M i c a h  R u b e n s t e i n
Suffering & The Human Spirit:

"If there is a meaning to life at all, then there must be a meaning to our suffering."
Viktor Frankl


Photograph | Auschwitz

M i c a h  R u b e n s t e i n
Suffering & The Human Spirit

Editor's Note: This is the transcript of a talk originally given at Kenyon College as part of their Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies. It has been given at colleges and universities throughout North America, and became the basis of a television program produced by Grail Foundation Press for their "Knowledge For Life" series, and aired nationally over Wisdom Television.

Elie Wiesel, in his Holocaust testimony Night, wrote that he was part of a group of male prisoners required to march for many hours during heavy snow in order to get to a camp called Gleiwitz. Such marches were typical for concentration camp prisoners, many of whom had no coats or shoes. He said that at every few feet someone collapsed and died. Once they arrived at the camp, everyone who made it was shoved into a small shed and collapsed in a heap. Some died right on the spot. Bodies fell on top of each other, some dead, some living. Sometimes a living person was covered by several dead bodies. In order to get some air, the living man had to dig his way up through the bodies piled on top of him. Then Wiesel said:

Beneath our feet someone let out a rattling cry:
"You're crushing me ... mercy!"

A voice that was not unknown to me.
"You're crushing me ... mercy! mercy!"

Suddenly I remembered. Juliek! The boy from Warsaw who played the violin...
"Juliek, is it you?"

"Yes...," he said, in a feeble voice... "I'm getting on all right ... hardly any air ... worn out. My feet are swollen. It's good to rest, but my violin ..."

I thought he had gone out of his mind.
"What, your violin?"

He gasped.
"I'm afraid ... I'm afraid ... that they'll break my violin ... I've brought it with me."

I could not answer him. Someone was lying full length on top of me, covering my face. I was unable to breathe, through either mouth or nose. This was the end--the end of the road. A silent death, suffocation.

I was thinking of this when I heard the sound of a violin. The sound of a violin, in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped on the living. What madman could be playing the violin here, at the brink of his own grave?

It must have been Juliek.

He played a fragment from Beethoven's concerto. I had never heard sounds so pure. In such a silence. It was pitch dark. I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek's soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings--his lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again.

I do not know for how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled, a strange overwhelming little corpse.

Today I'd like to talk about suffering and the human spirit. But why did I start with a story from the Holocaust? Letting the voices speak for themselves of those who suffered during a period like the Holocaust, really listening to what they have to say, can give us clues for coping with suffering in our own lives. After all, the true value of looking at any historical period is to hear what it has to say to us as individuals today.

While a prisoner, Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who was fighting for France and was captured and sent to Stalag 8A, in Görlitz, wrote a piece of music called "Quartet for the End of Time." It was also premiered in the stalag. The full work is for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. This is an odd combination of instruments for a quartet, but these were the only ones available in the Görlitz stalag. Furthermore, the old, upright piano they found was out of tune, and had several keys missing. Likewise, the cello was missing a string, and the clarinet also had some missing keys. Messiaen wrote his work for these specific defective instruments, making sure to avoid any notes that were unplayable. He also wrote it for the capabilities of the specific performers who were fellow prisoners. Messiaen could have decided that since the instruments were defective, he wouldn't write anything. He could have written a quartet for a traditional combination of instruments. But he didn't; he moved forward with what he had.

I believe that the essence of being an artist is the quest to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a human being?" And as an artist myself, those images, the music and the stories about Juliek and Messiaen, have a great deal of meaning for me in my life today. But I don't think this quest to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a human being?" is limited to artists.... it gnaws at all of us at some point or other in our lives.

We all know what suffering is: it's the bearing or undergoing of pain, distress, or injury. And we also know that it's something we each have to face periodically. But some of us seem to have to face it more frequently than others. And some, as did Juliek and those in the Holocaust, have to face suffering more severely.

But what is the human spirit? Dr. Richard Steinpach in a work called Why We Live After Death says:

The real human being is not his or her body. To assume so would be like failing to differentiate between the driver of a vehicle, and the vehicle itself.

And just as a vehicle wears out in time, so does our body. Yet our spirit--like the driver of the car-- lives on past the life of the vehicle. Steinpach continues:

There's within us something that's capable of being conscious of itself, which can think about itself and distinguishes us from animals. This something can intuitively perceive joy and sorrow, love and hate, and also abstractions such as art, beauty, and sublimity. And this expression 'intuitively perceive' touches precisely upon what is actually human within us. This actual humanity is the spirit! It's our true essence. Its voice, its language, through which it makes itself known, is the intuitive perception. It's that welling up that doesn't depend on external sensory stimuli, but flows forth spontaneously from the innermost depth of our being.

