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Eva Mozes Kor

Living History in Auschwitz

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Three years ago this week I was sitting in the dining room of a hotel called The Center for Prayer and Dialogue having breakfast with six people: two survivors of the Holocaust, their grandchildren and a man whose grandfather was the Nazi directly responsible for Josef Mengele’s medical torture on twins in Auschwitz. The hotel is located in the town of Oświęcim, otherwise known as Auschwitz. Did you know that Auschwitz is the name of both a town and the death camp that sits at its center? I didn’t know that until I visited Poland for the first time.  The reason I was sitting with these people is that I had traveled to Poland to attend the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.

 

My visit to Oświęcim three years ago was the only time I was there during the winter months–my other trips were made in June and July. This time, I was there in January. When I landed in Krakow, which is about a one hour drive from Oświęcim, it was snowing. It had already been snowing for days so the ground and all of its natural inhabitants were covered in soft white. It was beautiful in the way beauty sometimes creeps into your heart so deeply it almost feels like nostalgia: a mixing of beauty, comfort and longing for something that is missing. As the plane neared the runway, I looked around me and wondered, “How in the world did I get here?” Technically, I was traveling alone but on the flight from Germany to Krakow I was suddenly in the company of several people I had met before, all of whom were traveling to Poland to participate in the anniversary: a man named Danny Spungen who is a Rotarian (the first person to encourage me to find a Rotary club, by the way) who owns the biggest collection of Holocaust artifacts in the world, Michael Wörle the grandson of Nazi doctor Otmar von Verschuer, and Rainer Höss whose grandfather was Rudolph Höss, the commandante of Auschwitz during the war.   What strange company!

 

Upon arrival I was met by a man holding a sign reading “Szoo,” which is my maiden name. As a side note, it is always fun for me to be addressed as Szoo when I am in Poland or Hungary because they are the only people who ever pronounce my name correctly the first time. The man was older, about 70 years old with grey hair and a bit of a hunch in his back. He was wearing a shirt bearing the name of the hotel in which I was staying: he had been sent on my behalf. As we made our way through the snow-covered countryside, passing livestock, trees whose heights rival some city buildings and quaint towns no one has ever heard of, I felt I was journeying through a storybook. The peace of the immediate was tempered by the reality of the imminent as I began to recognize the tell-tale landmarks announcing our arrival to Auschwitz. As often happens when I am there, my imagination of the past began to spill into the pool of my present reality mixing a cocktail I would sip for the next several days. It is one thing to peer into the past through books. It is quite another to feel your feet sink into the mud made famous by yesterday.

 

The Center for Prayer and Dialogue was built, in part, under the vision and instruction of the preist who now oversees its operation: Manfred Deselaers. It sits on a small plot of land about two blocks away from the extermination camp Auschwitz I and about three miles away from the extermination camp known as Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. The purpose of the hotel is to provide shelter, education and healing for those who visit the camps. Much to my surprise when I arrived, it was also the main basecamp for almost all of the survivors who were traveling to be a part of the anniversary ceremonies taking place at both camps that week. This is to say, anytime I left my hotel room, I was surrounded by living history.

 

Another aspect of my stay that I could not have anticipated is that all of the meals were served family style in a modestly sized but beautifully decorated dining room. So, at every meal I was surrounded by a cacophony of at least four different languages (namely Polish, German, Romanian and broken English). Somehow, the men and women who possessed some crossover knowledge of the languages managed to translate some of the most captivating stories I have ever heard. And, as seems to be the case in groups of people, the group with which I dined the first night became a kind of small group, the members of which gravitated toward one another for all the following meals. So, if the narration of one story began at breakfast but was not finished by the end of that meal, the teller could pick up where she left off at lunch. It was a storyteller and writer’s dream!

 

One of my tablemates was David Wisnia, also known as A-83526. He was brought from Warsaw, Poland to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was 16 years old. His first assignment upon arrival was to walk the perimeter of the camp locating the bodies of prisoners who killed themselves by running into the barbed wire fencing. He and a fellow inmate picked up the bodies, placed them into a wheelbarrow and pushed them to the crematorium for disposal. He performed this gruesome duty for several weeks until a Nazi guard overheard David singing among a group of prisoners one evening. The guard asked him if he was a singer by trade, to which David reported that he was training to be a singer in a renowned synagogue in Warsaw. In that moment, David was taken off his previous job and assigned to be the Cantor of Auschwitz. This assignment saved his life as he served a purpose to both the prisoners and the guards, which gave him access to more food and brought him out from under the threat of hard labor. When the war ended and the Nazi’s were leading the prisoners out of Auschwitz in the Death Marches (days long walks in the snow and ice, without food, water or proper attire for the purpose of getting rid of the “evidence” in the camps) David escaped his group in the confusion of gunfire late one night. After he escaped he found a barn where he hid for several days until he emerged one morning, prompted by the sound of military vehicles rolling down a nearby road. Ultimately, those vehicles belonged to the 101st Airborne who quickly recruited David. He spent the rest of the war fighting against the very men who enslaved him in the camps for three years.

 

At the ceremony for the anniversary, David sang a Jewish song. Knowing his story made that moment all the more meaningful to me. The survivors and their families who attended the ceremony were housed in a large tent (very large and heated) at the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those who were not family stood outside in the middle of the camp watching the ceremony on a big screen and listening to it via a very loud audio system, which echoed against the brick barracks, tall trees and the cement ruins of the gas chambers. As I stood in the middle of the falling snow, unable to feel my fingers or toes, listening to David’s song, I felt two things in exact measure: freedom and slavery. Nothing is ever just one thing. In that moment, the past and the present held hands, pain and joy locked eyes and a clawing sense of loss climbed up the sides of a tender moment of innocence. It was the kind of moment that both rips something away and offers a cloak of wisdom. That moment changed me.

 

Survival is a tricky thing. Through my travels, interviews and study on this topic, I have met basically two kinds of people: those who survive and those who thrive. Those whose identities remain huddling in the corner of a brick barrack and those who have lined the walls of their identity with photographs of family, friends and lives fully lived. There are those who hold anchors of hatred and those who swim in the open waters of forgiveness. Eva, my friend Eva, is the latter sort. David is also in the latter camp (no pun intended). From them I have learned a kind of boldness in living, the courage to stand up for myself and to cultivate the discipline of forgiveness.

 

There is a scripture in Hebrews that says a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds modern day believers in Christ. Those witnesses are, of course, the Old Testament believers such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–the men who lived before the arrival of Jesus. According to the genre of text in this chapter, we are to understand that these people are not literally looking down to see our current race, so to speak, but we can look to their stories and the way God interacted with them as a kind of instruction and inspiration. In other words, we can act as though they are sitting in the stands of our lives. There is a sense of our own history and identity that exists in knowing them. Maya Angelou also speaks of this idea when she says that she is never alone because she is surrounded by her family members who helped make her who she is and whose wisdom and characteristics live on in her. Or, lived on in her while she walked this earth.

 

Sometimes I forget who I am. Not literally, of course. But sometimes I allow my identity to be bogged down in the mire of the past, and my own weaknesses and self-doubt. You know when this happens the most? When I start to focus mostly on myself. When I go inward to the point of isolation. Last week I confronted a woman who has been bullying me out of her own insecurities for years. For some reason–well many reasons–I allowed her to do it. Over and over, again. I kept getting stuck between the idea of being “nice,” or, “forgiving,” or, “not wanting to make waves,” and the wish that someone else would stand up for me. You know when I finally got the courage to stand up to her? There were two moments: One was in considering the lessons of courage, living boldly and repeatedly choosing forgiveness that I have learned from the men and women with whom I have spent hours, weeks, months and years throughout my research on the Holocaust. “Stand up for yourself and stand up for others,” I heard them whisper from my memory.

 

Second, two weeks ago a friend of mine received an anonymous email that was filled with some of the most heinous aggression and vile meanness I have ever read. I thought to myself, “I wish I knew who this was because if I did I would immediately go to my friend’s defense.” That thought ruminated and sat with me for several days. Looking into her situation, I had the courage to stand up for her. Why was I willing to be strong for her but not for myself? And I realized what I needed was not for someone else to stand up for me but it was for me to find the courage to stand up for myself. So I did. No matter what the cost may be as a result of my standing up for myself, it cannot compare to the absolute freedom I feel in having faced the woman who I allowed to bully me for years.

 

It is also important to note that I have forgiven her. Forgiveness is a one-way street. It has nothing to do with the perpetrators (or offenders) in our lives. It is a decision we make for ourselves. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a two-way street. Reconciliation takes place when two people can discuss their conflicts, find common ground and continue to be in relationship with a feeling of safety, peace and an agreement to rebuild trust.

