I had never been to Israel. I was in the company of two old wise and wonder-filled people, Shmuel Ron and his wife Katrit Ron, who were pioneers in family therapy in Israel.
Left to right: Dr. Bunny Duhl, Katrit Ron, Shmuel Ron
The laugher was intense and we were welcomed, fed and given a bed in the living room of the house. I was invited to participate in a training program at the Kibbutz Harduf, in Haifa. The program was conducted by Bunny Duhl Ph.D. as the representative of an organization called Avanta, now known as “The Virginia Satir Global Network.” The Ron’s had been instrumental in introducing Virginia Satir to Israel.
While preparing my bed on the sofa, I noticed a number of oil paintings hanging about the room. The subject matter consisted of various scenes of the City of Jerusalem and some portraits of people painted in an impressionist fashion. The there was one picture that caught my eye. It was unusual and I wondered about the story behind the picture. I asked my host if he could tell me something about the painting, but Shmuel said, “You are not ready to hear the story.”
I did not understand and wondered when one would be ready hear the story.
Dr. Duhl and I went North and spent a beautiful week working with eighteen professional trainers who wanted to learn more about training the new trainers. It was a rewarding time. I watched Bunny teach while I worked with various small groups as they developed workshop programs. I hope never to forget watching the closing ceremony by two participants which involved candles and light being passed as a symbol of hope. I remember my back being against a bomb shelter door as I faced the land that holy men and women had walked and at that very moment violin music began to emanate from an open window, accompanied by a piano and a beautiful voice. The convergence of all these things moved me deeply. Hope and pain all in the same breath.
When we left the workshop, we returned to Jerusalem and stayed again with Shmuel and Katrit Ron. We spent a wonderful day together touring and talking. And on our final morning, my host gave me a small package of 5X7 printed copies of several of his paintings which I had commented on in my earlier visit. Then he said in a very formal, sincere and earnest fashion, “I give this to you as a gift, I wrote on the back for you.”
I told you the story of this man.
I'm telling him as a great hero.
In this way I shall share his meaning with some friend.
And you Steve, are the old friend.
Since 20-30 years ago. Hand shaking, laughing and greeting.
I was honored and accepted the pictures.
“Now I will tell you the story about the one you asked about earlier.” He started with a question, “Was there ever anyone in your family that you felt embarrassed by?” he asked.
He continued, “One who acts in such a way that as a child you might pretend not to know him?” I replied, “Yes, I have had such people in my life. I think we all have to one degree or another.“ He then selected the picture of the old man and young man.
“Well this was my uncle. As a child I did not understand him, he was always talking about his faith and he loved to argue with people. I would sometimes pretend I did not know him. I was ashamed.”
“Who is the person on the bottom right?” I asked.
“That is me”, said Shmuel.
He said he was a child who had lived in Poland, he described his displacement and losses he and his family experienced. The Third Reich rose to power, the development of the Ghettos and how the situation got much worse that eventually he went into what was called the underground or the resistance.
He told me that he and others armed themselves and fought to make life difficult for the enemy. He added, “I did not last long as a fighter.” He was captured and sent to a camp for killing. “This is what was done to people who had fought back,” he said.
“They did not kill us. They made us work at the worst kind of jobs.” He described to me a very dire environment colored mostly by a grey atmosphere of sadness and depression. “Death was everywhere and there was no way out except through death.”
Shmuel then said that it was like a nightmare that would not end and that he was at the edge of sanity and life, That the pain of what was witnessed was beyond measure. On the day the story takes place, Shmuel is thinking about dying. He is thinking about entering a chamber used to gas people.
He no longer can stand to remove the bodies of people who have been brought to this chamber from a train station, where they had been sorted like animals. His job was to watch as they put people in and locked the door and then he would be charged with helping remove and dispose of the corpses.
It sounded evil to me, and I was moved by a sense of deep sadness and shame. Shame is about what we as humans can do to each other.
I remember being struck by his next words: “On the day I had decided to die, I watched a train come into the station.” He said that he had come to a place where he could not find a reason to continue, hope was lost and it was beyond him to endure the pain of tending to the people that had been suddenly put to death.
He told me that he had plan. That he would walk in with the people as they entered and he would be there as the doors closed and the gas released.
So as he waited for the day to move to a place where such events could occur.
He said he was heavy and grieving when he looked up the tracks and saw the people coming toward him. People he knew would be joining.
Earlier in the day he had watched people being sorted by a uniformed man. And he was deciding who went into what line. His power of choosing, at least for the short run, meant the difference between living and dying. Some would be saved to work- while the others would be sent to their deaths. It sounded most grim.
Shmuel now knew that most of the people that would die with him would be children and a mix of adults.
As the crowd of people moved closer to his position he could hear the voices, and that was always upsetting. The questions, the crying and sometimes there was a sound of laughter.
It was the laughter that got his attention on this day. He knew the voice, it was a voice of his childhood. It was his uncle the one who he was ashamed of, the very one who seemed so odd to him! The last he saw of him was when he was being put on a truck and taken away. Here he was again - this time on his way to the gas chamber.
Shmuel said that he wanted to get his uncles’ attention. He wanted to yell and make a connection with somebody that knew him. He wanted to reach for him, but he could not do so. He could not do this because he realized that the old man was engaged in serious work and should not be disturbed. The old man was among a large group of children, Children that the old man knew would soon be entering one of the gas chambers. His uncle was playing with the children. Shmuel watched as his uncle tried to give comfort to them. His uncle knew that only thing he could do was to connect and be with the children in the best way he knew how.
As the old man came near, he made contact but they did not speak. Shmuel heard the old man say to a crying child: “What is wrong?” The child said, “I can not find my Mommy and I cannot find my Daddy and I lost my horsey.” Then, he saw the old man get down with the child and he picked him up and put him on his shoulders and said to the little boy: “Don’t you cry. I will be your horsey and I will let you ride me dancing like a horse and together we will find your mommy and daddy.” They entered the gas chamber.
Shmuel then said, “I told you that he is my hero, so I want to share his meaning with you. Now you must share it, as it is a story about love. I tell this story so you can tell it. When you tell the story, be sure to tell the people that ‘the thing that matters most in this life is our ability to love.’”
So I offer this story of love and you can be sure that I will continue to do so.