It was 50 years before Sam Harris was able to tell his story.
When Sammy was 4 years old, the Nazis invaded his hometown of Deblin, Poland. The town was turned into a ghetto and later into a concentration camp. He hid behind a pile of bricks while his parents, brothers and four of his sisters were loaded onto railcars and shipped to gas chambers. With the help of two remaining sisters, he survived by hiding in the barracks for six years, escaping notice of the guards.
In 1948, at age 13, he was adopted by a couple from Chicago. And from that point on, he did everything he could to forget the child who lived through horror.
At night he would have nightmares and cry in his sleep. His mother would come into his room, sit on the edge of the bed and cry with him. But she never asked him to talk about it.
His best friends at school knew only that he had been born in Europe. A popular student, he was elected class president, graduated and went on to a successful career in insurance, fell in love, got married, had a family. He had put his past behind him.
One day his wife, Dede, came home from work, sat down at the kitchen table, and said: “It’s time. Tell me about that little boy, Sammy.” And he did.
With Dede’s encouragement, he came to see that Sammy wasn’t the dirty, skinny, ignorant boy he had tried all those years to forget, but rather a brave and resourceful boy who had looked down the barrels of Nazi guns, had faced terror and death and found a way to survive it all. She helped him bring the boy and the man back together. “I became whole,” said Sam.
The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam means “repairing the world.” That is what Holocaust survivors do by telling their stories. If survivors’ stories were just about the horror of the camps, nobody could bear to hear them. But they rarely are. Nearly always they are
stories of perseverance, strength, hope and ultimately, of love.
In 1940, shortly after the Nazis invaded France, Simone Weil wrote an essay about Homer’s Iliad — or, as she called it, “the poem of force.” It’s a powerful reflection on war and what happens to both victims and perpetrators of violence.
“Such is the power of force,” wrote Weil. “Its power of converting a man into a thing is ... double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned into stone.”
She goes on: “Whoever, within his own soul and in human relations, escapes the dominion of force is loved.”
Sam’s inner strength allowed him to survive. He had to detach, as he put it, “to build a cement wall around my head.” But that kind of strength preserves only a fragment of the soul. It does not permit one to be a whole person, connected with others in meaningful ways.
The love of others helped him regain his full humanity. First with his adoptive mother and then with his wife, Dede, he allowed himself to be vulnerable.
When Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I imagine he was talking about this very thing — only those who are willing to accept their radical dependence on the goodness of others can recover their humanity.
Violence dehumanizes. To survive its immediate effects one must harden oneself. But to live again, one must open oneself to the presence of others.
Love alone can restore humanity to both the victims and the wielders of force.
The stories of Holocaust survivors are inspiring because they bear witness to the endurance of the human spirit. “If he can survive that, then surely I can survive whatever life throws my way.”
But that is only part of the message. What’s more significant is that people like Sam Harris didn’t merely survive; they managed to live a fully human life. They went on to love and be loved.
Thank you, Sam, for teaching us how to repair the world.