 

I am an adventurer at heart. I was born with curiosity running through my veins. I am blessed that I have learned from and alongside so many different types of people in a myriad of environments throughout my life, thus far. I think it is good to actively remember the people who have made an impact on my life and whose lessons I carry with me–both the big, glaring lessons and the small, quiet lessons, which are just as important. Our stories make us who we are and if we honor them, they continue to speak to and grow us. As we grow, our adventures continue to teach us new things, even from the past.

 

Onward and upward.

 

copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

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PeopleProgram086-XLBreakfast with Legends

(The first two photos depict my view on the night of the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.  The last in a photo of me with my table mates at the Center for Prayer and Dialogue.)

Top photo credit: Charles Moman

 

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Unforgiveness

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I have not forgiven my friend

And so the poison swells

Like maggots crawling through my veins

Stealing life

And trading it for

Death.

 

First one offense

And then the next

Like flames wrapped around tree trunks

Stripping a forest

And pulling it down to

Ash.

 

Condoning silence with justice

And building my case

Like piles of bones in a graveyard

Pricking the air with stench

And freezing my senses in

Yesterday.

 

I am prolific in the art of litany

And telling the song in repetitive stanzas

Like a clown using his flower

To squirt and squirt small children in the eyes

And leaving them

Blind.

 

Tall grows the wound

And consumes all my mind

Like a bomb detonating inside my heart

Melting what is soft

And drying as hard as

Stone.

 

“Forgive,” he said

And I laughed at his joke

Like an amused audience stuffing its face

With excess of food and wine

And vomiting that which was meant to

Nourish.

 

“Release,” he whispered

And I wondered at his audacity

Like a rich man counting his money

In the secrecy of a vault

And finding the suggested cost

Exorbitant.

 

“Lay it down,” he sang

And I grew weary of his prodding

Like a woman being courted

With courage and desire

And in stubborn acceptance I

Trusted.

 

“Here it is,” I offered

And He lifted it from my arms

Like a father removing splinters

From the hands of his beloved boy

And the war that had frostbitten

so many years

thawed

Into peace.

 

copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

(Photo credit: This poem was inspired by German painter Heiko Müller‘s drawing, Greece07.  http://www.heikomüller.de)

 

Depression and Anxiety: Fear Is A Cloud, Not A Brick Wall

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Fear is helpful. Imagine if you will, that you are walking through a forest when a demented lumberjack with a hatchet jumps out from behind a tree! In this imaginary scenario, you would experience the emotion of fear. Physiologically speaking, your body would release the chemical called adrenaline, which would ready your body for a possibly life-saving response: running away from the bad man with the hatchet. Your breath would become shallow, allowing you to run away with abrupt hastiness. Your pulse would quicken, aiding in your ability to think expeditiously and move rapidly through the forest and away from the life-threatening man with the hatchet. Once you were out of the forest you could thank your body’s reaction to fear and then question your life choices because, really, you probably shouldn’t have been out traipsing through the woods alone.

Fear prompts three responses: fight, flight or freeze. It is good and natural for you to feel fear in a dangerous situation.

To feel fear is healthy. To live in fear is not.

I have been in several legitimately dangerous situations in my life: situations in which the stimuli surrounding me indicated a true threat to my life and/or the lives around me. What I have learned is that I have a strong instinct to flee in these situations. I will offer a few examples to provide both understanding and, perhaps, a giggle or two:

Growing up in Los Angeles I was afforded the opportunity to spend many a day with my friends and family at Disneyland. On one such trip, my good friend Andra and I (both about 14-years-old) were waiting in line inside the Haunted Mansion. If you have never been to Disneyland, it is helpful to know that the inside of the Haunted Mansion is very dark because, as we all know, darkness adds an element of horror to most situations and environments. There was enough light skillfully provided by Mr. Disney and his designers to see the people close to you, as well as the spooky portraits hanging on the walls featuring zombie-like visages, spiders and other ghoulish figures. The kind of fear one experiences inside the Haunted Mansion is the kind that gets the heart racing a bit but, psychologically, it is more thrilling than fearful. It provides the same feeling you might get if you were sitting in the comfort of your own living room watching a scary movie. So, the Haunted Mansion isn’t truly fear-inducing . . . until it is.

