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.)
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.
Freiberg, Dov. (1988). The Last of the Freibergs. http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Freiberg/Freiberg.html#TOC
Freiberg, Dov. (2007) To Survive Sobibor. New York: Gefen.
Sobibor Testimony of Dov Freiberg. (2004, May 31). Axis History Forum. http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=51471