Life Interrupted: History and the Possibility of Life Lessons

The other day, I was working with students to analyze a series of primary historical documents. It’s something we do often in history classes, but as we were discussing Jewish responses to the Holocaust at the end of the war, a different conversation started up inside my head. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the way that tragedy impacts us, and how we recover.

The context was a discussion of texts from the pre-publication version of a new reader on Jewish responses to the Holocaust, which scholars from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are soon bringing to press. The document in question was a polite but determined letter written in uneven English by a young Polish Jew named Julius Lewy. Composed at the end of May 1945, it begins “Dear Liberators”—a hopeful if vague salutation, for the target of Lewy’s appeal is not identified. After some introductory niceties, Lewy asks an arresting question: “Who am I?” As his answer reveals, this is no mere matter of identification:

A Polish Jew 28 years old, with University education; man deprived of everybody and everything, but instead rich of experiences; so that much more essential would be the question: who have I been?

Lewy goes on to describe a life interrupted. Living in Poland, he had fallen under German occupation, “facing the hell on earth as martyr and witness in one person. There is not any suffering imaginable either moral, or physical or material I would not have gone through during these six fateful years.” Indeed, he had been a forced labourer since at least 1941, surviving the Płaszów and Mauthausen concentration camps and a period of forced factory labour in Linz. Despite this, Lewy testifies to a resistance in his spirit, a belief “in the final victory of Humanity and Justice” and in his own survival. Formerly a student of English Literature in Cracow, Lewy came to identify strongly with Anglo-American culture.

All this was swept aside by the German invasion of Poland. Lewy describes how “my physical organism collapsed: diarrhea,” then goes on to discuss a subsequent heart disease and the ill effects of the hospital in which he has been confined. Medicine is lacking, his food rations are meager portions of bread, and his attending physician is a young German. (“An enemy of yesterday should be your benefactor of today?”)

Lewy then makes his appeal. His “strongest wish is now to recover,” not just to “rejuvenate my breath” or enjoy his life, but to “realize my life’s aim: which consists in becoming a writer.” His simple request is to be transferred to “a hospital of yours.” Though he has long “dreamed about your victorious arrival,” he feels “cut off from any contact with the civilization and culture that you represent.” Offering his services as a translator (he knows nine languages!), he wants a new start to restore sense to his life and make possible the fulfilment of his goals and dreams. But first, he has to recover his health.

This letter struck me powerfully by its directness. Lewy’s life has, to understate the matter, gone sideways. He still remembers the trajectory he was on before this happened, and knows he needs assistance to get back on track, to restart his journey after the interruption. And so, without apology or shame, he asks for help.

This fascinating artifact of the Holocaust got me thinking about the ways my own life and the lives of those around me have been interrupted: the death of a loved one, the disruption of a natural disaster, the parting of a friend, the breakup of a family, the loss of a job. Thankfully, most of our interruptions are not on the order of a genocide. Still, our own tragedies can be profoundly devastating. I thought about the ways my life was interrupted by the flooding of my community in 2013, and the subsequent restart: materially, after about six months; spiritually, after a year or so; socially, still a work in process.

More importantly, though, I have been thinking about the ways I can respond to those around me whose lives have been interrupted. In the first instance, I suppose Julius Lewy simply wanted his “liberators” to hear his story, to know who he had been and who he wanted to be again. After that, though, he needed practical help restarting various parts of his life—in particular, his health and his intellectual pursuits. Perhaps it’s just the unapologetic tone of Lewy’s letter, but the metaphor of a life interrupted strikes me as a useful life lesson from the study of this history—an insight that gives me a way to understand the difficulties of others in my own world, to empathize, and to help them in ways that make possible the resumption of their lives.


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