Life after Sobibor

As I read Dov Freiberg’s account of his survival in Sobibor and after, I am struck repeatedly by the similarities of our own internal experiences despite the differences in what we endured or how we escaped.  (For more on my background, see Towards a Unified Theory of Evil.)

Dov Freiberg.  Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archive.
Dov Freiberg. Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

Just as Freiberg dreamed repeatedly of being again in the place of his captivity, of being caught and returned, or of attempting escape all over again, I dreamed for years of escaping from my parents’ house.  I dreamed of packing and leaving, of flight through new and strange areas, and of hiding.  Like Freiberg, it took time to be able accept that I could no longer be kept in captivity and that I was finally and unquestionably free of my torturers.   My dreams were as exhausting as they were terrifying, just as escape was.

And just as Freiberg was repeatedly haunted by a profound sense of aloneness as he negotiated a world without family, I am as well.

What surprises me most is how Freiberg ends his account:

“That same day, in January 1948, forty years ago, a new chapter opened in my life: a chapter nevertheless full of wars and conflicts, of battle fronts…a chapter in which I, Dov ben Moisheh and Rivkah Freiberg, the Last of the Freibergs, survived and can work and produce and raise a family in Israel and be like any other human being.”  (The Last of the Freibergs.)

Despite a heroic part in the revolt at Sobibor, and terrible years of suffering in which he displayed tremendous courage and a continued ability to remain human and decent, Freiberg’s goal was not to attain some form of recognition or power, but to have an average life.

And that has been my goal as well.  Such hard work?  Such tremendous suffering?  So that you can do what most other people do as a matter of course?  But, yes, that was the goal all along.  I didn’t work so hard to survive so that I could save the world.  I survived so that I could get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and have a cup of coffee in peace.

It has been with some surprise that I have discovered that the world I have escaped into is not a world full of good people, in contrast to the evil world I grew up in.  The real world is a mixed world.  It is one populated by many good people, some evil people, and countless others who work and raise kids and post hoaxes on Facebook without thinking too much about their lives or the world.

Sometimes this world disappoints me.  Was this really so worth fighting for?  Does it remain worth fighting for?  Is an ordinary life worth so much struggle?  But, yes, it is, because it is a world in which I have choices.  And remaining a principled, caring person does not come only as a tremendous act of will and at the price of terrible suffering.  It’s something I can do everyday, without having to risk life and sanity over.

Moreover, an ordinary life is sublime.

Further reading:

Freiberg, Dov.  (1988).  The Last of the Freibergs.

Freiberg, Dov.  (2007)  To Survive Sobibor.  New York: Gefen.

Sobibor Testimony of Dov Freiberg.  (2004, May 31).  Axis History Forum.


Escape from Sobibor, and Other Stories of the Last Century

Sobibor was constructed in Poland in April of 1942, under the code name “Operation Reinhard,” as a part of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.  Approximately 250,000 Jews were murdered there over the course of the next 3 years.

In October, 1943, 600 camp inmates attempted an escape.  About half of these succeeded.  Many were killed in the minefields surrounding the camp or were shot.  Only a small fraction of the escapees survived in hiding until the end of the war and liberation by Allied forces.

Location of death camps in Poland.
Location of death camps in Poland.

I have spent the last few mornings reading the first-person account of Dov Freiberg, one of those few survivors.  His complete story is here in his self-published book maintained on JewishGen, The Last of the Friebergs.

The Holocaust, in which 11 million people were murdered, remains one of the most horrifying and inexplicable events of modern history.  I also think it is crucially important part of understanding ourselves and our world.  But, as time goes on, and the event becomes more remote chronologically, I fear we understand it less.  At the same time, there are fewer survivors left to provide real insight or personal stories that make the event immediate and real to the rest of us.

Because, although the scale and efficiency of the genocide may have been unique, the fact of it is not.  To pretend that the Holocaust was simply a terrible mistake and a tragedy, and not something that can and has occurred in other times and places and with different victims and perpetrators is not only to be deliberately naive, but to maintain a mindset that allows it to happen again.  It is to pretend that evil, as Hannah Arendt so effectively put it, is not banal, and not something easily within reach for any of us, and that it does not need to be actively prevented.

Further reading:

Blatt, Thomas.  The Forgotten Revolt.