Over Coffee: A Holocaust Survivor
I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, yesterday...
Was sitting outside one of my Starbucks, here in Stamford, just outside of NYC, yesterday, doing my morning journaling to a bit of Led Zeppelin in my ears, when an older fellow came out of the shop with his cane and his coffee in hand. There were no other seats available, so I offered the second seat at my table. I had seen this gentleman the day before and had nodded when he and his wife got up to leave and walked by me, thus it was only right to offer him a place to sit today.
He accepted, and we spent a few minutes chatting, which was somewhat strained, because he had a thick accent. Well, to jump to the conclusion, he and I sat and talked for over an hour and his wife joined us, at one point, after she had done her morning walking. This man, Harry Weinruth, who was celebrating his 87th birthday, WAS A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR. He revealed it in the first five minutes of talking. This, of course, immediately caused me to pull out my earbuds and offer him my full attention.
Now, technically, this was not a once-in-a-lifetime for me. Once prior, while pastoring a church in California and having a joint Passover/Easter service with a nearby synagogue, I met a very old woman who had been in a camp and even showed me the numbers burned into her arm from her time there. Additionally, while working in L.A. many years ago for a high-end caterer, I worked a few events for the SHOAH Foundation (committed to preserving the stories of all Holocaust survivors on film or other media), including Steven Spielberg's annual fundraisers, at which I was the server for Spielberg's table (which afforded me some fascinating stories, not the least of which is one that gave me great respect for the actor Mike Myers) and served survivors.
But yesterday's conversation was unusual for its length and for the fact that Harry and his wife, Luba, were most forthcoming. Harry, who had moved to Germany after the war, at the age of 18, and had apprenticed outside of Munich for five years with a watchmaker there, then moved to the U.S. and had lived in Stamford, CT, for some 60+ years. And this 87 year-old was absolutely adamant in telling me that if anyone said they had problems, they should come and talk to him. For every day of his life, he has been a happy man, even though every day of his life he has had the memory of one night, 75 years ago, when he lost his entire family -- mother, father, and five siblings.
I did not ask him about that night, in particular, but he told me that his father had been a successful jeweler in a city in Poland near the Germany border, and in one night they lost everything and he lost them. All dead in one night. Boom. Done. Life as he knew it was done, gone, in one night. Everything. Gone.
Think about that, for a minute. These aren't just stories; this was a man's life, a man who was sitting across a table from me drinking his Starbucks, a man who at one point wiped his lips after taking a sip and part of his napkin stuck to his lip when he pulled his hand away, as it might on any of us. A man like any one of us, yet a man who had been to hell and lived it for six years....and a lifetime since.
Hmmmm. Powerful, powerful stuff.
I asked which concentration camp he was in. He said many, including Buchenwald and Dachau. And in the camps, at ages 12-18, he became an expert at stealing potatoes, sneaking out each night to do so. "Would you keep the potato for yourself, or share it," I asked.
"Share it! Everything was shared. Then as now, we are all in it together. We must share to live," he insisted.
I would like to tell you everything he told me, for I got no impression whatsoever that his story was private, but was one he was intent to pass on to as many as he could with what years he has left, but there was too much to share here. However, I must say, he was insistent that we each must kiss the ground of this country we live in. He said, "Sven, people have no idea -- NO IDEA -- how lucky, JUST PLAIN LUCKY they are to live in this country. We have everything. We are safe. Every day I am happy. I am the happiest man alive. If you know people with problems, send them to me. They have no idea."
I asked him and his wife, whose family had moved from Poland to Russia at the start of the war, and had thus survived, if it is possible to be happy after experiencing hell on earth, such as he had. His response echoed the words of Joseph Campbell, the great thinker and writer, who said that both the challenge and the goal is to live joyfully amid the sorrows of the world. Harry said that every single day he remembers and lives with the sorrow; it never goes away. Yet, every day he is happy. He is alive; the sun shines; his wife is by his side; he has good kids and grandkids (who are now in their thirties). He says he cannot complain. "What can I complain about??? I am here simply by the grace of God. Yes, I am happy, Sven, the happiest man alive. I do not hate anyone, not the gays, the blacks, the Muslims. No one. We are all made of the same stuff. We are all nothing. How can I hate someone who is just like me. We all die. We all must live and realize how lucky we are."
And that led to this question, "So, you believe in God, Harry? And what is your relationship with God?"
"Well, Sven, many do not believe in God. But I found, after the camps, that the ones who did not believe in God went a little crazy or lost their minds. No, there is no explanation for why God allows such things as what I lived through. But I believe in God and go to synagogue every week. I am not fanatical, but yes I do believe."
And one final question, "Harry and Luba, I recall the writings by Rabbi Harold Kushner on the book of Ecclesiastes. He said that all of life for all people of all lands in all times boils down to four simple things: the desire for good people, good work, good food, and good drink. Based on your experience of having walked through hell itself, are Kushner and Ecclesiastes right? Is this the secret to happiness?"
He went on to answer: Sven, there is nothing else. Yes, Kushner was absolutely right. It is the memory of the sorrows that makes the day so much sweeter. The people, the coffee, the work ("I would rise at 4am every day for 60 years to run my watchmaking store just down the street."), and so on.
Yes, he said, we are each so lucky to be alive. For that alone is happiness. "Count your blessings every day, Sven. And if you meet anyone who thinks they have problems, send them to me, Harry. I will tell them they have no idea."