Family Book Club: Learning Empathy Through Holocaust Memoirs

By 13 year-old Cuda, 10 year-old Zoe, and Mom

How do we begin to understand the pain of others?

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Steve Feuer, president of Gihon River Press, sent three memoirs to provide insight into the pain of Holocaust victims. While Holocaust remembrance has come and gone (January 27th), what is still very much needed is to grow compassion for the horrors of genocide, both then and now. Here is highlights of our family book talk — each of us read one memoir and described moments where we felt compassion and struggled to figure out how people can be so brutal to one another.

Question 1: Where did you feel the most emotion?

Zoe: When the 2 year old son Hanrie and the mother Anna died. They were shot in the head by the Nazi soldiers. On page 46 of Ursula’s Prism, “My baby, please! And when she was just a few feet from her precious destination, the soldier aimed his rifle and shot her. Hanrie’s little body jerked and Ursula could hear his stifled sobbing. Then the one soldier, the first to let his dog attack, walked over to little Hanrie. With a broad smile on his face, he pulled out his gun, laid it directly on Hanrie’s head, and fired. And then all the soldiers laughed.” This passage made me feel that the soldiers liked killing people.

Cuda: They found humor in the death of others. That’s just cold. Part of this is because they were brainwashed by Hitler.

Mom: But at the same time, Hitler wasn’t around in this moment and many other moments of killing in cold blood.

Cuda: They were just trying to please their dictator.

Zoe: But what they did is pure evil.

Mom: But why were so many soldiers and German citizens willing to do these atrocities?

Cuda: I guess the soldiers did it for their own safety. In my book Bitter Freedom, Hitler was worried that the Jews were planning to overthrow the king (meaning him based on a biblical story in the Torah), so Hitler thought that whatever atrocities he authorized was for the good of homeland.

Zoe: Maybe something terrible happened to the soldiers when they were growing up. You have to be pretty messed up to actually enjoy hurting people.

Cuda: The book I read Bitter Freedom described a family who dug a hole for four weeks so that they could hide out to avoid being captured. They lived in the hole for 22 months — a space where they could not stand upright, crawling around on their knees with their company of rats, bugs, and mice. They slept during the day and quietly talked and listened to the radio at night.

On page 94, “We were in an earthen box. 1.9 meters long and 1.4 meters wide. It was no more than 1.2 meters high at its highest point. We hadn’t stood up in all that time. On our knees, our heads almost hit the ceiling. We never stretched out our legs because there was no room. Two people could lie north to south in the center and two east to west at either end. No one could stretch out their legs.”

Question 2: How do you survive something that awful?

Zoe: I could probably only live down there for about two hours.

Cuda: The father and mother felt comfort that their daughter was safe above ground and that gave them strength to see her again. They also had such determination to live. They already survived the work camps and concentration camps.

Mom: My book, Amidst the Shadows of the Trees, the little girl learned to survive through discipline and skill. On page 25, her mother said, “Do whatever you must to stay alive.” But this had an impact on such a little girl. On page 21, Miriam said: “I was by now fairly disciplined in hiding my emotions. This does not mean I didn’t feel them; I had just become more adept at controlling them. Living so close to death made dying a part of living.”

Zoe: That makes sense because in my book death was everywhere. The five children in my book, they were unable to walk, couldn’t remember the last time they ate, and were making preparations to die until they were saved by the British.

Cuda: In my book too, even once they were freed from the hole, they were broken people — yellow, bloated, suffering from diseases and nightmares.

Question 3: Where did they find comfort? Was their any sweetness in the stories?

Zoe: When all of the girls were ordered to get undressed to take a shower, Ursula whispered to her mother that she had brought her mother’s crystal necklace “to see things in a different way”(38). The prism rainbows bring color and light. This was the necklace that Ursula carried with her throughout the war with a possession that belonged to her mother or father.

Mom: Miriam, the little girl, became friends with another little girl. We played an unusual game — collecting paper labels from bottles and cans and trading them like children in America trading baseball cards (19).

Cuda: When the parents were in the concentration camp, they heard news from the caretaker of the daughter that she was very much alive and doing well. “Tears of happiness choked us and I couldn’t say a word. I only wanted to hug and kiss him but too many eyes were upon us and I stood very still” (42-43).

Question 4: How does this connect to the world we are living in now?

Zoe: A lot of people want to be the rulers of the world and it makes them do awful things like killing people. Some people say you fight fire with fire — but love is not the answer. When people are doing terrible things, you have to put a stop to it.

Cuda: How do you stop pure evil? Kindness and respect will help rather than just obliterating everyone. Diplomatic efforts as well as teaching children to grow up and imagine a better world continues to make the different. Mahtma Ghandi once said “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

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