A few weeks ago, I wrote to you all about the sorites principle in philosophy that illustrates how things can be possible and impossible at the same time. The word sorites, the Greek word for “heap,” lends its name to the principle because Eubulides of Miletus, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, used the image of a heap of sand to illustrate the principle: no one would call one grain of sand a heap, nor is it possible that something as tiny and inconsequential as a grain of sand could possibly change a handful of such tiny grains into something as large and consequential as a heap…yet, if you slowly add one grain of sand after another, there logically must be a moment at which you actually do have a heap of sand in front of you. Logically, somewhere in the process there must have been one grain that made the difference, one gain of sand that somehow—and all by itself—turned a tiny mound into a heap. And that is how something can be possible and impossible at the same time.
But Eubilides’ principle works in reverse as well: if you start with a huge heap of sand and start slowly and methodically to remove grains of sand from it, there must be a specific moment in the process at which you suddenly don’t have a heap of sand in front of you…but that leaves you puzzling over the obvious question of how something as minuscule as a grain of sand can possible make that much difference? How could anyone even notice if a single grain were missing from a huge mountain of sand? And yet…it both has to be noticeable and also can’t possibly be noticeable, which leads to the same conclusion: that things can indeed be possible and not possible at the same time.
My mind wandered back to Eubilides on Yom Hashoah this year, the day the Jewish people sets aside to honor the martyrs of the Nazi Holocaust. We, in our world, think of survivors as older people. And, indeed, they surely are: the camps were liberated seventy-one and seventy-two years ago, so thirteen-year-olds then would be eighty-five now. But, other than children in hiding, there were no thirteen-year-old survivors (or almost none). And that leaves us today with a survivor community mostly in its upper eighties and nineties. We’ve gotten used to thinking of them that way…but it wasn’t always like that. They didn’t used to be this old. And they surely didn’t used to be this few. As many of you know, I grew up in Forest Hills, not fifteen miles from the home in which Joan and I live now. When I was a boy, Forest Hills was filled with survivors…but they weren’t octo- and nonagenarians: they were young men and women in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out how to construct new lives for themselves in a new place. All had suffered grievous losses. Some had lived through the murder of their entire first families. But there they were—and in huge, impressive numbers—trying their best to re-invent themselves, to learn to speak English well, to find jobs, to establish homes, to create families. This all made a huge impression on the young me. My own parents were Yankees, born and bred in these United States. But all around me I saw different kinds of Jewish people from many different places…and that sense that there was far more to this whole Jewish thing than the Hebrew-School-version of myself could imagine was, I think in retrospect, part of the set of influences that led me into my career and into my studies, and also into my life.
Not all refugees throve in their new homeland, of course. Nor did those survivors who settled elsewhere, even in Israel, all do uniformly well. If any of my readers haven’t read Amir Gutfreund’s remarkable novel, Our Holocaust, describing his life as a young man growing up in a town outside Haifa almost entirely settled by survivors, I can’t recommend it too highly. If you want to get what it means to have survived, that’s the place to start. (Gutfreund, one of Israel’s most talented authors, died tragically of cancer earlier this year at age fifty-three, but he left behind a body of work that would be impressive even for an author with decades longer to work.) Some of the people in his book do remarkably well, but others of his characters are lost to the world, stuck in an endless loop of misery and recrimination, unable to loose the shackles that others imposed on them and that they themselves seem unable to shake off entirely or, for some, even at all. Some few in his book really are mad. But most are just regular people trying to find some comfort and pleasure in life even if it means facing down almost unimaginable trauma and simply refusing to surrender to it. I recommend the book to all very highly as a true tour de force, but the bottom line—both within Gutfreund’s book and outside its covers—is that even in Israel the number of survivors in our midst is dwindling. And that thought—somehow both banal and chilling at the same time—is what I bought to Yom Hashoah this year along with a sense of marvel that these people exist at all, a sense of wonder at their achievements (and the unsettling questions regarding my own mettle that the contemplation of their lives inevitably stirs up in me), and a sense of abiding regret that future generations will know these people only from a distance—through their books and their Spielberg interviews, and through the stories they tell and to which we, even now, we avidly listen.
Earlier this year, on what would have been my own father’s 100th birthday, the world lost Samuel Willenberg, the sole remaining survivor of Treblinka.
