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We Still Have Freedom

Within a Prison of Pain, We Still Have Freedom

Realizing January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day has given me a strange, inexplicable comfort because that date is also significant in a personal and very painful way. On January 27th, 1945, the Red Army freed 7,000 ill and dying prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp. Days before, 60,000 healthier captives were forced by the SS to leave the camp in the infamous Death March, where thousands more died.

While honoring those who were liberated that date 70 years ago, Remembrance Day also commemorates the loss of six million Jews, approximately one million Roma or Gypsies, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and at least 9,000 homosexual men at the hands of the Nazi regime and its collaborators. This global horror shares a date of tender, tragic, and intimate remembrance for me and my family.

Watching the news coverage one night several years ago, I wept to hear the stories of survivors who returned to the camp to mark the 70th anniversary of freedom. They were teenagers then, but they returned to this wretched place as respected doctors and successful business people, their adult children at their side.

“I’m a victor,” one of the elderly men said tearfully — wiping away the label of “victim” that others might’ve used, considering what he suffered. “I’m here!” he added with resolve.

Former Auschwitz prisoner #A11832, Jack Rosenthal, a successful realtor, said to NBC reporter Bill Neely, “Somebody told me nobody ever gets out alive from here. So, to be here now 70 years later…I consider it an accomplishment, to say the least.”

I greatly admire Mr. Rosenthal and his accomplishments and the accomplishments of the other survivors. They reached deep inside and willed themselves to live. Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, wrote about how the will to live was drained from some and they would then, simply, die—even when lack of food or medicine was not the cause. Still, as Harold S. Kushner writes in the 2006 Foreword of the book, “Frankl’s concern is less with the question of why most died than it is with the question of why anyone at all survived.” Frankl writes, “We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” In that collective agony, an individual searching for meaning needed a scent of hope.

Hope is central to our existence. It is sometimes the difference between living and dying. It is the difference between failure and success, whatever those look like to the individual. It is the difference between resilience and surrender. It is possible to lose hope and claw through the muck and mire to get it back. But a person must be determined to seek it, fight for it, and cling to it.

The determination, the resilience, the emphatic will to live of Holocaust survivors — it inspires me every day and most of all every year on January 27th. Because it was on that day in 1995 that my eldest daughter, Jocelyn Albright Desmond, was born. My pregnancy was easy, the labor quick, and her young life blessed with good health. She was a beautiful child with sparkling brown eyes and an eager and friendly smile. But things changed. She struggled in adolescence, words cutting her deeper than they would most, anger bubbling close to the surface disguising depression. Various forms of therapy and treatment couldn’t heal the festering ugly wounds that were hidden from most.

She was a prisoner, held captive by her own pain. The love that surrounded her couldn’t set her free. Jocelyn was only 17 when she gave up hope in 2012. It is sometimes hard at that age to see hope, to know that it can get better.

But I live every day clinging to or clawing towards hope and trying to breathe it into the upended lives of all those I know who have suffered the suicide loss of a loved one and who suffer from their hopelessness.

The Holocaust victors give me strength to always keep clinging and clawing. I cannot consider putting myself in their shoes, comparing my experience to theirs, but there is an oft-quoted statement in suicide prevention and postvention books and articles that binds me to these victors: “The level of stress a person feels after losing a loved one to suicide is catastrophically high – equivalent to that of a highly traumatic concentration camp experience, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).”

That level of stress is the evil twin of the even greater evil, hopelessness. It speaks to the experience of a family and loved ones picking up the pieces of a shattered life — of shattered lives. Viktor Frankl said, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Suicide loss survivors may, for a time, be locked inside their pain, chained to hopelessness and standing among the broken shards of the imagined and planned life. But I fought to break free and to free my loved ones. It is my hope and mission to help others do the same, on their schedule and in their own way. We do have the freedom to choose how to respond and I hope each of us, eventually, can say, “I’m a victor.”

About the Author

Jaletta Desmond

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a freelance writer and a certified grief educator. Desmond is also a peer facilitator for suicide loss support groups nationally and administrator/facilitator for support groups in North Carolina. She lost her 17-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, to suicide in 2012.Read More »