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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Human Spirit in the Shadow of Death

Central Theme for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day 2006

by Dr. Havi Ben-Sasson


During WWII, European Jewry was faced with a constant fight for its very survival. At a time when murder became the norm, and power endorsed unprecedented atrocities, many were swept away, unable to endure the perpetual struggle or adhere to the moral code of human society. Yet even under such dire conditions there were those who risked their lives — deliberately and intentionally — for higher values, including educating children, maintaining religious values and traditions, and sustaining centuries-old cultural activities. An examination of the humane responses in the face of the Holocaust, while understanding the reality in which they took place, emphasizes the spiritual fortitude individuals and communities had to find in order to maintain their human spirit in the shadow of death.

One phenomenon that testifies to an impressive level of spiritual survival was the efforts made by Jews to document their lives in the ghettos and camps. Artists, intellectuals, children and ordinary people, wrote and drew, documenting the fear and crisis that pervaded Jewish society. This not only enabled them to rise above the humiliations and injuries they suffered, but also sometimes to alert the free world to the reality of their lives. Even in the camps, one finds evidence of activity through which the prisoners could — if only in their imaginations — transcend the barriers of their status and the surrounding camp environment. While only a few participated in these activities, their importance lies not in their quantity but in the strength of character needed for their fulfillment amid a reality of persecution and humiliation.

The predatory conditions in Eastern and Western Europe naturally resulted in most people withdrawing from society, concentrating on their own needs and that of their immediate families. Yet many Jews mobilized to assist those weaker than them, establishing mutual aid and welfare organizations. In the camps, helping others often became a matter of life and death, accompanied by difficult moral dilemmas. By assisting another person — whether with food, clothing, or work — one potentially jeopardized his own chance of survival. However, many Jews placed themselves in grave danger in order to save the lives of others, among them Jewish partisan units, who rescued non-combatants, women, and the elderly, and those who tried to protect the children and their special world in ghettos and camps. Similarly, despite their obvious powerlessness vis-à-vis German military might, the armed underground still mustered the strength to act and rebel. Unfortunately, not all those who succeeded survived the hell that was the Holocaust, but their actions nonetheless bear witness to the power of the human spirit.

It is important to stress that the Holocaust took place in the heart of Christian Europe and before the eyes of millions of others. In many cases, hatred and persecution of the Jews became the accepted norm; those who tried to aid the Jews had to act in opposition to the expectations of their surrounding society. The capability of a single individual to act according to moral principles even when public norms have completely collapsed should not be underestimated. Non-Jews who endangered their own lives — and at times the lives of those closest to them — are an impressive exception to the behavior exhibited by so many others. The actions of these Righteous Among the Nations is a constant and exalted testament to human courage.

Our knowledge of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators also raises serious questions concerning the depths to which human behavior can sink. At the same time, these horrors shed light on the highest peaks of action and self-sacrifice reached by the victims and others in the midst of those darkest of days. Today, 60 years after the end of the Shoah, we are obliged to grapple with expressions of humanity demonstrated then, their moral influence on people and societies, and the strength of spirit of those who lived in an inhumane world — and prevailed.

The author works in the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies.