Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Hatred of others burns up the haters

Many years ago, when I was a student journalist at Florida Atlantic University, I sat through a class with one of the most extraordinary human beings I have ever met.

She died several years ago, but I won’t give her name. For about an hour in a classroom with undergraduates, she described her teenage years and left everyone in the room in tears.

Her adolescence – if it can even be called that – was spent during the years of World War II as a slave laborer of the Nazis. She grew up Jewish in a section of Poland that had actually been part of Germany during World War I but handed to the Polish when Poland was reconstituted after the war. There was anti-Semitism in Poland between the wars, she said, and she even remarked that like a lot of people back in the 1920s and 1930s, she laughed at Adolf Hitler, who was always screaming about Germany rising again and railing against the Jews.

One of her comments that really struck home was her belief, as a girl of around 13, that the Polish armed forces would be able to beat back any invasion from Germany. Sadly, she was wrong and she eventually found herself in a concentration camp, with a tattoo on her arm.

For her, the teenage years were not spent going to school, giggling over boys, listening and dancing to music, and dreaming of a future. This woman described degradation and mistreatment that seems almost beyond comprehension today. All she could do was work, and that was why of so many in her family, she managed to survive.

One of the stories she mentioned was about how the women seemed to be able to survive the almost impossibly hard slave labor even on very short rations, but that men would just come apart and die. The Nazis had seized some Greek men at one point, she recounted, and brought them to the labor camp to do the same labor the women were doing, but the men went from strapping and strong to thin and weak in only a few months, and all of them died.

Somehow, the women carried on and survived.

That she survived was, to me, nothing short of a miracle, and that’s saying a lot when you’re an atheist. That she found love after the war was to me only fair in an unfair world.

She had learned that her mother, on her way to the death chamber, had met another woman. That woman had a son who was a doctor. The miracle of human survival is that she eventually met that son, married him and came to the U.S. and made a successful life here in America.

Students cried as she described her life under the Nazis and the joy of liberation. William L. Shirer wrote in “Berlin Diary” that in the Europe of the World War II years, people’s personal lives ceased to matter. There were two people in the world whose views mattered, he said: Hitler and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and everyone else was just in the way.

I watched her as she interacted with students, and then she adjusted the sleeve on her blouse and I saw the faded blue numbers on her arm. That made it real to me.

One of the students had asked the woman, “Do you hate the Germans for what they did to you?”

It was a fair question, and had she said, “I hate them always and forever,” I would not have blamed her. She had a right to be enraged at even the thought of a German.  Her answer might not be popular, especially with others who endured what she endured and lost what she lost, but I was floored. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it went something like this: “No, I don’t hate Germans. That’s the problem in the world: hate. Instead of having hate, we should have love.”

It’s easy to hate, though, those who’ve done us wrong.

I recently read of an Italian man of the Jewish faith who recently died, and he told about how Hitler’s plan for him was to die a slave laborer or become another statistic at Auschwitz. The man said that he always felt he got the better of the evil and wicked Nazi madman because he had had a full life after the war and had ruined the German nutcase’s plans.

It’s hard to have any sort of compassion for those who do evil, and believe me those who have suffered a loss have every right to mistrust those who are of the same nationality and/or faith of those who have done their family wrong.

She had every right to want every German in the world dead for what had happened to her and her family, and especially those who had served the Nazi regime, but she insisted that that would not change anything. Love would win out, she said. You can’t hate, she said, because that brought you to the level of those who hated you.

I wrote a story about her, and remarked in the first sentence on the faded numbers on her arm but the strong memories and the intense desire to make sure the Holocaust would never happen again.

We’ve seen in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Pennsylvania just what hatred can drive people to do. We’ve seen it in Britain and in Spain. And we’ve recently seen it in Norway.

Maybe I’m just a mindless old liberal, but I cannot hold with the idea of repaying hate with violence, especially against the innocent who are just of the same faith or nationality as someone who is evil. There are bad people in the world, that’s for sure, and they must be dealt with because they won’t respond to entreaties of love, but if we descend into hate and turn it into genocide, we’re down to the lowest levels of what humanity is capable of.


August 3, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | 1 Comment