When Andra and I were about ten people away from transitioning from the part of the attraction where you walk through the house to the part where you get into a car and begin to ride through, we heard two men behind us begin to argue. The muffled, tense voices quickly moved from tension to anger and then to outright yelling.

Remember, it is dark, there are about fifty people moving like cattle through red velvet ropes and there is nowhere to go. Just as the two men’s anger moved from vocal to physical, there was an audible releasing of something that sounded like hairspray. Instead, it was Pepper Spray. Suddenly, as the air was filling with some sort of chemical, the two voices became twenty voices and the emotions being communicated switched from anger to fear. My body reacted and gave me a choice: fight, flight or freeze. I flighted!

I said loudly, in her general direction, “Come on, Andra,” I ducked under the velvet ropes and pushed past some of the other people who had begun spilling out from the once orderly line. I wasn’t sure what my “plan” was. All I knew for sure was to run into the darkness. I kept running as fast as I could until I found an exit door. I pushed through the exit door, Andra breathing heavily behind me, and we followed a maze of concrete and fluorescent lighting until we got to a closed gate. The gate was wrought iron, in the fashion of the rest of the attraction, so we could see through it but we could not push past it. So, we did what any teenage girls would do in this situation and we began screaming, “Help!”

Within moments a Disneyland employee came to the gate, asked what was wrong and we told her the story as quickly as we could, “A man, pepper spray, pandemonium I tell you! Let us out!” The young woman calmly radioed to someone with a key and maybe 2 minutes later we were free. Free with our lives, our adrenaline and a really great story to tell the rest of our friends who experienced no such thing at the substantially lamer “Country Bear Jamboree” for which they had opted instead of the Haunted Mansion.

Looking back, that really was a potentially dangerous situation. Los Angeles is not a place where you want to “hang around” once angry men begin yelling at one another. I am glad to know two things: that I had the confidence to run away into the dark until I found an exit, and that I had the wherewithal to bring my friend with me.

Some of the other instances in which I found myself running from danger include the following:

  1. I was sitting at an In-And-Out Burger at 2:00am in Los Angeles, along with 20 other members of my youth group. For some reason, this scenario seemed like a good idea to our youth group leader. Even as a 13-year-old I remember thinking, “This is ill advised” as we all piled out of our vans and into an already substantial group of young men donning red bandanas and dressing to one side (both of which indicate gang membership). Maybe the youth group leader was lulled into a sense of safety because they were all eating hamburgers? I couldn’t tell you. So, against my better judgment, we sat and ate amongst the sea of red . . . until we didn’t.

About two bites into my burger, a series of three cars pulled up to the outdoor dining area and the tinted windows of the first car electrically rolled down about 1/3 of the way. Living in Los Angeles taught me that tinted windows rolled down about 1/3 of the way meant one thing: get out of the line of fire. So, I put my burger down on the wrapper, grabbed my friend Melissa’s hand, whispered to the rest of the kids at my table, “Come on, guys” and then ran through the young men who smelled like testosterone, mustard and marijuana. I did not stop until we reached the minivan that brought us to this god-forsaken In-And-Out Burger.

Soon, me and three other girls crouched down in the back of the van and peeked out over the seats to see the rest of our group, wide-eyed and frozen while young men donning blue bandanas and dressing to the opposite side began yelling at the “red team.” I remember the sound of men yelling and then seeing guns being raised through the windows that were rolled down 1/3 of the way. My heart was pounding so loudly I had a hard time hearing anything for several minutes and then I had a hard time seeing anymore so I just crouched down and did what any teenage girl would do in this situation: I screamed into my hands.

Ultimately, what could have turned into a story on the next morning’s news ended up in the sound of the blue team screeching away behind their tinted windows and the sound of a stampede of youth group teenagers running back to the vans all at once (as I invited them all to do in the first place, I would like to point out).

  1. During the 1987 earthquake in Los Angeles, I fled to the door jam, as I was taught to do in elementary school. As soon as the 6-point-something earthquake was over, I ran straight out the front door.
  1. When a fight broke out on the school bus in high school, I climbed over several seats and burst out the emergency door in the back of the bus like I was wearing a cape and a pair of high-heeled superhero boots.

All levity aside now: because I have been in truly dangerous situations I understand what it is to experience real and helpful fear. I am the woman who “flights” when she can.

