Sixteen years ago today my friend Lori died in my arms. She was just twenty years old. Lori and I were part of a small study abroad program that took a group of seventeen college students from midwestern liberal arts colleges on a semester-long experience of living and studying in Florence and then London. Lori died, alone with me, in the flat we all shared on Kensington High Street in London. She had been feeling very weak–suffering from fainting spells–for a few days. Visits to the hospital and then heart specialists led to a diagnosis of a heart murmur. The doctors didn’t know until later that Lori was suffering from a blood clot, which wound up taking her life.
If I sound matter of fact about all this it’s because that’s the only way I can handle talking about it at all. It took me over ten years before I could really speak about it to any one, and that was only after I reached out to Lori’s parents. The guilt I suffered–all the doubts about if I had done enough, soon enough to help her–ate away at me for years. Speaking with them, after all those years, helped me release some of that guilt. But this day never ceases to be hard. And it never will.
My colleague Tod is stuck in England right now with his wife Andi, who is 32 weeks pregnant, because of the volcano in Iceland. In true Tod fashion, he is making the best of it and getting some attention to boot. I have full faith that they will make it back stateside soon, but events like this (not to mention Lori’s death) are a reminder of how delicate and indiscriminate life can be. We take it for granted that the web of modern life will hold. And of course we do. It’s the only way to function. Until fate or destiny or whatever you believe it to be blows a few strands apart, sometimes taking us with them.
I have literally hundreds of stories rattling in my brain from my days working at the Shoah Foundation that are poignant reminders of how random life can be, in both cruel and joyous ways. In fact I would daresay that luck and circumstance–where they were at the time, who they knew, how they responded to a given event–was as much a determiner of life or death for Holocaust victims as smarts, resilience, or will. I’ve often wondered if those few who survived did so because of some unique combination of both chutzpah and luck.
Perhaps the most amazing example of this is the story of Hellmuth and Harry, two of 100 “Birkenau Boys” that were spared from the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau so that they could serve as messengers and lackeys for the SS. Hellmuth was one of the first survivors we ever interviewed, and he introduced us to the unique story of the Birkenau Boys. In fact, he claimed that it was because of his doing that all of them were spared. I’ll admit that we encountered countless cases of fabricated or embellished stories in the course of the 51,000 interviews our volunteers conducted over the span of a few years, and so some of us were skeptical of this. Particularly because none of the other surviving Birkenau Boys could corroborate his story. In my experience, most of the time the exaggerations or falsehoods we heard were purely psychological survival mechanisms–ways that survivors found to live with their guilt or the utter randomness of their survival. They needed something, anything, to explain why they were alive. It was my assumption, at least, that this tale was part of Hellmuth’s coping mechanism. Until we discovered Harry.
Harry’s interview was awful. He could remember hardly anything about his childhood or Holocaust experience. It made for a painful interview–he was deeply pained–in part because we had pieced together that he was one of these rare Birkenau Boys. But he did have one memory he shared, of how another fourteen year old boy had convinced Mengele to spare his life. When I heard this the hairs on the back of my neck stood up… I immediately thought of Hellmuth. Could he have been telling the truth? In the chaos of trying to coordinate over 600 interviews a week around the world (my part of this was just a sliver, but I was still putting in over 80 hours a week), it’s blind luck or fate that I was in the right place at the right time to put these two pieces together.
We were able to reunite Hellmuth and Harry, as described in this People Magazine article. One of the most amazing things about the whole thing was the fact that, upon seeing and speaking with Hellmuth, all of Harry’s memories came flooding back.
What’s my point in sharing all of this? I suppose it’s nothing more than a heart-felt reminder to myself and anyone else who’d bother reading this that we can’t take anything, anything for granted. Life can be highly inconvenient… stranding hundreds of thousands of people on their seemingly routine vacations and business trips. It can be cruel… taking the life of a beautiful young woman far from home. And it can be unspeakingly evil… decimating entire nations of peoples by fanning and funneling the fear and darkness that live in men’s hearts. But that doesn’t mean we have no voice, no strength, no will, no control. I hope we can each remember that, and find that inner strength, when we are tested, as we all will be as we face life after growth.
Here’s thinking of you, Lori.