I was living in a community that decided to run a memorial exhibit on the Holocaust. I felt it would be a good learning experience for my family, as well as for myself. When we reached the exhibit, we each randomly drew a name according to our age and gender. We put on a tag with that name, and we were supposed to address each other accordingly. Through the exhibit we would learn things about the person’s life.
My person was a man about my same age – early forties. He was married and had two little girls. He was a school teacher and well-liked by his students and those who knew him. He and his family were taken right at the beginning of the Holocaust to Auschwitz. His wife and two daughters were killed almost immediately. He was healthy and strong, and was not killed but was forced to work doing slave labor.
As we continued through the exhibit, my wife, my children, and I began to relate with the person whose name we had, even feeling as if we were that person. We laughed at the things the person liked, enjoyed their talents and hobbies, and learned how they lived and what their daily routines were like. As their lives took tragic turns, we could almost feel the pain with them.
At one point during our journey, there was a man who had helped put the exhibit together. He was willing to answer questions, but I saw no one taking advantage of that opportunity. I decided to take some time to visit with him.
I asked him if he had any personal experience with the Holocaust. He nodded. “I was at Auschwitz. Most of my family died there, and I found myself feeling bitter and resentful, with my only thoughts being thoughts of vengeance. But then something happened. I noticed that there were prisoners there who were happy. I realized they were the ones who were able to make themselves free.”
“Did they escape?” I asked.
“No. They made decisions for themselves, so that even when their liberty was taken away, their freedom was not.”
“What’s the difference between liberty and freedom?” I asked.
“Liberty is a person’s ability to come and go as they choose. But freedom goes much deeper, and comes from within. I watched as those men, even though they had no liberty, still chose to be free. As others could only dwell on their own personal misery, those men chose happiness. Some wrote happy stories, and some wrote inspired music, even if they wrote in nothing but the dirt on the ground or scratches on the wall. Others simply chose to help others, giving of themselves and even of their meager rations when they themselves were near starvation. Those men chose not to let their captors determine their happiness or misery, nor their actions. Only they could determine what they would be, and they chose a positive attitude, even in the darkest abyss of prison and despite our inhumane treatment.
“I realized those men were truly free because their circumstances could not dictate who or what they would be. I made the determination that I also would find that freedom within myself. It was not easy, and at times, when a guard was especially vicious, I could feel myself slipping back into thoughts of revenge. But when I would realize what was happening to me, I would work to force those thoughts out of my mind, even to the point I could almost forgive the unforgivable acts done by our captors.”
“That seems so impossible,” I said.
“It’s not easy,” he replied. “I don’t think one in a thousand is able to find the fortitude to develop it in their lives. I know I never mastered it, but striving to that end did give me the strength and hope to endure, and I think it is what helped me to survive. And when the war was finally over, it helped me to be able to go on with my life and put what had happened behind me.”
As I finished the exhibit, I learned that, after the person whose name I had was no longer of value to the Germans, he was killed. At first a feeling of animosity came over me, but then I thought about what the man had told me, and I made a determination to do as he said.
I would choose happiness and freedom.