At 85, my father is full of optimism and humor. You would never guess that at the age of sixteen he was a victim of the greatest atrocity of the 20th century. In the spring of 1944, he and his family were sent to Auschwitz. When they arrived, he was separated from his mother and two sisters. He and his father stood in line with the other men, eventually reaching SS officers who sent my father to the right and his father to the left. The next day, my father learned from a long-time prisoner that his father had surely been killed in a gas chamber.
My father was sent to a slave labor camp where he was forced to work on a railroad construction site. He spent most of his days carrying heavy steel rails up a hill, over and over again, from the first light of day until sunset. By the end of the summer he found that it took more strength to keep going than he thought he might have. He saw his struggle to survive as a battle he was fighting with the SS. If he gave in, then the Nazis would win. He did not want to give them this victory. If he stayed alive, then he would win. He was also resolute about returning home to his family. He worried about what would happen if his mother and sisters came home and he didn’t. This concern got him up off the cold ground every morning with his mind set on making it through another day.
This ability to turn a threat into a challenge is at the heart of resilience, and research in psychology finds that one’s mental attitude in the face of adversity has a significant impact on physical and mental well being. Of course, a positive attitude was not nearly enough to survive a death camp, and many strong, resilient people perished in the Holocaust. Luck was necessary as well, and a lot of it. A helping hand was also essential. For my father, this help came from an unexpected source.
One morning during roll call an SS sergeant walked up to my father’s section and yelled, “Which one of you young inmates speaks German?” Acting purely on instinct, my father raised his hand high into the air. He followed the officer, and saw a man waiting for him in a long leather coat. He panicked. What have I gotten myself into? The man had the dark and neatly dressed look of a Gesta po officer, and my father was sure he had made a very bad decision.
The man introduced himself and said that he was a civilian engineer who needed an assistant for his work. He explained that his job was to conduct a survey for a new road through the forest, and he wanted someone to help carry the equipment. My father immediately understood that this job would be much easier than his usual daily toil.
During their second day of working together, the engineer said to my father, “I can see what a horrible situation you are in, and I want to do something to help you.” He went on to say that he couldn’t help him outright because of the SS guards, but that he could obtain some food for him. He explained that there was a barracks in the woods, where he ate his lunch with the SS officers, and where he had hidden some food in a corner, under a bench. The building would be empty in the late afternoon.
At the end of the day, as they neared the perimeter of the camp, the engineer indicated the barracks. The building was dark and empty, and my father hurried to the far corner and looked under the bench. Chicken! Rice! He took some bites of the food and put the rest in his pock ets to share with his friends in the camp.
For the two extraordinary weeks that he worked with the engineer, my father supplemented his daily intake of stale bread and watery soup with food from the SS kitchen. As the days passed, he grew sturdier. The boost to his well-being was more than physical: the fact that this German cared about him, and was willing to take great personal risks to feed him, restored some of my father’s faith in other people.
When he was a sixteen-year-old prisoner, he knew full well that being assigned to work with the engineer was a tremendous stroke of luck. But it took some time for him to realize just how pivotal a role his benefactor had played. Af ter my father was liberated and could better weigh the impact various events had had on his ability to survive, he credited him with saving his life.
On Father’s Day, I am thankful to the brave man who became a temporary father to a teenager in a desperate situation. Further, I am thankful to have such a strong, resilient father who somehow managed to emerge from that terrible darkness to live his life with generosity and love.
I have watched my father talk to audiences about his Ho locaust experiences many times. He holds up well dur ing these talks, even though the events he is speaking about are very distressing. As soon as he is done, he bounces back to his usual good humor and wants to discuss dinner plans.
In every speech my father gives, he tells the story of the civilian German engineer in the long leather coat. He speaks of the cattle cars, the cruelty of the SS officers and the murderous selections without flinching. Decades after their final walk in the forest, it is the kindness shown to him by one man that forces him to stop speaking, lower his eyes and weep.
Dr. Jill Klein earned a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Michigan and is currently a business professor at Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne. In We Got the Water, Dr. Klein shares her family’s harrowing experience as prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp. We Got the Water (April 2013) is available at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.wegotthewater.com.