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Surviving evil

Those who somehow endured give witness to the Holocaust that took millions of innocent victims

By HELEN FAGIN
Published August 28, 2005


Sadly, being a survivor of the Holocaust offers one an insight into the deepest and darkest recesses of human nature. The survivor is the only intimate witness to the crimes committed by civilized, highly educated men and women of 20th century Europe, who, motivated only by an ideology of a hatred called anti-Semitism, murdered, with impunity, millions of men, women, and, yes, over 1-million children!

Today, 60 years after the end of WWII, there still remains this painful awareness for the survivor of the Holocaust that despite the many millions of innocent victims of this blind hatred, little in the psyche of men has ever changed - religious and ideological fanatics still kill their fellow men in their quest for dominance of their religion, their political agenda.

The 51/2 years I spent under the evil and torturous Nazi regime was a long, indescribable nightmare, an experience truly unfathomable to the "outsider." For, how can one rationally explain the conditions of life in the hellish universe of death - a life that was not really living, but slowly dying?

This was a life that offered no hope - only pain and deprivation, degradation and dehumanization.

This was an existence centered upon basic survival skills - searching for food to survive yet another day, incarcerations, labor camps, surviving "selections" by the SS, and coping with the incredible pain of losing one's loved ones to transports that took them to their deaths in the infamous Nazi death camps. . . .

And yet, incredibly even at the worst of times, one's human spirit rebelled against this violation of human dignity and, searching for some connection to humanity, many of us found an outlet in what was called, "spiritual resistance."

While others wrote poetry, or diaries, or even songs and music, many of which survived their authors and later became some of the most important documentary sources of this period, I decided to conduct a clandestine school in the ghetto for groups of girls who were yearning for some outlet to their daily fears and to their lost hopes for a future, any future.

Of more than 20 of these young girls in my "school," only four survived. My greatest reward came when I met two of them after the war and they introduced me as the source of their hopes and their dreams during the darkest and most critical time of their young lives.

By some miracle of fate, I was among those who were lucky enough to survive and to maintain a sanity of mind and a healthy outlook toward the future. After painful yester-years, just having a tomorrow made life worth living.

My future was shaped by my desire to teach and to make my Holocaust experience a cornerstone of my teaching profession. Using my insight into the consequences of evil, I committed myself to enlightening others in the importance of one's personal integrity and one's responsibility to the future of humankind.

Thus, after acquiring my college degrees, I dedicated myself to teaching constructive moral lessons to young college students and to shaping the personal characters of American future leaders. My rewards are many, both personal and professional. In an almost perverted way, my Holocaust experiences gave somehow a positive and a constructive meaning to my post-Holocaust existence. To quote my favorite American poet, Walt Whitman:

The pleasures of heaven are with me,

and the pains of hell are with me.

The first I grasp and enlarge upon myself,

the latter I translate into a new tongue.

-- As a professor of English at the University of Miami, Dr. Helen N. Fagin taught courses in World Literature. As director of Judaic Studies, she developed a full body of Holocaust studies. She has done extensive work for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and was instrumental in the development of the Sarasota-Manatee Holocaust Education Center. She serves on the executive board of the Florida Holocaust Museum. As a survivor of the Holocaust, Fagin chose as her mission the teaching of the Holocaust as a constructive moral lesson, to help eradicate prejudice, bigotry, persecution and dehumanization. On Feb. 12, 2005, she received the Florida Museum's Loebenberg Humanitarian Award.