After two years in Auschwitz, and having survived two death marches, 15-year old Hugo Gryn and his father were imprisoned in a Nazi forced labour camp near Lieberose, in Germany. Although maybe they didn’t know it yet, it was the last days of World War Two and they, along with the other captives, were starving. On the first night of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, they huddled around an improvised nine-branched candelabrum and tried to light it, using a smear of fat from their paltry food allocation. It wouldn’t take.
Hugo Gryn, later to become a rabbi well known for his wisdom and tolerance, recalled the incident in his autobiography, Chasing Shadows. He had angrily accused his father of wasting the vital calories in the fat and remembered his father replying, “Don’t be so angry—you know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live three minutes without hope.”
When I heard this powerful anecdote retold on the radio recently, another, equally powerful, came into my mind. Edith Eger recounts it in her book, The Choice. She tells, amongst other things, of her own experience of being taken as a teenager to Auschwitz, where she was imprisoned with her sister Magda. When freezing winter came, the inmates were issued coats of varying quality, which were flung at them with no regard for size or fit. Magda was lucky enough to receive a long, thick coat, which buttoned to the neck. Yet she rushed to exchange it for a flimsier, more becoming one. As Eger describes it, “For Magda, wearing something sexy was a better survival tool than staying warm. Feeling attractive gave her something inside, a sense of dignity more valuable to her than physical comfort.”
For me, both these stories vividly illustrate how human beings can sometimes still manage to put above physical needs emotional nourishment that carries meaning, even when in extreme duress. It is telling, perhaps, that all four did survive the war—Edith and Magda were among just 100 people who survived the death march that they were forced to embark on, originally setting out with 2,000 others.
These stories make me think of a Mulla Nasrudin story, retold by writer Idries Shah, who has brought Sufi understandings to Western culture in a large body of work.
The Mulla had one day gone to market and bought a very tasty-looking piece of meat. Proud of his purchase, he was even more pleased when he met a friend who gave him a recipe that would enable him to cook it to perfection. Then, suddenly, a crow swooped down, seized the meat and flew off with it in its beak. The Mulla yelled angrily after the crow and then thought to inform it, “You may have taken the meat but it won’t do you much good. Because I’ve got the recipe!”
Stories, as Shah shows us, give us patterns for seeing things differently. If the tales are humorous, we might at first just enjoy the punchline. Only later when conditions enable us to see them, might other layers of meaning reveal themselves.
Many decades ago, as a young person distressed by the inequalities in the world and active in local campaigns for this or that, I went to a public meeting where local council representatives attempted to answer people’s concerns about inadequate services in the urban, somewhat deprived, area in which we lived. We were told that, amongst its plans, the council was going to plant trees along residential streets where, currently, there were none.
“What?!” roared one audience member after another, “What a waste of time and money when there are potholes to fill and illegal waste dumping needs stopping and homes need repairs” and so on and so on. I was fully with them. And then someone stood up and said that greenery would lift the spirits of all who lived, often not by choice, in our concrete jungle.
In that moment, some scales fell from my eyes. I could see that, yes, it was important to clear blocked drains and remove graffiti from stairwells and get rid of mould—but trees would endure long after we had gone, along with their gift to the spirits. And all these years later, it has now been scientifically shown that living on a tree-lined street is calming, good for general wellbeing and reduces depression.1
It is apposite, perhaps, that the expression ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ describes missing the big picture—however vital (sometimes in its literal sense) the requirements of prevailing circumstances may appear to be.
Denise Winn is a writer, journalist and psychotherapist. She is author of The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning and Indoctrination, editor of Human Givens Journal and a human givens practitioner.