This story isn’t mine; I read it in a memoir several years ago, but I want to share it because it holds some powerful lessons for all of us, and it has left a powerful impression on anyone I’ve told. It’s breathtaking, and it goes like this:
The author of this memoir is a woman named Gerda. A Jewish woman during the Second World War, she spends the war being shuffled from work camp to work camp. Already, this is a brutal enough fate, even though she, herself, never actually ends up in one of the death camps. However, in one of the camps where Gerda works, there are bi-weekly health inspections wherein the female workers (i.e., slaves) are each given a chest X-ray, and women whose X-ray shows signs of TB are sent to Auschwitz. Every time the X-rays are conducted, some are “selected” for Auschwitz.
In her memoir, Gerda recounts the story of one particular woman she knew who was slated for transfer to Auschwitz. They embrace and bid one another a wordless farewell.
When Gerda’s acquaintance arrives, unsurprisingly, she and all the other women with tuberculosis in her transport are sent to the gas chamber. Except it’s a very busy day at the gas chamber; they must wait. The line is long, and many of them obviously have an awareness of what is (eventually) about to happen. Gerda’s acquaintance decides to sit down on the ground while she waits.
While sitting there, she digs around absentmindedly in the dirt with her fingers. . . and suddenly her fingers catch upon “a handful of gems.” She pulls them up out of the earth, decides to rise from her position in the killing lines, takes the jewels to a guard, and says, “I want to live.”
The guard has complete power over what will happen with this young woman’s life. The guard could easily take the jewels and send her right back to the execution queue — or kill her on the spot — no negotiation. But this guard she has happened to choose to approach does agree to help her. And he finds some way to get her AND two other women from her group a job in the kitchens.
The young woman survives Auschwitz, survives the war. She meets Gerda again post-liberation somewhere in southern Germany and tells her story. And that story has been amazing enough — but when Gerda asks about the woman’s health, she tells Gerda that she has actually been examined by a doctor after the war, and it turns out that her lungs are totally fine. So maybe the doctor made a mistake, or maybe the doctor lied. . . or maybe she experienced a miraculous healing, on top of the already-astonishing miracle of the gems.
This story blew me away when I first read it and still blows my mind even now. What were the chances that there would be gems lying in the dirt in some random location in a concentration camp. . . where someone would find them? What are the chances that someone condemned to execution would happen to be forced to wait in precisely that spot. . . and would be “randomly” compelled to sit down and dig around in the dirt to pass the time?
But just as amazingly, the fact that she took the gems to a guard — a guard who actually would agree to help her, no less — and dare, against all odds, and in what very well could have been her very last moments, to assert her will to live? To state her desire for a different ending? I find it incredible that she even recognized the opportunity to negotiate; how many others in such a crushing, seemingly inescapable situation would have had such clarity of mind and courage to recognize and take that chance?
This story teaches so much. Partly about the power of declaring one’s intention and daring to hang on to a sense of will in the face of any odds — but primarily about miracles and hope. Does it get any more “hopeless” than the killing lines at a concentration camp? And yet, this story. Three young women, without any reason to have expected it, were ushered away from death’s door. Perhaps not in all moments, but certainly in a moment when it very much mattered, they did find mercy and deliverance.
To maintain the proper perspective, it is important to remember that there were too many millions of others during World War II who did not find their miracles — no momentarily merciful guard, no Heaven-sent gems to trade in exchange for survival. And it would be naïve to argue that personal merit made those who did find miracles, and did survive, more “deserving” of such deliverance than others; bigotry and systematized violence are cruel, and often arbitrarily so.
But miracles do happen, and they can happen for anyone, in any moment, and take any form. In a world of practically limitless possibilities, hope is not naïve. We would do well in our own lives to remind ourselves that, if miracles can happen in even the most hopeless of situations — in hells we cannot even imagine, hells that seem absolutely inescapable — they can certainly happen in our worlds as well. You never know when you might be up for a miracle.
May you find yours when you need them. And plenty more as well when you do not. Just because.