Are You Stronger Than Your Past? A Lesson From a Holocaust Survivor

stronger than your past

His troubles began with the death of his identical twin brother when he was seven years old. By the age of ten, he had already lost his entire family. Utterly alone, with no food or shelter, he was left to wander the forests, only to be imprisoned in a sealed ghetto and forced to live under the constant threat of death.

Does this sound like the childhood of a happy person?

We are taught that a difficult childhood inevitably leads to problems later in life. Depression in our forties is traced down to how our parents treated us before we were being potty trained. Anxiety all the way in our fifties is attributed to feelings of neglect before we even reached puberty.

We all have our stories. I sure have mine. Sometimes, I feel hopeless against all the suffering that I’ve endured as a small child. It’s unfair. It’s just plain wrong. Now I am stuck with all those scars, hopeless against a sea of trouble that will always be a part of who I am.

But then, I look at my grandfather – five feet tall, deep smile lines on his face. Who am I to complain about my fate? This man has suffered more than I could ever comprehend. And, yet, against all odds, he is, without a doubt, a much happier person than I am. In fact, despite his past, he is the happiest person I’ve ever met.

Grandpa’s Story.

Grandpa Srulik was born in a small Polish village. His mother stayed at home to raise three children while his father provided for the family as a salesman. Srulik describes his family as warm, loving, and peaceful. He spent his early childhood playing with his brothers in the fields, eating homemade meals, and celebrating Jewish holidays.

Things suddenly took a turn for the worse when, at the age of seven, Srulik unexpectedly lost his best friend—his identical twin brother. Shortly afterwards, his previously serene village was occupied by Nazis and his family – the only Jewish family in the village – was hunted down and murdered. Srulik alone managed to barely escape.

Alone, and with no one to comfort his immeasurable loss, Srulik wandered the forest. This is how grey hairs first appeared on the ten-year-old child’s head.

The following year would prove even more difficult, challenging Srulik to overcome one of the most inhumane prisons in human history, the Nazi ghetto, where, day after day, thousands of innocent people were put to their deaths.

Having just spent three years writing Grandpa’s memoir, I’m now even more amazed by the person that he turned out to be. How, after so much suffering, does he manage to maintain such high spirits? How did he come out of some of the worst trials man has ever suffered to be so joyful and full of life?

To this day, Grandpa radiates a gentle presence. No matter what life throws his way, he always finds a way to return to a state of gratitude and joy. His infectious laugh and his broad, warm smile reveal that nothing could dim the light in his heart.

Finding Happiness Despite Our Past.

Few of us were so unfortunate as to suffer pain comparable that to that of my grandfather’s childhood. Yet, the scars from our past that imprint on us, big or small as they may be, often leave an undeniable mark on our lives.

Can we move beyond past suffering and fill our present with happiness and joy, despite all that we have had to endure?

My grandfather is a prime example showing us that this is indeed possible. No matter how much pain we’ve had to endure and how much injustice has visited our path, there is a way to liberate ourselves from these old scars and enjoy a life blessed with happiness.

If a child holocaust survivor can do it, then surely we can do the same in our times of peace of plenty.

Whenever I feel down and a sense of hopelessness creeps into my life, I like to remind myself that Grandpa never lost hope, even when he was unprotected from the cold winter nights while hiding in the forest, even when there was literally nothing to eat, and even when everyone around him was dying by the thousands.

Whenever I feel that I’ve been dealt a lousy hand in life, and the urge to delve into a well of self-pity arises within me, I remind myself what no matter what life brought his way, Grandpa always found a way to see the upside in every situation, and highlight every ray of light that ever lit his path.

Whenever I feel the inclination to justify a foul mood by complaining of my past, I remind myself that Grandpa’s heart is full of joy after all that he has been through.

It is my greatest hope that my grandfather and his story will help you find hope on a stormy day.

Photo by jucanils

20 thoughts on “Are You Stronger Than Your Past? A Lesson From a Holocaust Survivor”

  1. Dear Maya,

    Thank you so much for sharing your grnadpa’s story with us, particularly on Thanskgiving. I had a painful past of childhood abuse and neglect, interspersed with rejection from people that I loved. All my life I’ve struggled with the pain and the scars of it. But your grandpa’s story gives me a lot of hope, that there is joy beyond the pain. I hope to find it and live in it for the rest of my life, just like your grandpa. I can’t wait to read his whole story in your book. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Best wishes,
    Nicole

    1. Hi Nicole,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your difficult childhood. Scars from our past can make us feel so hopeless. I sure feel this way sometimes.

      It can be so uplifting to know that it is possible to enjoy life and be happy, no matter how bad our past is. I am so happy to hear that my Grandpa’s story gave you hope.

      By the way, my grandpa passed away last week. It is such a joy to know that he can continue to inspire us even now.

      Warm regards,
      Maya

  2. I noticed that Nicole calls you Maya, yet the article is written by Margareta,

    So I am confused as to how to address you. What a beautiful inspirational story. Boy, when I want to feel sorry for myself, I can be inspired by your Grandfather. I have always believed that seeing the positive in every situation will carry you forward with happiness and joy. That is how I live and you have shown me that even in the worst of situations, one can rise above, by seeing the light.

    Much gratitude to you for sharing and what a day, Thanksgiving, for you to share this beautiful truth.
    Susan

    1. Hi Susan,

      It’s my pleasure to share this story with you on Thanksgiving – we have Peter to thank for positing it today!