I also know what it is like to be in a dangerous situation—not life threatening in nature—and not be able to flee.

For example, being put into a closet and made to stay there until I “chose” which sexually abusive act my perpetrator would enact upon me. That kind of fear—the kind of fear that takes away your choices and stunts your own ability to act on instinct—gets buried somewhere inside of you. I believe these moments of stolen instincts can cause the harmful kind of fear: living in fear.

I lived in fear until 2013. Though I still have bouts of fear that is not based on real-life danger but, instead, on perceived danger I now have the experience and the tools that help me rationally face fear and then push through and past it.

Fear is like a cloud: it seems like an insurmountable fog until you step into it and realize it is made of mist so delicate that you can prompt it to dissipate by poking your finger through it.

The kind of fear that you “live in” is a liar. It will tell you a lie about your inability to do or feel or say something . . . and it is exposed for the liar it is when you do or feel or say the thing with which it threatened you.

In the summer of 2013, I went on a trip to Krakow, Poland that changed my life. I traveled with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, as well as about 100 other people, who were traveling with her as part of a trip to Auschwitz that is organized by her museum, CANDLES Holocaust Museum. The reason I was traveling with her was to gather every detail I could fit into my brain, my psyche and my iPad for the purpose of writing a play based on her experiences in the camp, as well as her decision 50 years after liberation to forgive her tormentors.

Once the money was raised, the travel plans were set and after I had completed as much research about the Holocaust as I could handle, I almost decided not to go.

Fear was telling me that I had made a big mistake and that I should not get on that plane.

I was horribly afraid to fly. As a child I flew often between California and Missouri. I was never afraid to fly . . . until I was.

On a trip in 2000 from New York City to Missouri the airplane in which I flew encountered the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. Still, to this day, I have never experienced anything like it. From that day forward, I was afraid to fly.

Think about that. I had flown maybe 50 times in my life without fear and then ONE bad experience planted a seed of fear. Instead of plucking that seed right away through talking about it, praying over it and rationally dealing with it, I let it sit in the soil of my mind until it became a weed so large that I missed out on important events in my life (including my graduation from graduate school and a friend’s wedding in another state): a bowing to fear. Yuck!

God knew what He was doing. I believe that in 2012 He allowed all of the years of built up and suppressed fear in my life to reveal itself in the form of anxiety. It was time to feel the full weight of all of the unresolved issues that I had pressed into the side of my mind and heart like paper Mache homages to fear and my self-imposed decisions to try to control the fear instead of releasing it. During this time of counseling, crying, shaking, exercising, medication, doctor’s appointments and learning what fear is, and how it had wreaked havoc on my life, I also learned how to face and conquer my fears.

The Bible says in Romans 8:28:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God used every dark moment of my life as an instrument with which to help strengthen me, grow my courage, learn where to place my trust and to teach me how to interact with Him as a friend, father and confidante.

And so, when the moment finally came for me to board the plane to Poland I felt fear come at me like a tidal wave. Instead of fighting the wave, planting my feet and trying to control the moment, I jumped into it, trusted God and floated a bit violently through the water until the wave was behind me.

I did not let fear stop me. Instead, I did it afraid.

On the other side of that tidal wave of fear was a new friend that I would meet moments later. A young woman named Hanna who sat next to me on the plane and who will be my friend for the rest of my life. On the other side of that tidal wave was a great sense of accomplishment, pride, courage, excitement and purpose. On the other side of the tidal wave was my destiny: to learn Eva’s story, to write the play Throwing Stones and to become a forgiveness advocate to help others in their own lives.

What is the fear that you coddle? What weeds have grown from the seeds of that which you have feared for too long? What tidal wave of fear has kept you on the shore and away from the destiny you so much wish to enjoy?

Isaiah 43:1-2 says this:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through
the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not
be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Jill Szoo Wilson

Is God Working?

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It has been difficult for me to write lately. I am not exactly sure why but my mind has been bifurcated; my emotions have felt disjointed and my patience has been altogether broken. I sit down to write and instead of waiting peacefully for an idea to shape itself into an image, I become agitated by the sheer whiteness of the virtual page before me. The way my cursor blinks like its tapping its foot, the vastness of the white box itself and the fact that my favorite writing music sounds more shrill than usual . . . it is like sitting a little too close to a camp fire whose sparks keep escaping the blaze and landing impetuously on my skin. Annoying, a little painful and seemingly purposeless.