There was an interesting phenomenon in the camps that on the surface seems paradoxical: the less physically hardy prisoners usually survived camp life better than did those of a more robust nature. But if you understand that our true core, our essence, is the spirit within us, not our bodies, then this is no longer a paradox. The less physically hardy prisoners, those people of a more delicate and sensitive nature, tended to have richer inner lives. Though they might have suffered physically more, there tended to be less damage to their spirit, so they could cope more readily to camp life. This clearly indicates to us the importance of developing a rich, inner life, especially as we strive to deal with our own trials.

There's a story about a very large, strong man--a wrestler--who, with a 120 other people, was crammed into a cattle car, part of a train on it's way to the Büchenwald concentration camp. The prisoners in this car had no food, water, or fresh air: they were only given a single bucket to be used as a toilet. This very strong man, who was accustomed to being able to control his physical environment, at first was furiously and blindly striking out with his fists at anybody within his reach. Then, when he realized he couldn't control his surroundings, he broke down sobbing like a child, and lay helplessly and weakly on the floor.

Contrast this with Auschwitz prisoner Pelagia Lewinska, who wrote:

At the outset the living places, the ditches, the mud, the piles of excrement, had appalled me with their horrible filth... And then I saw the Light! I saw that it was not a question of disorder or lack of organization but that, on the contrary, a very thoroughly considered conscious idea was in the back of the camp's existence. They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They wished to debase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity, to return us to the level of wild animals...

This recognition that Lewinska describes, the conscious realization that part of the Nazi's plan was to kill each Jews' spirit, not just their physical bodies, was a turning point for prisoners. It offered them a choice to either give up or to resist. As Lewinska continued:

From the instant when I grasped the motivating principle, it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. I felt under orders to live. And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being.

And this is what Juliek was saying to us through his music --through his courageous act of bringing his violin with him and playing in that cold, dark shed. He was determined to live or die on his own terms, as a true human being, retaining his dignity, his humanity, even in the worst of circumstances. All of these stories, are lessons for how to live as real human beings.

Jacques Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. He was fifteen at the time of the German occupation, and at sixteen had formed and was heading an underground resistance movement. This group, beginning with 52 boys, all under 21 years old, within a year had grown to 600. Even in less urgent times this would seem remarkable enough, but add to it the fact that from the age of 8, Lusseyran had been totally blind. In 1943, he was betrayed by one of the group members and spent 15 months in the Büchenwald concentration camp. He spent his time in the camp helping others: comforting them, listening to their fears, sharing his meager food rations, and holding their hands. He was an extraordinary man who died in 1971, and who truly believed that Büchenwald and his blindness were gateways for his spirit. His life was a testament to the joy that can exist in all of us. No conditions--not even the worst-- can kill such a joy for life.

What do these stories tell us about suffering and the human spirit? What can we learn from them for our own lives? Usually, when we're faced with suffering, or when looking at suffering on a larger scale, we have to deal with three questions. The first is: Why is this happening? The second is: How can I cope with the situation? And the third question is: What can I do in the future to minimize having to go through such pain?

When dealing with the first question: Why is this happening?, we tend to say something isn't fair or just when we can't see a reason for it, that is, when we can't see a connection between cause and effect. In our daily lives, if a crime is committed and the perpetrator goes to jail, we say that justice has been served: we clearly see the connection. But there are many times when we can't see the connection, and yet cause and effect, what might be called the Universal Law of Reciprocal Action, is still at play. Take for instance a company that dumps waste into a stream. The toxins are carried at the bottom of the stream bed several hundreds or even thousands of miles, only to resurface at a location far removed from the point of origin. Someone who's affected by these toxins may get sick without even knowing the cause for the illness: for that person, there is no connection as to the cause for the effect. And such a person can only wonder, "Why me?"

So it is with suffering. We can't always answer "why," but that doesn't mean there isn't a "why".... it just means that we can't see or understand the connection. In no way does it imply that there is no connection, or that it was just a random act. Unfortunately though, when people are in pain or distress without being able to see the reason for it, many will simply cry, "How can God allow such things?" But can we really blame God for the particular circumstances of our lives? Are we willing to view God as that capricious? If God is the Creator, then, like an artist, He stands outside of His Creation. How can we, who stand within Creation, since we are part of the created, ever presume to know what God intends? But is it also possible that at some level we intuitively sense, and this means with our spirit, that each experience, both painful and pleasant, is meant to serve a deeper purpose?

Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychologist who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, has said that "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." And since the real human being is spirit, not his or her body, then the true meaning of suffering must be significant for the spirit, even if to all outward appearances it's directed towards the physical body.

No one can say for sure exactly why another person or a whole people suffer. We can come up with plenty of intellectual theories and rationalizations for possible reasons, but that's the extent of it. And people certainly came up with such reasons for the suffering during the Holocaust: many Christians said the Jews were suffering because they killed Christ, and many orthodox Jews said they were suffering because they themselves hadn't kept God's Ten Commandments.

What we can say is that even if we can't tell "why" something is happening to us, we can still find meaning in our suffering. Dostoevski said, "There's only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my suffering." The way in which we accept our fate and all the suffering it may entail, in other words, the way we bear our cross, gives us ample opportunity, even under the most difficult circumstances, to add a deeper meaning to our lives. We can be brave, dignified, and unselfish, like Lewinska in Auschwitz, or like Jacques Lusseyran in Büchenwald. Or, we can forget our human dignity and become no more than an animal, like the wrestler in the cattle car.

And this leads us to our second question: how do we cope with suffering? First and foremost, we need to accept that for whatever reason--even if we don't know why-- we've been dealt a particular set of circumstances over which we have no control. The motto of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio is "Magnanimiter cruce sustinem," which translates, "Valiantly bear the cross." And the cross on the college shield is not the Latin cross, sometimes called the "cross of suffering." It's the radiating, equal-armed cross, called the "Cross of Truth." And this shield can be a reminder to us that although our physical, material circumstances may be out of our control, it's up to us as individuals whether or not to give up control over our inner life, in other words, whether or not to remain true to our spirits. Sometimes we feel that the situation is such that we have no choice: but this just isn't the case. Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. For Lewinska and Juliek, the choice was clear: they would not give up control over their spirits. They were each determined to live or die on their own terms and as human beings. In the camps, there were always choices to make: should you be kind to your fellow inmates, should you immediately eat the meager ration given to you, or should you try to space it out over the day, or should you get out of bed to go to the latrine. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether or not the prisoner gave in spiritually.

One of the things we learn from the Holocaust is that a sense of dignity is something we can't afford to lose. Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, went through a dialogue with himself about washing. He wondered, why should he wash? Would he be better off than he was if he did wash? And if he washed, would he live a day or an hour longer? Might not the effort of washing rob him of energy and warmth, and therefore perhaps even shorten his life? He finally concluded:

In this place it is practically pointless to wash every day in the turbid water of the filthy wash-basins for purposes of cleanliness and health; but it is most important as a symptom of remaining vitality, and [it is] necessary as an instrument of moral survival. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.

So a powerful way to cope with suffering is not to lose our dignity: we have the choice to wallow in self pity and smolder with bitterness, or to stride forward and face our trials with courage.

This striding forward, in spite of our circumstances, illustrates another principle or Universal Law that we must follow if we are, successfully, to cope with difficult situations: The Law of Motion. This natural Law simply states that without motion, or vibration, there can be no life. If you think about it, it's clear that everything in life is movement, from the orbit of the planets, to the smallest atoms and molecules, to the circulation of the blood in our bodies. In fact, physical death for us is the absence of motion in our bodies. But this Law of Motion is critical to us spiritually, as well as physically. In the camps, there were many prisoners who gave up hope. Since many of them couldn't see any future goal, they preoccupied themselves with thoughts of the past. On the surface, this made them feel better, because, like a drug, thinking about the past helped them to escape reality. Why do we become alcoholics or drug-dependent? It's often because we can't face reality... or, at least, we think we can't face it. But, when we don't face reality, there are certain dangers: we then miss the opportunity to grow by making something positive of our situation... and these opportunities really do exist. We forget that it's often an exceptionally difficult situation that gives us the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond ourselves. We forget that if we don't confront our situation directly, it will get worse, ultimately to come back at us ten times stronger than it would been had we had the courage to face the problem originally. Seeing one's situation as an opportunity for growth certainly takes courage, and in the camps--a place where the problems were extreme- only some were spiritually strong enough to reach great heights. Some of the prisoners, like Juliek, attained human greatness, even through their apparent worldly failure and death. And this was an accomplishment which, in ordinary circumstances, they might never have achieved.

