Marching orders from a survivor of Auschwitz


GIG HARBOR, WASH.—In the months since the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated, a particular survivor of that death camp—a Polish woman named Saba—has occupied my thoughts.

These memories come with marching orders.

But first, Saba in outline.

More than anyone I have known, and despite terrible suffering, Saba radiated the spark of life. Or rather, Life. With Saba, the Important Things were capitalized.

How she achieved this transformation after Auschwitz I learned the first time we met—some 20 years ago in a fitting room in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York; Saba was a veteran saleslady there. My husband had begun talking with her and alerted me: “Ask your saleslady her story.” I did, and heard the essential version:

After liberation from Auschwitz, Saba found herself in a displaced persons’ camp in the former Czechoslovakia. There, learning most of her family had been killed, she faced an elemental decision. Scarred by a place of killing—”I’d seen the worst of humanity”—the question was: “Will I live for life or death?” Taking my hands in a powerful grip, she declared: “I chose Life!”

It struck me this tiny blond woman with thick glasses and proud posture defined Emerson’s choice verb regarding challenge: to “front” it. I was all admiration; so was my husband. Thus began a Very Special Friendship.

Over time, Saba revealed more: how her rabbi father was slow to comprehend the Nazi danger; how she was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz at 17; how youthful sturdiness enabled her to survive; how she met her husband-to-be in the displaced persons’ camp (Joseph had survived Dachau).

Yet, potent as that past was—or because of it—Saba lived, emphatically, in the now. She seized on the day’s news, especially American politics. She devoured American history, tracked congressional hearings. Saba could be critical (she deplored the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal), but she admired our liberal traditions of free speech, press, assembly.

Happily, it all came together for this ardent citizen in an impromptu speech at the Statue of Liberty’s rededication in 1986. Onboard a battleship (which my husband commanded), Saba spoke simply: She and her husband knew, under Hitler, “how bad things can get”; coming to America was like going “from night to day”; and, along with the birth of their one child, “Today is the proudest day of our lives.”

These words echo now—and pose a question: Would Saba be proud of us today, 3-1/2 years after Sept. 11, “the day everything changed”?

Saba died before 9/11, which, if such can be praised, was fortunate, for she was spared the horror of the terrorist attacks on America and her New York City.

Even more, the woman who endured Nazi atrocities was spared the sorrow of witnessing her beloved adopted country itself descend to torture. Imagine her reaction to Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo; to the Orwellian policy of “extraordinary rendition,” whereby we effectively outsource torture to countries that practice it; to the installation of an attorney general who abides all this; to the shirking of any accountability by the administration. And where, she’d ask, is the outcry—not only on torture but on the rising toll of deaths resulting from torture?

Seeing America pass from day to dark night, Saba would be heartsick. But, as I imagine it, she’d rebound—with these thoughts and marching orders:

What makes this post-9/11 moment so turbulent is the struggle of enormous ideas—in conflict (faith versus reason), overhaul (liberalism), or application (democracy and its proper promotion)—all spun by an administration determined to be “on the right side of history.” Our anti-intellectualism dismisses ideas as abstract, and our entertainment is devoid of them. But Saba, whose schooling ended at 17, could attest to the power of ideas—because she almost died of a bad one.

History is a struggle of ideas—ideas to which attention must be paid. But more than attention is required. Action must be taken. The resounding lack of protest against torture, and, more generally, the despair of so many citizens, Saba would recognize: Along with terror, Sept. 11 introduced the American people to “the tragic sense of life,” and we’re still stumbling from its impact today. People I knew as trenchant and caring, observing the dumbed-down culture, the spin, the moral fall, now speak of irretrievable loss and futility of action. But to the quintessential American spirit, not to act is a kind of death.

Certainly a survivor of Auschwitz knew about terror and tragedy. In the face of terror, Saba would advise steadiness, for fear distorts. As for tragedy: In that displaced persons camp after Auschwitz, and later in America, Saba turned Tragedy into mere tragedy and, doing so, made life into Life.

Not without mighty effort, however. With Saba, terror and tragedy lay just under the surface. But—fronting the challenge—tenacity was on top (and getting there accounted for her vitality).

In a way, we Americans have been displaced—from our unique belief that with enough effort, all’s well. We must learn to act without guarantees; to know the score yet play the game flat-out, with hope no longer natural but manufactured.

We must, in essence, front tragedy with Life, acting with—as Saba personified it—a New American Spirit.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of ‘The Washington-Sarajevo Talks’ and is at work on a new play, ‘Prodigal.’