Learning from Memoir–Surviving Catastrophe and Loss

by  Renee Kimball

Memoir – noun:  a narrative composed from personal experience  – Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall  –  Abigail McCarthy

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –  Viktor E. Frankl

Thirty-five miles south of Austin Texas, is the small rural town where I have lived for over twenty years.  I am still considered an outsider—I was not born here, nor were my “people.”  In mid-January, local social community media posts were largely dismissive of the potential disaster headed our way.

The media had announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 19, 2020, in Snohomish County, Washington.  Central Texas was slow to acknowledge what was coming. *  Mid-February, stronger warnings in the air; March gusted full of tangy-tangible fear, and hoarding toilet paper became a joke-du-jour.

Then Central Texas’ Covid-19 cases mounted; Stay-At-Home orders followed.  The only entity that was prepared for the looming crisis was the Texas grocery chain H.E.B., and for that, all Texans must remain eternally grateful. ** One day it was garage-sale-car-wash-fund raising small-town normal, then just like that, the world melted.

Now mid-June, many seek an end to quarantine because we must save the economy, we are impatient, we are bored, the pandemic is a hoax, our liberties are being abridged, we are out of money, we can’t go on like this, this isn’t living, they say, people will die either way, a 1%-2% death rate is acceptable, or is it?

In the Southern states, the pandemic is not abating; the news says cases are rising.

People keep saying these are extraordinary times, we must be flexible and compromise, we must continue to stay home, the recovery will be slow, maybe after the summer.  Will schools be open in the fall?  No one knows for certain and people continue to sicken, and many, to die.

For some during times of stress, books offer comfort, friendship, and escape-they are a testament to survival.  Personal memoirs show how inner strength and perseverance can sustain the survivor.  Despite heartbreaking cruelty and immense loss for some, memoirs show that on the other side of great trauma, the sufferer can rise to thrive again.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956).  Elie Wiesel was an adolescent when his Jewish family was forced by the Nazis to take their fatal trip to the death camps.  Wiesel’s mother, father, and sister all died there.  Elie survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Night is the first of several books by Wiesel about the Holocaust, known as the Jewish Shoah.

In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work.  After living a full life of grace, love, and generosity, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87.  He is still quoted and revered today for his singular, razor-sharp intellect and life-long activism on behalf of Jews, Israel, and the oppressed everywhere.

“. . . Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. . .I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. . . Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney; these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” (Night, p. viii)

“. . . I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment; I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast. . . The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Night, p. 118)

“. . .And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” (Night, p. 118).

“. . .And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides. . .” (Night, p. 118).

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1985).  Unlike Wiesel, Victor E. Frankl was an adult with a medical degree when he was sent to the camps.  From his experience, Frankl derived his psychiatric theory of Logotheraphy, its foundational premise–man’s search for the meaning of life.

“. . . I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions even the most miserable ones.” (Frankl, p. 12).

“. . .This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs. . .nor well-known prisoners. . .Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. . .” (Frankl, p. 17).

“   In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. . .” (Frankl, p. 47).

“. . .In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. . .” (Frankl, p. 75).

Childhood by Jona Oberski (1978).  Oberski’s story is fictional, but drawn from his real-life Holocaust experience.  The narrator of Childhood is a four-year-old Jewish boy who lives in a concentration camp with his mother.  In life, Oberski was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at four years of age and released at age seven.  Both of Oberski’s parents died in the camps.  After liberation, a friend of his mother’s took Oberski to Amsterdam, where he was adopted.  The success of Childhood is the narrative’s sparseness, the childlike focus and intensity of his experience.

. . .His mother’s voice, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.” (Oberski, p. 1).

“. . .My father took me with him to his office.  My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy. . .” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . . A man was shouting, I woke up.  The door of my room was pulled open.  Somebody stomped in. . . . “Hurry, hurry, “the man yelled. “We’ve got to go; I have my orders.” He slung his gun over his shoulder and left the room. The gun banged against the door.” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . .Then we had to go outside.  All along the street there were people in black coats.  We had to follow them.  And behind us there were still more people. . .We go into the train. . .” (Oberski, p. 19).

