Elfriede “Marie” Jakob and I crossed paths over three years ago, when I spent a few weeks in Berlin and was introduced by a mutual friend. I was a student, Marie an eighty-one-year-old Auschwitz survivor. An unlikely friendship?
The first thing that hits you on meeting her is her manner: you feel the warmth of a welcoming embrace even before she reaches up to put her arms around you. You follow her stooping figure as she feels her way along the dingy hall with her crippled hands. While you make yourself at home on the blanket draping the shabby sofa, Marie lowers herself into her chair, beams at you, and starts to talk. About her children. The war. Her parents, killed by the Nazis. The babies she has delivered in her years as a midwife. Or her homeless friends. Today it is about the pigeons. I am back in Berlin after a long interval, overjoyed to see her once more.
“Tell me again, Marie. Were you born in Berlin?”
“Yes,” she tells me. She was born in the house where she now occupies a few rooms looking out on the back courtyard. Before the Second World War, the entire building belonged to her wealthy Jewish parents. By 1942 her father had been shot for refusing to kill other Jews, and Marie rounded up for deportation to Poland with her mother. Succeeding in leaping from the truck, she made her way to a village outside the city.
This family hid me in their dovecote, you know, the pigeon house. And the pigeons took care of me. I don’t tell this to just anybody – they would say I’m crazy – but when the pigeons were fed, they brought the grains, dropped them in front of me. Why not? They are also God’s creatures! They kept me alive for a week and I feed them now, too.
Out of suffering come the strongest souls. God’s wounded often make his best soldiers.
I’ve spent hours with her, hearing her tragic stories. Sometimes she weeps, but always her amazing capacity for love overflows into the words of her telling. The wounds she has suffered defy comprehension. Her hiding place betrayed by suspicious neighbors, she was imprisoned first in Auschwitz, then Sachsenhausen, where sympathetic guards facilitated an escape: she was smuggled out in barrels of camp refuse. Offered reparations monies after the war, Marie refused. She explains:
I was not the only one who suffered. What about the mothers who lost their husbands and sons in the fighting? Nobody will pay them anything. Why should I have the money?
If anyone had a right to be bitter, it would be Marie. I once commented on her attitude, and she responded almost apologetically:
I can’t hate. Look at all those who helped me – the guards, the women. Do you know, in Birkenau there was this girl, Anita. To use our names was forbidden, but I knew hers and she knew mine. Anita knew that she wouldn’t live. She shared her food with me and the other children. Can you imagine? I swore that I would name my daughter after her if I survived, and I did. I just can’t help loving...
It was only after the reunification of Germany that Marie recovered the rights to the house stolen from her family in Berlin. She insisted on renting out the apartments to “the little people” – her way of describing young families, the elderly, and students with little money – even though this leaves her with hardly enough to live on herself. Today, despite her upcoming eighty-fifth birthday, I can tell that something is troubling her.
My daughter, she has liver cancer. It hurts my heart. Why am I still here, when so many are gone? I raised fifteen children besides my own five, and two of them are dead already.
Why indeed. Why do some carry a load apparently so much heavier than the rest of us? Recently I read some words quoted by Rabbi Abraham Twerski: “Out of suffering come the strongest souls. God’s wounded often make his best soldiers.” I have been privileged to know one of God’s wounded warriors.
As I rise to go, Marie insists on seeing me to the door. Again she reaches up to embrace me. “When are you coming again?” I tell her that I will be leaving the country, that I may not see her again. She smiles reassuringly: “Don’t worry, my dear, I’ll see you again up there with God.”