      You’re absolutely right, so much of my grandfather’s happiness was tied to optimism and being able to focus on the bright side. Here is an interview I did with him a few months back, where he talks about this: http://www.greatlivingnow.com/2013/10/02/a-lesson-on-happiness-from-a-holocaust-survivor/

      By the way, I use Maya as short for Margareta :-)

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      Warm regards,
      Maya

  3. I learned something from facilitating a support group for years. No matter what is going on in your life it could always be worse. In general I am against comparing yourself to others but sometimes in order to really truly understand what you have you have to see what someone else went through. This was a great story for me to read on Thanksgiving.

    I am so lucky and thankful for what I have.

    1. Hi Sean,

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      You bring up an important point. The phenomenon that you’re describing has even been proved by psychologists. We judge how well our lives are going based on what we consider normal, which is based on comparing ourselves to others.

      Realizing that things could be much worse can actually help us see our own situation more realistically, but, more importantly, it helps us focus on what is working, instead of on what is broken.

      Thanks again for sharing!

      – Maya

  4. Dear Margareta,

    This article really help me in getting hope. Though my past sufferings are nothing compared to your brave grandpa, but I am in deep sorrow now-a-days. Though I have not lost anybody in my life, but I don’t get love, care from others. I am very lonely.

    From God’s grace just recently I got a very nice friend, I always miss that lovely friend of mine. Sometimes I cry for that friend, I am in a very strange situation.

    Really this article will help me in finding a happy life.

    Thanks
    Surya

  5. mahavir nautiyal

    Oh ! such a beautiful story of courage and fortitude and ability to smile even in dire adversity. My salutations to your grand father and also to you, Maya. I can take heart from the story as even small upsets in life send me to depression, particularly betrayal by persons I loved deeply, unconditionally. Perhaps, I should not worry about how people behave with me. I should be worried as to how I behave with others.

  6. This is a compelling story. It’s a great reminder to all of us that it’s not our circumstances, but what we make of them, that makes us who we are. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Thank for for telling us about your grandfather! Very inspirational! Back when the huge earthquake in Haiti happened, my computer crashed that same day. But I couldn’t be mad, considering the real suffering others were going thru.

  8. I once read a story about a WWII veteran from Britain who contrasted hearing men screaming and dying in dark, icy waters when a German submarine sank their ship, with customers arguing in a shop after the war about selections and discounts. Your grandfather’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. I know your book is wonderful, and I bet that one person who has benefited the most from telling it is you!

    Your post also made me think of what I told my foster daughter, who had, shall we say, a less that idyllic childhood before being placed in foster care. I told her that no one could give her the childhood she should have had, but that it was up to her to build the life she wanted going forward.

    I had the good fortune to meet a Holocaust survivor, and his words helped me put all this in perspective. I am sure your grandfather’s story will do the same. Thank you for sharing part of it here.

    And to Peter, I have enjoyed your blog and the inspiration you offer here to your readers to make real and lasting change in their lives. I have just posted my last blog post, and I’m going around now to say goodbye and thank you. Hope you will stop by and all the best to you.

  9. Hi Maya,

    Growing up as a Jew I was taught about the atrocities of the Holocaust in Hebrew school. I was taught by well meaning people to mostly stay in a suspicious, defensive posture. Thank goodness I never totally bought into that because we really do become our worst fears.

    I am glad your grandfather saw a larger perspective and passed that joy onto his family. He reaps the rewards in a magnificent granddaughter…and no doubt many other people and places.

    Larry

  10. Maybe your Grandpa learned about happiness because of his past, not despite it. Tasting mortality always carries the gift of appreciating life – not the bells and whistles, salaries or cars. Life itself is a precious present that too many of us take for granted in our quest for more, more, more. Thank you Maya for this beautiful and inspiring story… your Grandpa’s legacy of joy keeps expanding and touching the hearts of others, and in my book, that’s a blessing.

    1. Hi Lorna,

      Thanks for your comment! You bring up an interesting question. Was grandpa a happy person despite being a Holocaust survivor, or because of it?

      Both points of view can be justified, and, perhaps perplexingly, both can be true at the same time.

      The first thing I’d like to point out is that many Holocaust survivors had (and still have) a very different reaction. Like many veterans, many survivors of the Nazi Holocaust suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, the negative effects of the Holocaust are even known to have multi-generational consequences.

      I am sure that this is not surprising to anymore. Then how do we reconcile that with the idea that having seen such horror can help one gain greater appreciation for life, and as such, perhaps contribute to one’s happiness?

      It believe that it is clear that happiness is not a natural consequence to what my grandpa had endured. Appreciation for life, by itself, does not necessitate happiness. But, it can certainly play a part.

      Overall, I think that it is an incredible achievement to have lived such a joyful life after everything that happen to him – which stands in sharp contrast to how many others people responded to the same (their response being completely natural to the horrors that they suffered).

      If you’re interested, in my interview with grandpa shortly before he passed away, he sheds some light on the subject: http://www.greatlivingnow.com/2013/10/02/a-lesson-on-happiness-from-a-holocaust-survivor/

      Thanks again for bringing this up!

  11. Dear Margareta,

    Thank you for sharing the story of your grandfather with us so he can live on in your words and in our thoughts. He sounds like an incredibly inspiring, warm and loving personality – despite never having met him, your description brought him alive for me. In my interpretation of it, your post touches on two subjects simultaneously: the worst and the best that the human spirit is capable of. It is clear which side you grandfather chose. I am grateful that he got to live a long, happy life and inspire many with his personality.

    Much love,
    Bereji

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