Chanukah, the holiday of light and miracles, begins this weekend. The coming celebration is somewhat ironic, considering many of us in this age of reason and science don’t believe in miracles – events that are caused through transcendental forces.
And yet, there are events that transcend the explainable and lead us to question whether all events that we experience can be explained by science. Let me share with you one such personal experience.
One day a student posed the following question:
“Professor, do you believe in miracles?”
The question, asked during my sociology of religion course, was offered in a challenging tone.
“What do you mean by miracles?” I asked.
“You know, I mean those described in the Bible,” he said.
As a professor of sociology, I had been put in a difficult situation. How could I respond to this student’s question, especially after he had admitted to me that he believed in biblical inerrancy?
Although I as a professor don’t have the right to discuss or comment on a student’s personal faith, I had to be truthful; not necessarily about the truth of the scriptural text, but about my own belief.
So I responded:
“If you are asking me whether I believe in the existence of miracles, then the answer is ‘yes,’ since I have experienced a miraculous event.”
Although I don’t believe that biblical miracles of the Hollywood sort have ever occurred, at the same time I do believe that people may have experienced extraordinary events that in some ways could be described as “miraculous.”
For example: I am a Holocaust survivor.
But that’s not the event I shared with my student. Instead, I told the questioner of a miracle that actually came in the midst of a most desperate period of my life.
A Trying Journey
In 1944, a number of Jews from Munkacs, Hungary were sent from Birkenau, the death camp in Southeast Poland, to the Warsaw ghetto. I was among them; indeed, just a few days after my arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, some of us were sent to a labor camp in Warsaw, built in the middle of the former ghetto on Geinsa Street.
There, the Germans had put down the heroic ghetto uprising and shortly afterwards systematically demolished all the houses. Thus, we were assigned to something called Berlin Aufbau (Rebuilding Berlin).
Our job was to harvest and clean the bricks of the destroyed Jewish homes; the bricks would then be used to rebuild the city, which was continually being bombed. Our stay in the camp, however, was a short one.
Towards the end of July, the Russian army was nearing Warsaw, and the city would soon fall to them. One evening, we were told we would be marched to a railroad junction about 70 miles from the city, where we would board a train that would take us to another camp.
We were also told that those of us who couldn’t march such a distance would be trucked to the junction. All we needed to do is step forward if we needed help.
I tried to persuade a classmate who stood next to me, Friedman, not to believe the SS officer ordering us around. Nevertheless, he and others stepped forward, declaring themselves unable to handle the forced march.
I’m not sure why the Germans made such a claim of aid. We had been imprisoned long enough to have learned about Nazi cynicism and their use of lies. Of course, there were no trucks waiting outside the camp gates.
But there were machine guns. Shortly after they were marched out of the camp walls, we heard the muffled sound of firing in the distance.
Digging a Well of Hope
The next day, about 1,500 of us schutzheftlingen were woken early, given a hot brew which the Nazis called erzats café, lined up in companies guarded by SS with automatic weapons and began our march.
It was a hot summer morning. Soon we were outside Warsaw, and the sun in the Polish steppe became hotter. We became dehydrated; our legs felt leaden, and many of us couldn’t keep up with the speed set by our guards. Escape was impossible.
The guards tried to make us go faster, but to no avail. When some of my fellow inmates fell to the ground, exhausted, they were immediately shot.
That evening, we thankfully arrived at a river. A few of the younger people broke ranks and ran to the shore, but they were shot. It turns out our German captors needed to count us first before allowing us, a few at a time, to enter the river and drink.
But we hardly had time to quench our thirst before we were driven out of the river, and as a result, sleep was impossible. I felt that without any additional water most of us wouldn’t survive the next day’s march. I knew that we were in a hopeless situation.
I thought of Moses with his cane hitting the rock and bringing forth water. In my mind, I saw the Jews in the Sinai and how our ancestors dug wells in the dessert. Why couldn’t I do the same?
Indeed, why couldn’t I dig a well? I had the necessary tools, my spoon and my mess kit. I began to dig.
“What are you doing?” my father asked.
I told him I was digging a well. He didn’t respond. Was I delusional? Was I desperately seeking a miracle?
No matter, I kept on digging. Soon, I had stripped away the topsoil and discovered sand underneath.
Digging in the sand was much easier, and it soon became darker and moister. I could feel the water in it. I kept on digging, and to my amazement and joy, when I reached the depth of about 15 or 16 inches, water started seeping into the cavity.
I filled my mess kit with the precious liquid and, not forgetting to recite the blessing of shehakol, I gave the first taste to my father. Others saw what I had done and began digging their own “wells.”
Then, I heard heavy footsteps, the sound of boots. The camp commandant, my tormentor, appeared.
“Well, since you found water, you might as well have it,” he said.
Of course, some people may argue that finding water was nothing but a series of coincidences. After all, being at the bank of a river pretty much meant there was water nearby. But in my view, finding water was but one of the many miracles that occur daily and which we take for granted.
To me, a miracle is an improbable and unanticipated event that increases one’s chance to stay alive when faced with hopeless conditions and events. Our condition in the middle of Poland was hopeless, and everyone lying beside the river knew it.
Now, 68 years later, I’m sure that it was a miraculous event that we experienced, an experience for which I am duty-bound to repeat a lifelong birchat hagomel, the blessing of redemption.
BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT Contributor
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.