Among many Holocaust survivor stories, few compare to that of our friend, Gerda.
You know those conversations that just stick with you? The ones that don’t necessarily seem significant at the time but that worm their way into your memory, take root, and blossom into something that fundamentally shifts your worldview?
Have you ever had that experience second-hand? When you weren’t even a part of the original conversation, you just heard the recap?
I have, and I want to share that with you.
A few years ago, back before Peak Mind was even a consideration and Dr. April had just gotten into podcasting, she and I were catching up on the phone talking about grateful people and stories of gratitude. She told me about a recent guest she had just interviewed, a woman who survived the Holocaust. April told me that in their conversation, the woman (who I now know is named Gerda Weissman Klein) remarked to her that no one ever talks about the good parts of the Holocaust.
EXCUSE ME?! The good parts of the Holocaust? There were GOOD parts of the greatest human atrocity of modern times? Anne Frank must have left that chapter out of her diary.
Gerda told Dr. April about the compassion and support and friendship and sacrifice amongst the Jews in the concentration camps.
The atrocities of the second world war with forced labor of men, women, and children, being deported to Auschwitz, seeing friends and family members taken to the gas chambers are too much to bear. I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships and suffering that Holocaust survivors had to endure, and I was blown away that one would highlight the bright spots.
Honestly, I was blown away that there were any bright spots.
That fact speaks to some of the strengths of the human spirit.
Finding a bright spot, something to appreciate or be grateful for, doesn’t negate the pain, the suffering, the hardship, or the adversity you are facing. Those things are real, and they’re there. They’re hard to ignore, and they tend to demand and hold our attention.
In my clinical practice, I often teach both kids and adults about our brain’s natural negativity bias, the importance of finding a “but at least” in every crummy situation, and the power of gratitude (there are SO MANY psychological and physical benefits, trust me). I am often, however, met with a version of “But this sucks! There’s nothing good about it.”
That’s when I share my second-hand conversation with Gerda. If she can find something to be grateful for during the Holocaust, I’m pretty sure we can find something here in the United States.
The attitude of gratitude – or the act of finding and focusing on those bright spots – helps us have a more balanced view of our experience. It helps us to be strong and resilient. It gives us a lifeline to cling to when it feels like we’re drowning.
Don’t short-change this practice, though, by quickly naming things you should appreciate. Seek out the unique bright spots for that day, and when you find one, savor it. Really focus on it, tap into that sense of gratitude, and hold on to it for just a little while (10-12 seconds to be exact. That’s about how long it takes positive stuff to get encoded in our memories, in contrast to the negative stuff that gets socked away pretty much instantaneously).
And as you work to find your bright spots during difficult times, please don’t let gratitude become a sneaky way to shame yourself. “You’ve got a roof over your head and food to eat. You should be grateful. Why are you struggling?” or “There’s always a bright spot. Why can’t you find it? What’s wrong with you?” Commence the self-criticism spiral.
In those moments, perhaps the bright spot is simply that you tried; amidst everything else going on, you tried, and that speaks to your strength.
Whether your circumstances in this pandemic make it easy or difficult, I implore you to find something to feel grateful for each and every day.
Be like Gerda.
“I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars.”
– Gerda Weissman Klein
P.S. If you want to hear Gerda’s powerful story, here’s her interview with April.