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Beyond Comprehension Dr. Norman N. Blumenthal

It was hardly ever spoken but thoroughly known. It consumed our home but remained taboo. At 11 years old, I went for the first time to sleepaway camp. I returned during my parents’ one-week summer vacation; they were staying in a hotel upstate. My father drove in and picked me up and we arrived one hour before dinner. After we had eaten, my parents invited me out for a walk. They wanted to hear about camp. At camp, we learned to chop down trees, I told them. I spent a disproportionate amount of time detailing the process on our walk. Perhaps to break the monotony, my mother, who never spoke of her war years, interrupted and said: “I know. I chopped down trees in a concentration camp.” I immediately said, “I’m sorry,” and said not another word.

Being attentive parents, my mother and father urged me to keep talking. I refused. The three of us turned around and walked back. Until today, I can hear the crackling of leaves and branches underfoot as the three of us silently walked back to the hotel.

My mother's survival of seven concentration camps and its residual effect permeated our home and my upbringing. From early childhood, I felt compelled to discern her suffering, adapt to its unspoken presence and try to understand what was essentially incomprehensible.

That process did more for my training in my field of endeavor than any text, professor, or supervision. 

Does one acclimate to hardship?

Also around 11, my friends all announced that they were going to fast during the upcoming Yom Kippur. I would love to think that their intention was out of the awe of the day, but it really was much more of a boastful and macho undertaking. 

Though not relishing the idea of being so hungry, I didn’t want to be different. So, that night at dinner, I announced to my parents that I would fast that Yom Kippur. My father told me that I was too young. As was my want, I argued with him.

Seeing that my father needed backup, my mother decided to jump into the fray. With puzzlement, she asked: "Why do you want to fast?" I couldn't give the real reason, but thinking on my feet I said, "I’ll be fasting my whole life. I need practice." To which my mother responded, "I starved three years in concentration camps and I still get a headache."

I ate heartily that Yom Kippur.

From that I learned that there are tragedies and misfortunes that, even after years, leave an indelible mark from which one “still gets a headache”.

Go back to your books.

My mother and her family were first deported the “model camp,” Terezin, from which they were subsequently transported to Auschwitz. In Terzin, you were allowed to take that which you could carry in your hands. My revered and scholarly grandfather, after who I am named, took seforim.

In a bunk filled with unaffiliated Jews, my grandfather would sit in his ben and learn while his bunkmate played cards and talked. There was a rotation system for cleaning the bunk and whenever it was his turn my grandfather would start to clean. Invariably one of his bunkmates would yank the mop out of his hands and take over. When my grandfather would protest, his bunkmate would say, “Go back to your books.”

From that I learned the power and therapeutic value of maintaining your dignity and priorities even during the most challenging and potentially destabilizing predicaments.

True empathy:

I recall vividly when I mustered the courage to tell my mother that my doctoral dissertation would be on holocaust survivors and their children. Taken aback, my mother told me the following story.

When liberated by the British in Bergen-Belsen, my mother was accorded special status because of her fluency in several languages and utility as an interpreter. One day, a British officer invited her to attend a screening of a film taken on the day of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation. She sat in the dark tent and watched this rudimentary film that lacked the sounds, smells and true horror of the place from which she emerged. Shaking and crying she said to herself over and over, “No one will ever know.”

From this and other experiences, I learned that sometimes the most empathetic stance you can take is admitting that you’ll never know.”

The sunset:

At a relatively early phase of my career, I was flattered when a colleague asked me to cover for her while she was away on vacation. During that time, one of her patients, whom I did not know, called in a very agitated state. Crying and wrenching in pain, she alluded to the misery and the hopelessness of her life and challenged me to give her a reason to go on living.

As the conversation progressed, it seemed that everything I said made me feel worse. As she became more desperate, so did I. While she screamed and beseeched me for help, I had a sudden insight. I said to her, “You know, my mother survived Auschwitz by watching the sun set. She said that if there was something that beautiful in this world, it can’t be all bad.”

From that remark she was able to calm down.

Whenever I see a sunset, I am reminded of the tenacity of faith and strength of my mother, her generation, and or people and realize that it is my mandate to help those who are suffering to gain access to that.

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