Discovering lessons from a concentration camp survivor from Terezin. When we cannot change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Seize the day!
Did you mentally straighten up a bit? That phrase carries a nice little motivational kick, doesn’t it?
“Keep a stiff upper lip!” and “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” -- familiar idioms, meant to say don't let bad things upset you, and you can improve your situation by your own efforts.
Or, optimistic expressions like, “When one door shuts, another opens!” or “Look on the bright side!” bring images to mind of trying to see something good in a bad situation.
Yet, as much as these phrases may be helpful in the moment, they are pretty simplistic. For the real work of overcoming deep discouragement and tragic events rarely happens in an instant. A simple phrase just won't cut it, nor get anywhere close to describing the mental fortitude and perseverance needed to overcome trials. And to me, the marker for real inspiration is a life that shows not just endurance, but transcendence over suffering. Especially a hardship where the individual had no control whatsoever. To see that, is to witness the aftermath of a battle that’s been won. We had an example of this from two years ago when we visited Prague in the Czech Republic and met a man named Pavlov.
City on Steroids First let me briefly share the setting. My husband, daughter and I were vacationing in the Czech Republic with most of our stay in Prague. This is a city that feels like a time capsule burst open. In one walk we meandered through the 14th century Old Town Square, crossed the ancient Charles Bridge with its 30-statue receiving line, and glimpsed into the dark hallway of Franz Kafka’s museum of 20th century dissonance.
I guess this mix of history describes other European cities too but what’s different about Prague is that its old buildings are in such great condition. Unlike Dresden, just 90 miles north, little bombing touched Prague during WWII; its buildings and streets are unscathed. It’s a bittersweet testimony though, because Czechoslovakia was bloodlessly handed over to Nazi Germany in 1938 in the Allies’ attempt to appease Hitler. Then, when Prague was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, its freedom was short-lived. Just a few years later the country became a Communist satellite state of the Soviet Union.
The Czechs lived for 40 years under the heavy hand of a totalitarian regime until 1989, when 10 days of protest led to the city’s second liberation. Called the Velvet Revolution it, too, was bloodless only this time it led to democracy.
So, the city streets thrill with an exhilarating energy that feels hellbent on making up for lost time.
Terezin Survivor’s Story Imagine then our climb onto a tour bus one early morning midway through our stay. We anticipated a respite from entrepreneurial fever and a sobering ride to Terezin, the ruins of a Nazi camp. Greeted efficiently by a crisp tour guide she matter-of-factly described our destination: an ancient fortress converted into a prison by the Gestapo. A 45-minute drive outside of Prague. Restrooms available when we arrive. Cafes near the town square.
She then introduced us to a surprise escort, a survivor from Terezin, an older gentleman named Pavlov. As the bus moved through the city and then accelerated onto the highway, the guide turned the microphone over to Pavlov and he began his speech in Slavic-accented English.
“I was in Terezin for three years,” he began. “Then I was sent to Auschwitz. I was 15-years-old when I came home to Prague.”
Suddenly, he asked, “Does anyone speak Italian? French? I like to practice my languages.” No reply. “Spanish?” From the back of the bus my husband called out, “Si!” “Ahhh, good! I can practice with you later!” Pavlov replied through the mic.
While the bus trundled along the highway, Pavlov quoted statistics: 140,000 Jews passed through Terezin, 33,000 died there and 88,000 were sent on to Auschwitz. He explained how the Gestapo had set up Terezin as a transit camp, a designation for affluent and well-educated Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The prison displayed a charade of so-called banks and shops. Fake shower rooms were installed with plumbing that never worked.
The Gestapo’s intent was to use Terezin as a ruse to display “civil” living conditions for Jews, especially to foreign visitors like the American Red Cross, fooled on their visits as late as 1945.
The prisoner population of artists, musicians and writers generated a rich cultural life - supported by the Nazi’s to present a facade of normalcy.
As Pavlov talked the bus passed by neat rows of farm fields and patches of peaceful woods. He continued quietly, his English broken from time to time, “Many children were housed in Terezin. Although I arrived with my parents and sister, I was separated from them and lived in a dormitory for boys aged 10- to 15-years-old. We slept three, sometimes four to a bunk. The bunks were stacked in fours, you couldn’t sit up straight.” He described scarce food, threadbare clothing, avoiding guards. The description was sobering, yes, but there was something else about his voice that felt strange and out-of-place to me.
The tour bus swung a wide turn and scrunched through the gravel of a broad parking lot before shuddering to a stop. Ahead lay the grey walls of Terezin’s main fortress. We single-file spilled out of the bus and into the warm sun. The group shuffled forward.
“Buenos dias!” my husband greeted Pavlov’s back. “Buenos dias!” he turned cheerfully. Up close Pavlov’s age was tough to pinpoint. He wore a loose, faded shirt and tilted a full head of snow-white, messy hair. His blue eyes danced. “De qué país eres?” he asked (What country are you from?). “Cuba!” replied my husband. “Ah, Cuba! Yo viví ahí! (I lived there!)
Then they were off in an easy conversation in Spanish, walking unhurriedly side-by-side. Some of the other tourists lingered but hearing only Spanish made their way ahead to catch up to the official tour guide. My daughter and I picked up the pace too, leaving the two men to stroll and laugh in their own conversation, trailing behind the group.
As I listened to the cadence of their voices behind me I suddenly knew what had felt strange. Pavlov’s face, his eyes, his voice, crinkled with being unburdened. On the bus he hadn’t minced words in his descriptions. His accounts of Terezin life illustrated cruelty. But he seemed light. Unencumbered.
Where was his grief? His entitlement to sympathy?
Even standing in front of a wall inscribed with the names of those that died in illness at the camp, he shared that it was decades later that he’d read the name of his sister on the wall, confirming what he’d suspected. He shared the story gently.
Pavlov puzzled me.
I remember recalling another Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. He is known for his book Man's Search for Meaning. He, too, spent three years in concentration camps, and his entire family perished. Later I looked up his book and found, “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them...When we are not able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He felt that every person has a responsibility to choose “the way in which he bears his burden.”
In the case of Pavlov I witnessed a man who I’d expected had every right to be bitter and burdened with grievances; yet, found the opposite: Lightness.
Back at the hotel my husband pieced together more of Pavlov’s story. Pavlov had returned to Prague as an orphan (his parents died in Auschwitz). Without money, family or even former neighbors he lived for a while on handouts until finding a government job. The work led to intense language study and then for decades travels to Italy, Peru, Cuba -- Pavlov was a bit evasive and my husband guessed it was likely he’d worked for the Communist Party. Many years later Pavlov returned to Prague to retire.
I won’t ever know his particular journey; I can readily imagine there could be parts of his life story that are unsympathetic. Yet, I do know, at least by one morning’s encounter, he served as an example of someone who honored the past but had found a way to release its burden. Or as Frankl says, “ Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
The beauty of choice is a fresh start.