A Fine Line

A Polish survivor walks through Auschwitz’s infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate after laying wreaths at the execution wall. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where, over the course of less than 3 years, 1.1 million prisoners were put to death. While most were Jews, others were not exempt: Romani, Polish political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays were also among those sent to the gas chambers. Today, in the snow, 300 survivors of Auschwitz bore witness, again, to the atrocities.

When you listen to their stories many themes emerge, and I believe most of them have critical lessons for us. Today I have been pondering the very thin line between life and death.

  • A compassionate guard pushes you into the work line.
  • The right person takes you under his wing.
  • You have expertise that the Nazi’s needed.
  • Your work detail was late in returning to the camp, and the day’s “quota” is filled.
  • Another in your barracks covers for you when you are sick.
  • You have cigarettes to trade for favors.

For every survivor there are any number of times when fate was on their side, countless times when they ended up in the right line, in the right place, in the right moment. And for one more day, they were spared. And as each new day dawned, life was on the line again.

Nothing can possibly compare to the tragedies suffered in the 20,000 labor, transit and extermination camps of the Nazis; its darkness is without measure. Yet today I find myself exploring the parallels between those survivors and breast cancer “survivors.”

  • Like the Holocaust survivor who has to learn to live with and let go of having survived, I often hear about breast cancer “survivor guilt,” the inability to comprehend why I made, and another didn’t – and the need to figure out what to make of and do with “survival.”
  • Like the Holocaust survivor whose good luck today finds him in the right line at roll call, most of us with breast cancer know that today’s clean scan is luck – and the next one could change everything.
  • Like the Holocaust survivor who doesn’t know if or when his next meal is coming, we wonder about the next life-saving therapy, and the one after that, and whether they will arrive to a trial or clinic in time.
  • Like the Holocaust survivor who fears the ravages of illness or the risk of injury that will send him to the gas chamber, we deal daily with “collateral damage” to our bodies and our minds, and of not knowing where any given downturn might end.

Stanford University Library Special Collections

Our minds seek to make order out of chaos, seek to find the very thin lines that put us in one place or another, that explain the ways in which one instant, a bit of luck, or a bad day can distinguish between life and death. We have quite a bit to learn from these survivors indeed.

Post Script: I know some will object to my use of the word “survivor” in the context of breast cancer, and I appreciate the many perspectives that come to bear on the issue. However, I personally believe that surviving the words “you have cancer” is more than enough to be counted among our survivors. I hope that we can see beyond the language and come to this with an understanding that in both instances we are talking about individuals upon who outside forces have acted in a manner that legitimately threatens their very lives. We are generally comfortable with Holocaust, earthquake, tsunami or flood survivors – and it is in this context that I’ve chosen to use the word herein.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John Borak
    Jan 27, 2015 @ 16:35:27

    Beautiful. Thank you.


  2. Anita Boxer
    Jan 28, 2015 @ 15:42:11

    Right on, Lori!
    I agree absolutely.
    Love ya, Babe


  3. The Accidental Amazon
    Jan 31, 2015 @ 13:26:22

    Ah, Lori…yes, so many parallels, including the power — and the absolutely crucial need — to remember & tell our stories. Here’s one about someone I met. http://accidentalamazon.com/blog/2015/01/31/a-carton-of-eggs-remembering-auschwitz/

    xoxo, Kathi


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