ONE DAY, WHILE STANDING ALONG THE SIDE of the swimming pool to start my workout, a man twice my age walked up to me and, with an accent I couldn’t place, asked if he could share my lane. His smile was genuine and I could have sworn I saw one of those Hollywood twinkles in his eyes. Getting in the water is by far the worst part of swimming, so, in an eﬀort to stall the chilling eﬀects of immersion just a moment longer, I nodded my head and waved him in ahead of me. In he plunged, and for the next ﬁfty minutes he never paused once to rest along the pool’s edge. I was intrigued by his good nature, not to mention his stamina, and hoped to strike up a conversation at the end of our workout. As I approached the wall to do a ﬂip turn, he tapped me on the foot, waved good-bye, and jumped out of the water, heading for the locker room. By the time I ﬁnished my workout, he was gone.
Several days passed before I saw him again. Once more he approached me, motioned to my lane, and this time, without saying a word, dove in and started swimming. As he entered the water, I noticed a tattoo on his left forearm. Throughout my workout, I was puzzled by the engraved numbers, distantly familiar, yet beyond my immediate recognition. In fact, it bothered me all day long. Just as fast as he entered the water, he jumped out ﬁfty minutes later, but not without tapping my foot, waving good-bye, and smiling.
My curiosity now heightened, I began an inquiry as to this man’s identity. I learned that, like me, he was a faculty member of the American University. His name was Arnost Lustig. But unlike me, he had a very diﬀerent past.
Originally from Poland, Arnost was about seventeen when he and his family were rounded up by the German Nazis and sent oﬀ to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz. Like all prisoners who entered that camp, he was separated from his family, stripped of all his belongings, robbed of his essence, and denied his humanity. I was told by those who knew Arnost that the horrors of Auschwitz can never be put satisfactorily into words. The tattoo I observed on his forearm was his oﬃcial identiﬁcation number. About a year after he was interned there, the American Forces liberated the camp and hell came to a gradual end. Arnost was a free man in a world riddled in chaos and grieving lost innocence. Like many Holocaust survivors, he emigrated to the United States to start a new life.
The next time I saw Arnost it was in the pool locker room. He approached me and introduced himself to me. We exchanged names and then he gave me a big hug, kissed my forehead, and, with another big smile and twinkle in both eyes, said, “You are like a son to me!” On that day we started a budding friendship, enjoying several workouts and conversations. I later learned that his last name, Lustig, means humor or laughter in German, a name he wears well. Putting his hand to his mouth, he whispered, “It’s how I got through that horrible ordeal in Auschwitz.” Then he put his arm around me and proceeded to tell me a joke.
Until the day I met Arnost, the Jewish Holocaust was a distant event in history to me. From the ﬁlm footage I saw in high school to the works of psychologist Victor Frankl to Steven Speilberg’s, Schindler’s List, the stories of the Holocaust were disturbingly moving. Yet on that day, Hitler’s “Final Solution” became a living memory. For those who survived, it is said that the atrocities of the Jewish concentration camps were the worst hell on earth.
The same semester I met Arnost, one of my undergraduate students shared with me this story during a classroom discussion about anger and forgiveness. Her grandmother, also a concentration camp survivor, had moved to New Jersey after the war. She returned to Europe two decades later with her daughter. Crossing a street in Poland, she saw the face of a man she could never forget, a Nazi concentration camp supervisor. Filled with emotion, the woman grabbed her daughter’s hand, and walked over to the man, with the intention of slugging him. As she got within a foot of the decrepit old man, she looked him straight in the eyes and quickly changed her mind. Instead she said “I forgive you,” then slowly turned and calmly walked away.
Recently my intrigue with Holocaust survivors led me to a book titled, The Triumphant Spirit, by Nick Del Calzo, a collection of portraits and stories of Holocaust survivors. Although the common theme of hope, the internal sense of a positive outcome is evident amongst all survivors, there emerges another theme as well—and that is the theme of forgiveness. From the thoughts of many survivors, it is explained this way—we had to learn to forgive and move on. To hold disdain and hatred toward a person or people for such horrible atrocities only perpetuates hatred. There are many lessons to be learned, forgiveness is one of them. In the words of Paula and Klauss Stern, Auschwitz concentration camp survivors, “We didn’t survive to hate—but to hope that the world learned something from the experience, so that atrocities like these will never happen again.”
Yom Kippur is a Jewish holiday, the Day of Atonement. It is a day to make peace with our mistakes, injustices, and wrongdoings. Although not a national holiday, many of my students excuse themselves from class to honor the day. I honor the day too. For me, it is a day of forgiveness, and a day to remember.