We need to try to see suffering--which we already know is inevitable and therefore unavoidable--as an opportunity for transformation: an opportunity for spiritual growth. We do this by finding meaning to what is happening, and by choosing to make a victory of our experiences, thus turning life into an inner triumph. If we don't move forward, we will, according to the Law of Motion, stagnate, and if we continue to stagnate, we'll ultimately waste away. This phenomenon is seen clearly in elderly couples, where one spouse dies, and then the remaining spouse begins a steady decline. It's also seen in older men, in particular, who retire from their work, and then start to waste away, both physically and spiritually. These people have lost the will to live: they've lost meaning and purpose in their lives.

So it's important to choose to try to find some meaning to our suffering, even if we can't understand why we have to go through it. Last April, I did a live interview by phone on Wisconsin Public Radio, and I talked about suffering in the camps. After a commercial break, the host said that in the studio with him was Mr. Sam Neger, a survivor from Auschwitz, who would relate his story. Mr. Neger told in graphic detail about all of the atrocities to which he was subjected, and finished by saying that he hasn't slept a solid night for over 50 years, and his life has been ruined by what happened. The host then said, "Professor Rubenstein... what do you have to say about that to Mr. Neger?" I hadn't known that there would be any other guest on the program besides myself, so I was somewhat taken aback! I took a deep breath and congratulated Mr. Neger on the courage it must have taken for him to bear witness to the listening audience, and how important it was for him to be telling others, especially young people, about his experiences. Furthermore, I told him that I believed he was now, unlike his time in Auschwitz, in a unique position of power, and that this position was only possible because of the awful experiences he had to endure. He could talk about the Holocaust; and therefore how to cope with, and survive, suffering in a way that no one else except a camp inmate could. I told him that those of us who were not there in the camps needed him to bear witness, and others who were there but were stuck in bitterness and anger also needed him, so that by his example, they could also find a way to move forward. After some silence, the host then said, "Well, Mr. Neger... what do you have to say to Mr. Rubenstein?" And Mr. Neger replied, "I never looked at it like that before. I think the professor is right. There is a purpose to my life and a meaning to what I went through. I will go out now and talk. I have to."

This story illustrates that in order to cope with suffering, what's needed is a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We have to realize that it doesn't really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems, and to fulfill the tasks it sets for each individual. And these tasks differ from person to person, and moment to moment.

Another way that prisoners coped was through art. Shoshana Kalisch, an Auschwitz survivor, wrote that while she was a prisoner, poetry and songs were the strongest spiritual support to most inmates. She said:

They were the only means of expressing our sadness and grief, defiance and hope. When our spirits sank, the songs took over; they helped us to keep our faith that life held some meaning.

One of the many songs remaining from the Holocaust was called "Ten Brothers." The melody was a very popular old Yiddish folk song similar to our own "Ten Little Indians." The original song told the story of ten brothers who, one after another, die of cold, hunger, or other suffering. Martin Rosenberg, a Polish-Jewish musician, wrote new lyrics to the original melody during his imprisonment in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, where he was tortured upon his arrest. As soon as he recovered, he organized and conducted a clandestine chorus of twenty-five Jewish prisoners, who would perform secretly in the less closely guarded barracks where the political prisoners were held. When it became known that the Jewish prisoners of Sachsenhausen were to be transferred to Auschwitz, Rosenberg wrote a new version of "Ten Brothers," in which the ten brothers are murdered, one after the other, in the gas chambers. Rosenberg and his chorus were deported from Sachsenhausen to Auschwitz late in 1942. They all died in the gas chambers early in 1943. They marched to their deaths singing "Ten Brothers."

The very fact of singing helped Rosenberg and his choir have the courage to march bravely to their own deaths. And it must be stressed here that a prisoner's success cannot be measured by whether or not he or she physically survived: that was totally out of their control. Success can only be measured by how well they reacted, by how well they coped. For instance: Fanny Loria was an Auschwitz survivor who told of her two sisters who were with her in the camp. The younger sister was "selected" to go to the gas chamber, and was absolutely terrified. In an amazing act of love, the older sister offered to hold her hand and go with her to the gas chamber, even though she herself had not been selected. Did they physically survive? No. But did they successfully cope and retain their humanity? Absolutely. The older sister recognized, as did Juliek the violinist, that there was something more important than her physical existence. For her, that something was her selfless love for her little sister.

