They were the emptiest eyes I had ever seen.
I had been living in Germany for a while, and I had gotten used to the trains. The public transportation offered freedom to explore, and some of the independence my 17-year-old spirit longed for. I had seen people of every kind: Hare Krishnas, people with 2-foot-tall, multi-colored mohawks, business men and women, drunks and drug-addicts, pimps and prostitutes, and also your ordinary everyday people. I figured I had probably seen it all.
I watched he old man as he slowly ascended the stairs into the half-filled train and sat down across from me. He was thin, and his skin seemed to hang from his bones like curtains from a rod. Deep furrows were carved into his forehead and face as if pain were a plow pulled steadily behind a horse called time. He stared out the window, but it seemed to me that he saw nothing there. His dark brown eyes were hollow; I felt as if I could see inside the man, but there was nothing there. I remember wondering what had left him destitute and devoid of life. What loss might he have suffered that tore from him every last shred of hope?
The sun shone brightly upon him through the window, yet it seemed as if he were still in shadow. The temperature inside the train and the warmth of the sun combined to prompt the old man to push his shirt sleeves up to his elbows.
It was then that I saw the tattoo.
It was faded, and the ink had spread out under his skin, but the truth behind the numbers I saw on his arm was unmistakable. This man had witnessed and survived the worst genocide the world has ever known.
Having read Anne Frank’s Diary and visited the concentration camp in Dachau, my young mind thought I had a grasp on the horrors of the Holocaust. But, in fact, I understood nothing.
I put his age at the end of the war to be late 20’s to early 30’s. I imagined that he likely had a family. And given the darkness I saw in him, I figured he may have been the only one to make it out alive.
Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23 ESV)! When your eyes have seen what his surely had, when the horrors have been repeated hour after hour and day after day, when you begin in hope but end in despair, “how great is the darkness!”
They say that time heals all wounds, but that is simply not true. Some wounds are terminal, though death may tarry long. And sometimes wounds that can be healed become infected instead, and, festering, they pollute the entire body.
I know that there are Holocaust survivors who have managed, somehow, to walk out of those camp gates with a glimmer of hope remaining. There are some who, remarkably, survived because of their hope for a better future. Then there are those who survived despite their desire to die and end the pain.
I’ve shared this story dozens of times over the last 30-plus years. It made a lasting impression on me. I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. The truth is that it raised more questions in my heart than it ever answered. I think I share it because it made me more human, more connected to sufferings of others throughout history. I share it because we must never forget the depths of depravity to which man can stoop. And I share it so that we may see ourselves through the lens of history and never go back.
Of course, there were many heroes who risked their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to protect Jewish people, and others, from such horrors. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one that this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). Some did, giving all in their humanity and humility, so that even one person could be saved from being empty.
***I missed publishing this for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27th. It is my intention to re-post this every January 27th in remembrance of those who were slaughtered, and those who gave their lives to stop the slaughter; of those who survived in hope and those who survived but died.
*** image from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/remembering-shoah-icrc-and-international-communitys-efforts-responding-genocide-and