In summer 2012 I enrolled at a JTS summer course: Holocaust and Post-Holocaust Jewish Thinking. The course enabled me to focus on several philosophical, historical, aesthetic and theological issues related to this complex topic. I wrote several papers examining some of these issues. This is the second essay – exploring the choice to hope – or to resist. “Why did one German solider choose to opt out of mass killing while others didn’t hesitate? How and why did a prisoner choose to live on – or not?”


May 30, 2012

The Choice of Hope




It is not the Holocaust which we find difficult to grasp in all its monstrosity. It is Western Civilization which the occurrence of the Holocaust has made all but incomprehensible and this at a time when we thought we had come to terms with it and seen through its innermost drives and even through its prospects, and a time of its world-wide, unprecedented cultural expansion.” [1]


A close study of the Holocaust raises critical questions that challenge not only our assumptions about our civilization but also probe at the very essence of the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. From psychological, sociological, historical and theological angles, the question of why we choose what we choose finds ample grounds for exploration in all Holocaust related data.

Why did one German solider choose to opt out of mass killing while others didn’t hesitate? How and why did a prisoner choose to live on – or not?


Relevant today as it was always, these questions enable us to use these extreme and horrific historical memories towards our greater learning and improvement, on both personal and collective scales: How can we learn to make moral choices?


In his 1992-book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher R. Browning analyzes “modern society’s complexity of life.. and personal responsibility.” Based on some of the famous experiments of Stanley Milgram, he arrives at the chilling conclusions that all – or at least most -humans are prone to obeying orders under similar conditions. How and why we choose to commit terrible crimes or desist from them is a product of cultural context. Research such as Browning’s or that of Goldhagen, who refutes Browning’s findings in ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, strives to understand the human and rarely humane choices made by the perpetrators. I am more drawn to examine the choices made by victims – and by survivors. As I read through the various documents I am struck yet again but this compelling question: how does one survive? How does one make the choice to hope?


What is the role of hope in our lives –and how does one cultivate hope in the midst of life in all its complexities?



For Viktor Frankl, the harsh conditions of psychological survival were in themselves a source of hope. During his time in the camps he examined his own process, determined to learn from the experience and survive to convey these immense lessons to the rest of humanity.  In the introduction to his book “Man in Search of Meaning”, published in 1946, he writes:


“I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”


The constant pull between despair and hope seems to have played a critical part in the psychology of survivors.


Leon Wells, a Jewish-Polish survivor whose experience in the ‘Death Brigade’ in chronicled in his book ‘The Janowska Road” goes back and forth between hope and hopelessness. Hope seems like an unhelpful delusion, and he forces himself to be in the present and devote all his energies to survival. But at the same time, he doesn’t stop plotting an escape, and is motivated by an urge he can’t quite name – a sort of hope. In his description of his first day in the squad that was entrusted with the burning of thousands of bodies he writes:


“Raise your hand, man, and spit into the face of these murderers! Nobody does; it will bring only torture before death. Still, perhaps one shouldn’t give up so easily. Miracles do happen, and we may be saved. Hundreds of thousands have waited for a miracle in the past two years, but it never came. Stop hoping! “[2]


But even in the midst of the terrible inferno – he chooses to live on, somehow, despite the breaking of his hope, daily, he finds a motivation, a reason to choose hope, against all odds. It is a not a serene choice – it is full of anguish – but it is not despair: “The night has passed – the night in which I had vowed to escape, the night that was my last nope. Now, surely, I am lost… slowly everyone starts to wake up. “ [3]



For Elie Wiesel, the pull between hope and despair is connected to the courage to have faith – and to the need to rebel against that faith. Somehow, in that paradox of drives, resides the will to continue. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1996 he framed this concept in a mythic-biblical context:

“Job, our ancestor, Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity. Did he ever lose his faith? Is so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion. He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.”[4]


Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist, published the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying in 1969. Based on her work with patients dying of terminal illness she described the stages of grief – a paradigm that became known as the Kübler-Ross model.


According to Kübler-Ross, “We’re nourished by hope in especially difficult times” (p. 139). Most patients, she writes, maintain hope for a possible cure. “They believe that all this must have some meaning and will pay off eventually, if they can only endure it for a little while longer. When a patient stops expressing hope, it is usually a sign of imminent death” (p. 140).

The five stages of grief haven been studies in conjunction with the Holocaust, examining the similar human tropes – if not the actual conditions. The concentration camp prisoners were also nourished by hope, and those who somehow managed to cultivate this hope – sometimes managed to survive. In one account, Celia, a survivor, asked what she would hope for while in the camp, replied: “A miracle. We didn’t hope for a God, because there was no God, obviously. But for a miracle, some unreal miracle. I had hoped for a slice of bread…. “[5]

Primo Levi, in his remarkable observations, is intent on understanding the dynamics of human behavior in the camps as a paradigm to better under humanity. In “The Gray Zone” he explains the importance of analyzing what happened in the camps:

“…if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory.”[6]

For Primo Levi, hope was also a paradox – a ‘senseless, crazy’ – and it came from camaraderie –from the support and inspiration of others:

“I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today: and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just would outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving… Even when things were especially rough, he maintained hope. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope.”[7]


For Viktor Frankl, hope was generated not only by the burning desire to survive and bear witness, but also, most significantly, by his choice to believe in love – and in the hope of loving again. As he marches in an endless icy death march he imagines his wife and their love. He describes the moment as a profound and mystical revelation:


  “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”[8]



Frankl leads this discussion from the choice to have hope – to the choice to have faith. The pull between despair and hope finds a tighter rope on this shaky ground. As the discussion moves from psychology to theology, the questions raised by the analysis of the Holocaust and its ramifications for our own lives become even more complex and disturbing.

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, The Uniqueness and Normality of the Holocaust’, in Modernity and the Holocaust, Itahn NY Cornel University Press 1989


[2] Leon Wells, The Janowska Road, Halo Pr (February 1999), p. 232.


[3] “, p. 242


[4] Elie Wiesel, Hope, Despair and Memory, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986

[5] 1990 Holocaust Oral History Project. Witnesses. Survivors. Lucille E.-Interview. San Francisco. Aug. 14. 1990. URL: (10 Oct. 98).

[6] Primo Levy, The Drowned and the Saved, p. 41

[7] Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Macmillan P, 1961.p. 113

[8] Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, Pocket Books, 1946 pp. 56–57


The Betrayal of Language/Thinking about the Holocaust (1)
Breaking the Silence/Thinking about the Holocaust (3)