We've seen that maintaining our free will by choosing not to give up control over our spirits and by choosing to valiantly bear our cross, is one way to cope with suffering. We've also seen that engaging in art is another way to cope. But one needn't be a performer like Juliek and Martin Rosenberg. Simply participating as a listener or observer could suffice. When Juliek starting playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto, we have testimony from Elie Wiesel, one of the listeners, just how important hearing that music was. Who knows how many heaped in that dark, cold shed were also soothed by the music. Who knows how many left this life calmer because of it, and what a gift it was to those troubled spirits. Who knows how many prisoners were strengthened by hearing and seeing with what dignity Martin Rosenberg and his choir sang in the face of death while marching to the gas chamber.

And still another way to cope with our suffering, as evidenced in the camps, is to reach out beyond ourselves and help others in need. This is what Jacques Lusseyran and Fanny Loria's older sister did. This is also what Sam Neger learned to do just recently, and what countless other survivors of various tribulations do: they find meaning in their lives, meaning for their suffering, by volunteering to comfort others and by helping them to find meaning, as well. Anne Frank, when only 14 years old and in hiding with her family in Amsterdam, wrote: "A person who's happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery."

This finally brings us, then, to our third question: What can I do in the future to minimize personal suffering? The answer is simple: be alert and act decisively. It's highly probable that much of the Holocaust could have been avoided if only people had remained alert and cared enough to act. Hitler didn't achieve power overnight. Most Germans from that time didnt take him seriously: those in power thought he was a fanatic on the fringe of society, and hardly worthy of any attention. Hitler was arrested for treason early in his career, and could have received a sentence of execution or life in prison. Instead, he simply had to serve six months in jail, and then was released: he wasn't taken as a serious threat.

Likewise, Jews in German society at the time wielded a great deal of power, and could have used it, early on, to speak out against Hitler. But they didn't: they simply said it would "blow over," and things would return to normal. But then, once Hitler gained momentum for his cause of hatred, people began to fear for themselves. They were afraid to speak out. By their not staying alert and dealing with the problem when it was relatively small, they suddenly found themselves facing a much larger, much more powerful and menacing problem, one that was too much and too late for them to handle. It was as if Hitler's movement got enough momentum that it took on a life of its own, and had to lead to its natural conclusion. It got to the point where it could only be stopped by armed intervention.

There was a German Lutheran pastor who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps. While there, he wrote the following five short lines:

First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Communists, but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist, so I did not speak out.
And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The lesson here is to stay alert and speak out for what is right, in other words, to valiantly bear that Cross of Truth. It may seem easier to simply avoid problems, to get drunk or high, or to tell lies. But in every case when we do this, we're choosing to be untrue to our spirits, and because of the Universal Law of Reciprocal Action, the cause and effect that I mentioned early on, the consequences will come back at us ten-fold. A problem that could have been dealt with directly early on, with minimal, short-term suffering, can turn into a complex, powerful problem, with maximum, long-term suffering. It can even, as in the case of the Holocaust, turn into a World War with the loss of millions of lives.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died suddenly and tragically, the world was shocked. Englanders especially were numb, and not able to carry on well with their lives for many days. But her brother, the Earl of Spenser, courageously stepped forward and reminded the world about Diana's intuitive perception, the voice of the spirit. He said:

But your greatest gift was your intuition, and it was a gift you used wisely. This is what underpinned all your wonderful attributes. And if we look to analyze what it was about you that had such a wide appeal, we find it in your instinctive feel for what is really important in our lives.

Even though we'll never know "why" Diana died, we can still find meaning in her death, in spite of the tragedy. Our greatest gift as human beings is our intuition: all people have it, but we don't always use it wisely, we don't always listen to that little voice inside of us. That little voice is the voice of our spirit and it tries to warn us. It can sense danger long before our brains intellectually understand it. It's our intuition that says, for instance, that someone's words don't "ring true," or that something doesn't "feel" right. Being alert to these messages from our spirit and acting decisively when we hear them, is the best way to avoid suffering in the first place. But even if at first we don't listen to our little voice, and find ourselves in a very difficult situation, our intuitive perception will still be there for us. When Primo Levi struggled with the question of why washing was important, he was asking for help... his intellect couldn't come to a solution. But his answer came from his innermost being, his spirit, and told him why he had to wash every day: not to keep himself physically clean--that was impossible--but to keep himself morally alive: not to begin to die.

My hope is that we can honor the memory of the Holocaust, not only by never forgetting that it happened, but by listening to the voices of those who did not give up hope and who found a way, in the face of the most horrendous torments and suffering, to emerge triumphant as noble, dignified human beings. These role-models for our own lives give us proof that we, too, can choose to cope courageously and nobly with our own suffering, to find meaning for it, and to become better people because of it.