I am grieving the loss of my dog. Believe me, I wrote that sentence with a rolling of my eyes. Not because she does not deserve to be grieved and not because I fancy myself to be above sadness: because I do not feel like grieving.

I am not an overly emotional person. Sure, the older I get the easier it is for me to live in moments and be emotionally present . . . but I am not a big hugger. I do not often allow anyone to see me cry or to comfort me if they do. I am not a fluffy dog and the color pink kind of person. I am emotionally available for others, but not one to emote much for myself.

So, this process of grieving is very uncomfortable to me. One thing I take comfort in are the words C.S. Lewis wrote in his book A Grief Observed as he grieved the loss of his beloved wife, Joy. Before I go on, I MUST make it 100% clear that I do not compare the loss of a dog to the loss of a spouse or family member. Even so, there is a measure of grief surrounding me and these words describe it perfectly:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

I can’t help but feel there is a bigger grief unfolding.

I often feel, then believe, and then repent of something specific: a feeling of purposelessness.

For some reason, I feel a little like a car whose gasoline is being siphoned because I am not sure what I am supposed to be doing on any given day. About a year and a half ago I quit my job so I could write and then perform a one-woman show. I am happy to say that the play is written, it is currently sitting on my desktop in its 20th draft form and I am positive this play will find a home. Hopefully, many homes during its life. Also, the play is no longer a one-woman show. Now, it is a four- person play that tells the story of Eva Mozes Kor, who survived Auschwitz as a 10-year-old girl and later in life chose to forgive her tormentors. Through the play I also tell my own story of surviving childhood sexual abuse and working to forgive my own perpetrators.   I am proud of the piece. It is a powerful play.

My initial plan was to perform this play, which is entitled Throwing Stones, in many venues all over the world, in conjunction with a speech I have written under the same title. The two were to work in tandem and my objective was simple: enter a global dialogue on the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness has the power to break the chains that fear, anger, false guilt and mistaken self-identity use to strangle those who were once victims. Even if the offense was not as flashy as surviving Aushcwitz or walking through the perils of sexual abuse. When it comes to victims and perpetrators there are no degrees of harm that the soul suffers: a wounded soul is a wounded soul.

You can probably see that this is where my passion lies. You might even say my heart lies somewhere in the pages of this play because I understand the power of the message.

For now, I am in a season of waiting. I am waiting for a theatre, a director, a producer, a cast. Waiting for guidance and wisdom while also purposing to be proactive in my thought-life and in finding doors on which to knock . . .

Waiting. Patience. Stillness.

No one ever told me waiting feels so like fear.

What I am beginning to sense is that I am grieving the loss of my dog, fearing the loss of my dream to see this play produced, feeling confused about why I am 37 and unemployed but fuller than a hot air balloon with ideas, energy, passion, talent and desire to DO something meaningful with my life. What exactly is that? I know it might sound crazy but I think my little Duchess was fulfilling a sense of purpose for me. I loved her as much as I could possibly love a dog. I used to tell her all the time, “I love you as much as I could possibly love you. No more and never less.” And, perhaps because she was blind, she became second nature to me. She depended on me for more than an average dog might: I had to tell her to “step up” when we reached a set of stairs or a curb. I had to be her eyes and warn her when she was nearing a danger. “Careful,” I would say. At the sound of my warning she would stop, back up and then slowly move in a different direction.

I had to let her know when her water bowl was filled, “Come here, Duchess, let me show you,” and then I would flick the water with my hand so she could hear its contents.

Duchess trusted me. The teamwork with which we moved throughout our days together gave me a feeling of pride, contentment and joy.   It was an effortless dance of mutual respect.

I wish I trusted God as much as my dog trusted me. I often watched Duchess maneuver her world while listening to my voice. She felt safe when I was in the room. In fact, whenever she walked into a room and could not hear my presence, she would lift her nose into the air and walk the entire room until her nose bumped into me. Then, she would sniff my legs and lay at my feet. She depended on me to love her actively.

Perhaps, this bigger sense of grief I feel is a lack of trust. I know God is there—here—and I know His plans for me are good. He tells me that he will never leave me nor forsake me and I know this with my mind. And yet, I wish I could hear him more clearly. Heck, I would even settle for lifting my nose and smelling Him! Just…something tangible to let me know that my purpose and the dreams with which I am filled are not heading toward danger. A divine, “Careful!” would be very helpful right now!

