May 2, 2011

The Power of Perspective

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Monday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as I reflect on the meaning of the holiday, I’m taken back to a freezing cold day in Poland nearly two years ago. I’ve never cried like I did that day, sitting in the Belzec death camp where nearly half a million Jews were slaughtered during World War II. And now, two years later and thousands of miles away from those blood-stained fields, the lessons I learned from that fateful week in Poland remain as relevant as ever.

I was one of about 300 students on a trip to Poland to see firsthand the atrocities of the Holocaust and to learn about events that, even as I try and describe them now, seem wholly incapable of being described. I can’t describe that smell in Auschwitz, or the pile of human ash that remains as an all too real reminder of the genocide that occurred, or the gas chambers I entered and, unlike so many before me, exited. I can’t describe what it was like to sit alone in a field where half a million people were murdered and cry uncontrollably. And I certainly can’t do justice to describing what it was like to share the experience with a living testimony to the horror, Mr. Howard Kleinberg.

Kleinberg is a survivor in the truest sense of the word. His story, like many other survivors of the Holocaust, is nothing short of a miracle. After subsisting on meager rations, escaping death multiple times and contracting typhus, he was forced to drag human corpses through frozen fields and dump them into mass graves in the Nazis’ attempt to “hide” their atrocities. When he was liberated, Kleinberg laid down in the fields of his hell to die. His goal was to see the Nazis defeated; once accomplished, there was nothing else to live for. Thankfully, a woman saved his life and, in a story fit for the big screen, later became his wife. Sixty-four years since last stepping foot in his native Poland, Kleinberg wrote another chapter in the extraordinary book that is his life by returning to Poland with us young adults. He cried, sang and laughed. And when he spoke, all 300 people listened.

Kleinberg spoke many times, but one instance stands out from the rest. On the Sabbath day he gave us these simple words of advice: be happy with your lot. To hear a man who lost much of his family say those words sent chills through my spine. As I sat there, remembering him dance and sing just a few days earlier in the cattle cars that once took him to Auschwitz, he moved me in a way few people ever have. And at that moment, Howard Kleinberg taught me the lesson of perspective.

I realized that many things I considered important and significant were embarrassingly not so.  My pedestrian concerns — whether about schoolwork, internships, relationships, etc. — seemed wholly self-indulgent. Here at Cornell, that’s a lesson I try to carry with me. It’s all too easy to get swept up in our own concerns and to forget that, in the scheme of things, the grade we got on that last paper really isn’t that important.

But for me, the lessons of the Holocaust go far beyond that. In his unbelievably powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl chronicles his experiences in the Holocaust and outlines his theory of logotherapy. He argues that everything can be taken from a person but his or her ability to choose how to react to the situation at hand. And in choosing how to respond, individuals have the opportunity to find meaning. The search for meaning, Frankl claims, was a powerful mechanism for those who survived the Holocaust, citing the refrain from Nietzsche, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

As we honor the 6 million who were murdered in one of the greatest of human tragedies, I try and remember Mr. Kleinberg’s and Mr. Frankl’s messages. We should remember that we always have the freedom to decide how to respond to the challenges we face. And in light of this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us stop for a moment to say thank you for all we have and to reflect on whatever it is that gives meaning to our lives.

Nathaniel Rosen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nar55@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen