In The Holocaust Laurence Rees talks about humanity’s ability to endure the most terrible and the most chaotic of existences—concentration camp life. As you would expect, it involved a wealth of problems that we today can little comprehend, let alone begin to empathise with. The givens of a normal existence were things that were remarkably scarce. Food, water, shelter, security, human connection and trust, personal dignity. These fundamentals were stripped away.
This is what you will learn should you read any book about the Holocaust and its inhumanity. But what is lesser known is how different people with different religious beliefs fared in comparison to one another.
For example, I still remember the feeling in my gut when I read Elie Wiesel’s Night Trilogy. He said, essentially, that his God died when he saw woman burning alive and babies being dashed against trees by smiling SS officers. Other accounts that I have read, both historical and personal, make the observation that those without a Faith had a hard time gripping onto their own sense of being. With no higher power to believe in, they saw their situation for what it was. Something barbaric, ludicrous, unimaginably real.
But as Rees points out, Jehovah’s Witnesses that were imprisoned often displayed the most incredible fortitude. I’m no student of religious affinities but I am aware that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion is exacting, uncompromising even. In times of everyday existence, of normality, where life marches to the beat of a familiar drum, such religious conduct—and the fervour that often accompanies it—can seem irrational, unnecessary. But in those times of incomprehensible chaos? It helped.
As it turns out, in irrational and previously unimaginable times an uncompromising and irrational faith in something beyond the human realm can be the difference between death and survival, or at least between a dignified and a non-dignified death.