So What Next? - Three Tips to Finding Meaning in an Uncertain World - Wisdom from the Depths of Hell
Two hands reaching for one another inside the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
Rabbi Professor David Halivni was a twinkly, funny and charismatic old man when I met him in the Autumn of 2015. However, as a young teenager he had found himself standing in front of Dr Joseph Mengele, the infamous camp doctor at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and selected for work on his arrival at that camp. The rest of his family perished in the gas chambers.
Subsequently transferred to Dora-Mittelbau, the camp attached to the V1 and V2 rocket factory built into a mountainside in central Germany, he was liberated by US troops on 11 April 1945.
The inmates at Dora-Mittelbau were treated in a brutal and inhumane manner, working 14-hour days and being denied access to basic hygiene, beds, and adequate rations. Around one in three of the roughly 60,000 prisoners who were sent to Dora-Mittelbau died. However, the day of liberation raised as many questions for Halivni as it answered. Yes, he was free. The gates of the camp had been opened by American soldiers, but were they his true liberators? And what did his freedom mean in the light of such loss and destruction?
Halivni’s answers to those two questions provide essential wisdom for all of us living this complicated human existence, because they force us to face our own power and our own authority over ourselves, but they also help us to understand the limitations of that power and how we can support one another in living healthy, happy lives.
David Halivni’s answer to the question as to the identity of his true liberator was to realise that it had always been himself. As another holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl put it, ‘One can endure anything with a strong enough why.’.
Halivni’s answer to the question about meaning, or to put it another way, the nature of his ‘why’ is enlightening and illustrated by another story of his time in Dora.
A fellow inmate, a Mr Finkelstein, noticed that an SS guard was eating a sausage wrapped in a greasy piece of parchment that turned out to be a fragment (brekl in Yiddish) of the Talmud scroll from a synagogue. Finkelstein approached the guard and bravely asked for the brekl. Amazingly, the guard allowed him to have it. Seeing it as an essential connection to his faith and his community, Finkelstein kept the filthy piece of parchment in his underwear until he collapsed and died and was cremated along with the brekl. For Halivni, despite the destruction of the brekl, Finkelstein had been a beacon of hope in the shape of human contact with a community, a worldview and a ‘why’.
So on 11 April 1945, Halivni knew that the meaning of his liberation was found in himself and in his connection to his ‘Tribe’, his people, his community. And that is true for us too!
Whatever it is you are seeking liberation from, whether it be lockdown, a bad relationship, an unfulfilling or life-draining job, here are some tips based on the experience of David Halivni.
Know your own power: No one can rob you of your innermost liberty unless you let them. If you ever feel like a victim, you are only ever the victim of your own thoughts.
Know your values and find your Tribe. If you are not living in line with your core values, you will die from the inside out. Find people who share those values, love you for being you and will support and uphold you on the bad days.
Know and love your story. The brekl must have been in a pretty vile state when it accompanied Mr Finkelstein to the crematorium, but it was a symbol of his story. However shopsoiled or grubby, frustrating or disappointing your story seems to be, it is your story and it has brought you to today and to reading this article.
So, the gates of the camp lie open before you, the Spring sunshine warms your face, and the same question faces you as faced David Halivni on April 11 1945, ‘What am I going to do in the next 10 minutes?’