“. . .Now listen carefully,” my mother said. I’m going to show you something without using my finger.  And you mustn’t point either.  And you mustn’t look that way too long.  Just do exactly as I say.  Look over my shoulder.  Do you see the watchtower?
“. . . That hut is the watchtower.  There’s a watchtower on every side of the camp. Didn’t you know that? (Oberski, p. 41).

Survival in Auschwitz The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi (1947).

Levi was 25 years old, a trained chemist, and a member of the Italian Resistance when taken prisoner by the German Reich.  Transferred numerous times, he landed in Auschwitz, staying there almost a full year before liberation.

Levi writes that his account was not to be used to add to the list of Nazi atrocities already reported, but as a study in human nature.  His story starkly reveals how effective the Nazi methods were in the systematic dehumanization of prisoners.

After the war, Levi returned to Turin, Italy, resumed his post as a chemist, moved into management.  In 1977, Levi retired to devote full-time to writing poetry and novels, and became a well-respected author.  Levi passed away in 1987; his writings remain influential even today.

“. . .As an account of atrocities, therefore, this book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . it should be able, rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.  (Levi, p. 9).

“Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’.  For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.  But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. . .” (Levi, p. 9).

“. . .I have never seen old men naked. . . shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! . . .Finally, another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked sheared and standing, with our feet in water—it is a shower room. . .” (Levi, ps. 22-23).

“. . .Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.  In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom.  It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more. . .” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . .They have even taken away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . . The days all seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.  For days now, we have formed teams of two, from the railway to the store-a hundred yards over thawing ground. . .” (Levi, p. 42).

Endings and Beginnings

America is not the first country, nor this generation the first, to face a catastrophe of momentous proportions–weighty words.  Like Levi’s days, the Covid-19 days “seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.”

When this is over, and we look back to the time of Covid-19, will we be like Wiesel, Frankl, and Levi, finding our language incapable of describing what we saw, what we did, the horror, the shock of what we experienced?  In the future, when we speak of quarantine, masks, hand-sanitizer, ventilators or  Personal Protection Equipment, will our voices catch?

What can we learn from what is happening to our country, the world, and everyone around us?  What are our responsibilities now and going forward?  Will we rally for change in healthcare? Will we face our responsibilities to ensure that this doesn’t happen again or will we forget?  What is our duty to ourselves our country?  Do we know?  We do know that Covid-19 does not discriminate, everyone equally vulnerable, a potential victim.

Like Wiesel, we must speak out against injustice where we can, and when able, to help one another in whatever capacity we can.  There are many hurting now; there will be many after.  We have to find a way to ensure the greater good of all before anything else–somewhere that lesson has been lost to us as a nation.  If we are to save ourselves, we must earnestly help everyone else, even those who would fight against our helping others.

And as Frankl clearly explains, any time, but particularly now, is the time for self-reflection, a time when “. . . any man can, . . . decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.” It is our time to build a rich inner life; if we are able, and are lucky enough, to shelter in place, or not, now is the time to look inward.  Ultimately, how we react, how we go forward, is up to each of us individually.

Lastly during this time of Covid-19, I give to each of you Levi’s words, if I know you or if I do not. . . To all of you the humble wish, That autumn will be long and mild.” (Levi, To My Friends).

(Italian) Benedizioni a te e alla tua famiglia  – Blessings to you and your family.

(Romanian) Binecuvântări pentru tine și familia ta. – Blessings to you and your family.

(German) Segen für Sie und Ihre Familie – Blessings to you and your family.

*

To My Friends 

Dear friends, and here I say friends
the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
|To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

– Primo Levi

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References

Images “Toilet Paper Basket” and “Corona Virus” via Pixabay
Images of book covers via Amazon.com

“Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?”

*First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States

**“Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” 

Logotherapy is a term derived from “logos,” a Greek word that translates as “meaning,” and therapy, which is defined as treatment of a condition, illness, or maladjustment. Developed by Viktor Frankl, . . logotherapy is the pursuit of that meaning for one’s life.

“Conavirus live updates”: Trump announces federal ‘blueprint’ for testing”

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them