembering and speaking about the Holocaust, and living a full current life. Her story, written in collaboration with my colleague and friend Ronnie Weston, is available in Against All Odds: A Miracle of Holocaust Survival (Rockland, Maine: Maine Authors Publishing, 2012).