The camps had certain underlying principles of brutality, barbarism, and depravity in common, but they differed dramatically one from the other in terms of their final chapters. By the time the Germans had done their best to empty out Auschwitz as the Red Army advanced, for example, there were only 7,000 prisoners left in that place to liberate. By the time American forces reached Buchenwald, on the other hand, there were four times that many prisoners present. (The wrinkle in that detail is that about ten thousand of those who were liberated at Buchenwald had survived death marches to that place from Auschwitz and a handful of other camps.) The numbers in other places, however, were dramatically and tragically smaller. In Sobibor, for example, where over 170,000 people were mercilessly murdered, there were precisely fifty-eight survivors. The numbers in Treblinka were even more shocking: of the three-quarters of a million people murdered in that place, only sixty-seven are known to have survived and Samuel Willenberg was among of them. He was not, however, present gratefully to be liberated when the Red Army arrived because even more amazing than the fact that he survived at all is the fact that he survived by escaping the camp after the famous prisoner revolt in that place in the summer of 1943. His odds of survival were not good: of the 200 or so escapees, all but 67 were recaptured and summarily murdered. Making his story even more incredible, Willenberg survived even though he didn’t manage to escape Treblinka unharmed—he was shot in the leg as he leapt over the top of a barbed wire fence after climbing up a pile of unburied bodies temporarily stacked up against it and from there somehow catapulting himself over the top—but he did manage to get away.
Born in 1923 in Czestochowa, Poland, Willenberg was still a teenager when he was deported to Treblinka and became the sole survivor of the three transports that arrived at the camp that day, each of which included twenty packed cars of prisoners. (Even that part of the story is amazing—the Germans needed a bricklayer to help build something and, since that was the fictitious occupation he reported upon arrival, they took him onto the work force instead of killing him with all the other sixty boxcars full of innocents.) After his escape, he made his way through the forest and eventually came to Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Home Army and spent the rest of the war fighting his personal war with the Germans with the Polish resistance. He participated personally in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, then, after the war, emigrated to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv. He married and raised a family. And he wrote a book, Revolt in Treblinka, which, although not the sole book by someone who escaped Treblinka, is riveting and very worth reading. (For readers interested in the same story from a different vantage point, I recommend The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, originally written and published in Yiddish, but since 2012 available from Pegasus Books in English.) And then, just this past February, Sam Willenberg died at age 93. He was the last living survivor of Treblinka.
I watched the survivors in our midst with some combination of awe and nervousness. They were many, it was true, but I knew what had happened—or I thought I did—to those who were not rebuilding their lives in Forest Hills because they and their families had ended their lives in execution pits and gas chambers. I took comfort in their numbers, however, telling myself that, had my family fallen into German hands during the war, we too surely would have been among the survivors. Weren’t we also living in Forest Hills, just like so many of them? I know better now—times six million—but back then, thinking the survivors to be rules rather than exceptions, I imagined us as some sort of honorary members of the survivor community nonetheless…and particularly once I learned the fate of the Jews of my great-grandparents’ shtetlach in Poland and Belarus. The indomitable spirit of the survivor community is what buoyed me as a boy…and what gave me the sense of self that, in some profound ways, I carry with me even today. And that is why the death of Sam Willenberg made such an impression on me. My children, of course, know many survivors. But their own children will know them only at a distance, and my children’s children…at even more distance than that.
Eubilides’ principle is at work here: the loss of one single survivor can’t logically make that much difference to the larger picture. How could it? And yet…somehow, as the years have passed, the picture has changed dramatically: where there was once a mountain, there was at first just a heap. But now that heap has itself diminished and will soon enough just be a collection of disparate grains of sand. And that makes it that much more important for those of us who knew and know these people, and who heard their stories firsthand—it is that much more crucial for us to make sure that their stories do not vanish with them…and that their personal testimony is not merely recorded, but cherished and made available to future generations.
We did our part at Shelter Rock this week, coming together to hear the testimony of a woman who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson, and who participated in one of the so-called “death marches” when the war was almost over and the Germans were eager to empty the camps of those they hadn’t managed to kill. We listened, recording the details we had mostly all heard before…but the point wasn’t that we learn this or that detail, but that the testimony itself be given, and that it be spoken and recorded. All that, we managed to accomplish. But how will future generations recreate the experience of actually knowing people who lost everything and yet who managed somehow to survive? That is the unsettling question that is left to churn and roil around within me as we move past Yom Hashoah this year, sixty-three years after it was inaugurated in Israel as a national and international day of remembrance and more than seventy years after the end of the war.