I do not doubt His provision, His goodness, His plan. But I do doubt myself and I am scared that I have not, will not, cannot do enough, or be enough, to advocate for this play and, by extension, the message itself and Eva herself.

I guess I am feeling a little lost right now; grieving the loss of my sense of direction; grieving that daily experience of seeing, first hand, what it looks like when clear guidance is given and received; the give and take of love and trust. Grieving a lessening of confidence while sensing a waning expectation.

Eva would say, “Never, ever give up.” Jesus would say, “I have a plan to prosper you and not to harm you.” (I should have put Jesus in front of Eva, but you get the idea). Duchess would say, “I’m here. Are you there, too? Oh, good.”

We don’t always feel our faith. The Bible says in Hebrews 11:1:

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Even in the absence of feeling my faith, I absolutely believe that God has put me where I am for a reason and that He will use this weird, still, boring, quiet time to lead me to where I need to go. I do believe that in my mind. But I am having a difficult time trusting it in my heart. I do have confidence in His plan, but the sound of the ticking clock is deafening, and when the evidence of that plan seems as barren and dry as a tumbleweed-laden dirt road in Kansas, I even begin to doubt what I know.

Duchess had faith. Her mind didn’t have the capacity to reason through my whereabouts. She simply came into a room trusting in my presence; and when at first blush, her senses didn’t perceive me, she kept her nose up in the air and continued to scour the room until she could lay successfully at my feet. Duchess loved me.

And I loved her back.

If I could love Duchess, a dog, so much as to constantly watch over her for the sake of making sure she was moving in the right direction, how much more is my Father in Heaven actively involved in the direction of my life?

“Step up. Careful. Let me show you.”

Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: Safwan Dahoul

A Good Nazi and a Good Doctor.

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It is very important to Eva Kor that Josef Mengele not be labeled a “monster.” To that end, upon reading one of the blog posts in which I labeled him as such, she called me on the phone, “Hello Jill, this is Eva Kor!” It amuses me that she always uses her full name, as though there is another Eva in my life whose accent is peppered with Hungarian and salted with Hebrew. “You are going in the wrong direction on something very important and I want to tell you what it is.” My heart sank a bit, “Oh no. What is it?” I asked. Here is what she said:

“The world will tell you that Josef Mengele was a monster. Everyone says that about him. But it isn’t true. Dr. Mengele was a good doctor and a good Nazi.”

A good Nazi I bought right away, but a good doctor? I had a hard time reconciling that phrase with the images of two million eyes closing for the last time on his examination tables. “A good Nazi and a good doctor,” I repeated, just to make sure I had heard her correctly. “Yes,” she affirmed.

I had heard in several places, including a documentary in which Dr. Münch—a colleague of Dr. Mengele’s—is featured that Mengele’s science was “nonsense.” Without realizing it, I had made assumptions about Mengele based on misinformation given by the media, as well as a larger agenda of which I was completely unaware before I met Eva. Eva Kor, that is.

I hesitated to write about our conversation on this particular subject for two reasons: One, I am not sure I can do it justice. Two, I don’t want to turn this blog into a discussion about anything resembling “scandal.” Those two things being said, it is extremely important that the truth in this matter be communicated. It is important because the truth is important, and it is important because it directly ties into Eva’s message of forgiveness. With those two aspects standing before me like head lights shining on my face, I will tread toward the truth while also being blinded by the discomfort of what that truth means. First, I will discuss the goodness of Mengele. Second, I will discuss how our view of Mengele directly affects Eva’s message of forgiveness.

“Do not call Mengele a monster. We think that for him to be conducting these diabolical experiments he must have been pure evil. We always hear Nazi doctors are evil. That is incorrect. Mengele was a good doctor and a good Nazi. His research was concerned with creating an Aryan race and advancing the Nazi agenda. Mengele was concerned with science alone not with the people themselves. He was concerned with his research, his science.” Eva continued; I listened. The crux of our conversation was this:

Mengele was a student of The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research in Germany, which was the most prestigious institute in Germany during the time of the war.

