Love In Auschwitz
Posted by Bonnie Rose on Jun 15, 2020
I was a fierce, unhappy, intellectual twenty-eight-year-old, still uneasy with all things “mystical,” stalking in old jeans and cheap army boots around Jerusalem.
My guide to the mysteries of the Old City was “Isaiah,” plump, bald, late-middle-aged Israeli poet and mystic who looks, as he himself says often, “like a semi-enlightened sunburnt frog” and who has, over two days, become a friend. I love his sardonic wit, his baroque flights of phrase, his kabbalistic learning, the way his eyebrows twitch asymmetrically when he gets excited, which he does often.
Today, he is wearing bright red sneakers and a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with great orange suns on it. Our talk is light, fact-stocked, and airy until we find ourselves in the early afternoon on the Mount of Olives, and stand, suddenly silent, in the sunny ochre olive grove where Christ wandered on the night before His crucifixion.
Even on a cloudless afternoon like this, Isaiah whispered, “this place is so sad. It is as if you can still hear Him weeping for all of us, for what must happen.” He stretched out his arm and pointed to the bricked-up golden gate in the wall of the Old City opposite us.
“Some Jews believe that the Messiah will come through that gate.” He started to laugh. “Don’t hold your breath. And suppose He’s a She? Wouldn’t that drive all the old boys in black out of their curlered heads?”
It was then that I noticed the faded black numbers on the bare arm sticking out of his Hawaiian shirt. I gasped; the afternoon before we had walked in silent anguish together through the Holocaust Museum. Isaiah had said nothing then. Now, he turned slowly and stared at me, into me, steadily, as if weighing my soul.
Then he began to talk in a low, even voice I had not heard from him.
“Yes, I was in Auschwitz. As a child. From nine to thirteen. I don’t know how or why I survived, but I do know what I learned.”
Isaiah, a 12-year-old caught up in the horror that was the Holocaust fell into deep despair during a hard winter in a Nazi concentration camp. His mother, father and sister had succumbed to slow and painful deaths by starvation at the hands of their captors. He knew that the chances of being rescued or even surviving much longer were slim. A sadistic guard beat him with a leather strap until he bled.
“All I knew was that I had to decide, once and for all, whether the horror I saw around me was the ultimate reality or whether the joy and tenderness I could still feel stirring inside me was the truth. I knew that they couldn’t both be the truth,” he wrote.
Isaiah contemplated this for months. “I wept over it, I wrestled with it, as Jacob must have wrestled with the angel for my life. I had to know, or I would drown in the darkness. For the first time, I started to pray. My prayer, which I began to repeat at every moment, was only four words: ‘Show me the truth.’ Nothing came. Not a single insight, not a single vision, no dream with any comforting angel.”
But Isaiah went on praying, and then early one winter morning he heard a quiet voice say, “You must decide.” For a week he reflected on this, wondering “…what could the voice mean? How could I, a child, decide the truth of the universe?” Then, one morning, Isaiah awoke thinking about this mother, his cat at home, and the flowers and vegetables in their kitchen garden. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do as he grasped what was at the bottom of his heart – “I choose Love! I choose Love! I choose Love!”
And then Isaiah opened his eyes and saw “… a sun not of this world had come out and was blazing glory all around me… The guard I hated…came out of another building… He didn’t see me, but I saw him and – this was the miracle – I felt no fear at all, and no hatred, only a burning pity that scalded my eyes with tears… the Thing in me that was crying was stronger than anything or anyone I had ever encountered. It … felt like a calm column of fire that nothing could put out.”
I did not feel vulnerable as I had feared; the Thing in me that was crying was stronger than anything or anyone I had ever encountered. It or He felt like a calm column of fire that nothing could put out.
“Somehow I survived for another year until release came. Whenever I could, I would gaze at the way the ordinary light changed on the ground, along the wires, on the roofs of the huts and the crematoria. I knew now Whose light it was a reflection of. The fire in my chest did not leave. It has never left. I have tried to live and breathe and act from it and from its laws.”
The sun was setting in a riot of rich red light in the sky, setting the gold dome of the Temple Mount alight. Isaiah took both my hands in both of his.
“I doubt if we’ll ever meet again. You are leaving tomorrow, and I am in the last stages of cancer. I am not afraid. The Glory is here always. I see it with open eyes, every day; I am not unique; there are thousands of us, maybe millions, all over the world, of all kinds, classes, sexes, and religions. The Glory gave me life and It is giving me now my death; but through another death long ago It gave me a Life beyond all dying. And it is into that Life that I am going.
“You have a long journey ahead of you. I have a feeling it will be a difficult and wonderful one. Remember always three things — forgive me for being so ‘rabbinical’, and in such a shirt and wearing such sneakers — but write these down in that black notebook of yours. (And you don’t have to worry about your ideas being stolen, not even the seraphim could read your writing.)
- “Pain can be terrible beyond any human description, but it is transient; Bliss is eternal.
- “Evil is real, but only in its dimension that includes this world; the Glory shines forever here and everywhere in a way evil cannot stain or defeat.
- “Horror has its day, or year, or decade, or century; the Sun of Love has never, and will never set.
- “And here’s a fourth: whatever you have to go through to come to know this beyond any shadow of a doubt it is worth it.
“And now I am going to buy you a dinner of the best shish kebabs in Jerusalem in a little place off the Via Dolorosa.”
“I thought you only ate kosher food!”
“Are you mad? Arab cooking is wonderful. One way to start making peace with your neighbor is to eat his food. Don’t they teach you anything in that university of yours?
This piece is adapted from “Prologue to Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night,” included in Radical Passion: Sacred Love and Wisdom in Action by Andrew Harvey ( North Atlantic Books, 2012).
12-year-old story by Harvey, Andrew, Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2002; reprinted in Noble Purpose Handbook: Igniting Extraordinary Passion for Life and Work, Barry Heerman 2007 Noble Purpose Partners.