This week marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camps by the Red Army. The stories told by survivors are studies in human courage. Elie Weisel’s memoir about the erosion of human values among inmates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a result of Nazi brutality, Night, asks whether it is even possible for a virtuous person to understand the horror of the Holocaust: “Could men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there? Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?”
Weisel’s question asks us to consider whether virtuous people can understand evil, but it also asks us to consider how a world where virtuous norms have existed for centuries could have produced and tolerated such horrors. His implied answer—that sustained brutality turns even the most caring person into a selfish, angry survivor—is belied by the many instances of courageous generosity he documents. Despite the threat of death, many of the prisoners in Night still warn each other of immanent threat, pass along crucial information to newcomers, share strategies of survival, and keep others focused on the common good. One Polish prisoner in charge of a cellblock takes it upon himself to rally the disheartened inmates, exhorting them to look beyond themselves for comfort and strength: “[L]et there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive.”
But helping each other in such circumstances demands enormous courage. Courage—one of the cardinal virtues, according to Aquinas—is required not only to overcome the fears that might keep us from achieving our goals, but also to restrain us from recklessly pursuing them. The problem with this, of course, is that it is hard to know the difference between wise restraint and cowardly self-interest. Weisel is haunted in Night by his fear that self-interest kept him from his father’s side as he lay dying. He feels horribly guilty because, afraid that the Nazi beating his father will also beat him, he ignores his father’s call. His last image of looking in a mirror after the liberation of the camps and seeing a corpse looking back at him reflects his fear that the horrors he has endured have made him a creature evacuated of all humanity, a mere survivor.
How do we keep from being mere survivors? How do we know when we are acting for ourselves alone, or acting so we might live another day and make the world better?
As the Russians rolled in, camp guards began evacuating inmates and burning evidence of the Final Solution. Weisel writes about how surviving resistance members in the camps acted together to stop the Germans from killing the rest of the survivors:
“We returned to the block. On our way there, we learned that the underground resistance of the camp had made the decision not to abandon the Jews and to prevent their liquidation . . .
At ten o’clock in the morning, the SS took positions throughout the camp and began to herd the last of us toward the Appelplatz.
The resistance movement decided at that point to act. Armed men appeared from everywhere. Bursts of gunshots. Grenades exploding. We, the children, remained flat on the floor of the block.
The battle did not last long. Around noon, everything was calm again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the camp.” –Weisel, Night
Great courage can exist in surviving. As we learn from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum site, surviving the camps was crucial to an organized resistance movement. The site tells us about one survivor, Witold Pilecki, who used the name Tomasz Serafiński to infiltrate Auschwitz and set up a resistance network initially linking the Polish underground to Poles imprisoned in the camp (later, the resistance expanded to include prisoners of all nationalities). Pilecki let himself be caught by the German police during a roundup in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, and he reached Auschwitz on September 22, 1940. The network smuggled out news about SS crimes, set about preparing the camp to join the fight, and boosted the morale of camp inmates by providing news, food, clothing, medicine, and help with escapes.
Pilecki’s courage and selflessness saved many lives at Auschwitz. Because of him and others like him, Weisel was able to tell the world what happened there. In a second preface to Night, he wrote: “Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘the response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is ‘response’ in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, ‘responsibility’ is the key word.” As we think about self transcendence this week, we are reminded that it takes courage to go on in the darkness, and that tomorrow becomes possible because we feel a responsibility to others, a camaraderie that is, as Weisel’s Polish prisoner reminds us, the only way to survive.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.