Mengele was a good student who was concerned primarily with the study of human genetics.  His objective was not only to conduct experiments that would lead to a blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan race (an objective that has mistakenly lead most to consider Mengele’s motives to be purely racist) but to find genetic details and weaknesses that would ultimately lead to cures for diseases and sickness. I would assert that Mengele was a Darwinist. His work pointed to a belief in the idea of survival of the fittest and the theory that with enough time the genetically perfect race would emerge and could be sustained. Under Hitler’s regime, Mengele was trying to bring hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary theory to fruition within one generation. The connection is that Darwin was a racist. He believed that the white race held the best of the world’s gene pool, but Darwin did not identify himself as a racist: he identified himself as a good scientist. Likewise, Mengele identified himself as a good doctor.

After Mengele was conducting this particular work for some time, his experiments changed. Suddenly, his experiments became less about genetic discovery and more about medical testing. The reason for the shift in focus was simple: the Bayer Corporation was funding The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research . . . they still fund them today. The Bayer Corporation provided injections to Mengele and Mengele stabbed them into the flesh of children of all ages, as well as pregnant mothers. Mengele was concerned with his research, his science, his job, and providing for his own family. He did what he was told, like a good Nazi and a good doctor.

There are many reasons that the connection between The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the Bayer Corporation, Mengele and Eva are extremely important. These “scandals,” or truths, are Eva’s to tell as she is the woman who has not only researched these connections but has also walked the halls of the institute on two separate occasions. I invite you to research the connections on your own, as well as to contact Eva at her museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, Candles Holocaust Museum if you are truly interested in learning more. For my purpose I will move to my own first objective, understanding the goodness of Mengele:

Any of us can become a “Mengele.” Mengele did not have eyes that bulged from his head when he looked down into the hideously brown eyes of children. Fire never blew from his ears; he never threw his head back while maniacal laughter swelled into the air above his horns and pitchfork. Instead, he offered the children candy. He spoke softly to them. Much like a person motivates a dog to “come” or to “sit” by offering him a treat. “Dr. Mengele was not concerned with the well being of his patients, he was concerned with the outcome of his research as it was assigned to him.” While Josef Mengele, also known as “The Angel of Death,” is an awfully extreme example of the way in which money and power can drip into the soul and work through the hands of a man, I do wonder: are we like him? What pitfalls are we to avoid in order not to reflect his fame? Is it possible to set our focus on the brightly colored petals of an objective before our own eyes and ignore the fact that it is rooted in the poisonous soil of wrong motivation? What motives do we allow to glove our hands as we surgically add and remove those things from our lives that we imagine create the perfect situation for ourselves?

I am a good teacher. A very good teacher. There are other teachers who would also label themselves with the badges of “excellence,” “top notch,” and “supremely effective,” who lose sight of their students’ rights to think for themselves and their need to be lead to knowledge but not told what to believe. Those teachers who purpose to vomit years of their own bias into the minds of their students for the sake of guiding them into a specific and “right” direction might be good teachers. And they might be motivated by their own research and science. They might be funded by groups whose biases are taller than the ghosts of the World Trade Center and whose power to influence is stronger than a tornado that flattens an entire town in Oklahoma. And they look good on a resume. For all their prowess and expertise presented on their resume, this type of teacher is dangerous. When we forget that our first responsibility is to our students, we can become someone else’s monster. Mengele was a man. He had a family. He had a good job. He was given a great deal of power because he was good at what he did. And he forgot to ask himself, “What is best for this person in front of me? If I were this little girl how would I want to be treated?”

Secondly, Eva’s message of forgiveness was brought to the attention of the world when she decided to forgive Dr. Mengele. Eva says of her tormentors, “If we call them monsters we dismiss them as people and we think no one else can do what they did because they were monsters but we are people.” We don’t forgive monsters because once we’ve labeled someone or something a monster we have painted their visages with thick layers of oily paint so we can no longer see their faces. They crust over and crack like devils that hang in old art museums. We visit them as they hang there like forces from which we have to remember to protect ourselves. To forgive such a caricature is a waste of time, an act of futility. Nonsense.

To forgive a man, however . . . that is a different story. To forgive a man who looks at a child through the lens of his own need and desire, who stalks about tiny eyes, arms and hands, who exacts pain on a child and then calls his wife to tell her he loves her . . . that is an act of courage. To forgive a monster we have to believe in fairy tales. To forgive a man, we have to face the truth.

–Jill Szoo Wilson

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