One Man’s Opinion
By Eugen Schoenfeld
On April 29, 1945, we returned from our labors and gathered in the camp courtyard for appel, the twice-a-day routine of being counted. The camp commandant received the report: So many schutzheftlingen (inmates) went out in the morning, so many returned, and frequently the report included the statistic that so many died and were buried in the common grave.
On this day, the commandant also gave the assembled Jews unsettling information. “Tomorrow,” he informed us, “the train will come, and all Jews in the camp will be taken to another place. Only non-Jews and those in the hospital will remain.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that tomorrow the safest place for Jews would be to remain in the camp with the non-Jews. I decided that night I must somehow enter the hospital.
My uncle the physician was the head of the hospital, and because he treated the guards and their families, he was given many privileges. My father and my two uncles, as well as my cousin, the physician’s 11-year-old son, already were in the hospital. My father was treated as a patient, but unlike other Jewish patients, who were sent back to work or were culled and taken away, he remained in the hospital under his brother’s protection. My two uncles did office work, and my young cousin was a laufer, a messenger boy.
Only I, like all other unprivileged Jews, worked and starved. I decided I would crawl in stealth into the hospital and be reunited with the family. It was a moonless night. Were I to be caught, I would surely be executed.
With fear but with determination, I exited my underground, lice-infested, cold bunker and began crawling while hiding from the searchlights. Finally, I reached the hospital and knocked at the door. It opened, and I entered.
Next day, the trains came, and the Jews, with the exception of the few who hid, were unceremoniously packed into the wagons like sardines in a can and were taken away.
Two days later, I woke up to the sound of distant gunfire — the rat-tat-tat of machine guns and the loud booms of canons. The war had come to Muhldorf Wald Lager, the camp where I was. Somewhat later the camp that usually was noisy became quiet; there wasn’t a sound to be heard.
We cracked open the hospital door and peeked out; there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The machine guns that were usually pointed toward the camp were gone, as were all the guards, and all was quiet. We came out, the few Jews who, like me, hid and weren’t locked up in the train and the few non-Jews, and gathered in the court yard. We were free. Yes, the guards were gone. We could move about freely. We could and did open the gates on which the slogan “arbeit macht frei” was still inscribed. We took a few steps outside but, with the exception of German criminals who were also interned there but served as supervisors, remained in the camp.
We didn’t know what to do. We had no direction. We lacked purpose, and for all practical purposes we were still slaves because we hoped that someone would come and take care of us. We were still slaves dependent on someone who would tell us what to do. There I learned an important lesson: Physical freedom alone does not make one free.
In some ways we Holocaust survivors and the Jews who were freed from Egyptian slavery share a common experience. Both of us were freed from slavery, and although we were physically free, both of us lacked direction and had to re-establish our moral ideals, and it took time, like the time of counting the Omer, to learn that the privilege of freedom must be balanced by moral duties. We the survivors of the Holocaust and the survivors of the Egyptian enslavement had to be taught that freedom cannot coexist in a world absent of morality.
It took the survivors of Egypt 49 days to be given the Torah and be taught that people remain slaves unless they gain a foundation of spiritual freedom rather than, as Erich Fromm said, take the easy way of pleasure and escape from freedom. For in every generation there are those who lack the courage to be free and would prefer to be re-enslaved because that is often the easier path.
It took 49 days, seven whole weeks, the days of the Omer from Pesach till Shavuot, for the Egyptian slaves to be given the Torah, the moral and ethical ordinances and principles that made our ancestors totally free. At the foothills of Mount Sinai, we started gaining the wisdom that is necessary to be free.
This is why I consider Shavuot as humanity’s real birthday. On the sixth day God created the physical human being endowed with instincts and enslaved to his physical body and pleasures and lacking moral understanding. In that period man was not far above the beast — a selfish and self-centered entity governed, in Freud’s term, by the id alone. In this period man was not far above the beast and far lower than the angels.
Let us celebrate Shavuot as the day we were given the understanding and the wisdom to become moral men, and when we accomplish it, we will change from beings who are less than the mythical angels to a higher level far above the angels. For unlike the mythical angels, the moral man is constantly confronted by choices. Still, it is mankind that received the Torah, the moral teachings, and with it as a guide, man can distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and have the courage and fortitude to choose the moral path to life.
It is only through becoming moral beings that mankind can become elevated to humane beings. Then, and only then, when we become moral beings, we could hope to realize Isaiah’s dream for the existence of a peaceful and fearless world.
Instead of seeking more destructive weapons, we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, and nation will not lift swords (nor bombs) against other nations, and neither will war be taught. Only then could we proclaim that there is freedom throughout the world and join Martin Luther King and declare: Free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.