The barometer of a healthy society

I’ve recently returned from my first visit to Poland. Poland was home to vibrant Jewish communities for 1000 years. Over three million Jews lived there before the Holocaust; fewer than 20 000 remain there today. We explored the beautiful remnants of those ancient communities and visited the resting places of their spiritual leaders. We also confronted the overwhelmingly sadistic horror of the Holocaust. 

Most of us understand the Holocaust as the heartbreaking story of ghettos, deportations and mass murder. We have all heard of hellish places like Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each concentration or death camp we visited on this trip set off a fresh emotional torrent. One location, off the beaten track and unvisited by most, hit me. 

We detoured from our Warsaw-to-Lublin route to visit the town of Otwock. Otwock housed the central Chabad yeshivah in the 1930s, and we wanted to visit the site of the yeshivah building and where the Rebbe had lived. On the way, our bus turned into a heavily wooded area towards what looked like a haunted mansion. Empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts littered the floor of the building, and graffitied profanities covered its crumbling walls. 

We had arrived at Zofiówka Sanatorium, once famous, today abandoned. Tzvi, our guide, explained how the building had once been world-renowned. At its peak, the institution accommodated hundreds of patients. Way ahead of their time, four Jewish neurologists had built a place to care for people with mental health challenges or disabilities. Wherever possible, they helped to integrate these people into regular society. 

Then the Nazis arrived. They had no use for people with disabilities. In 1940 they starved some 400 patients to death. Two years later, they executed 140 patients and deported the remainder and their medical carers to the Treblinka death camp. The Nazis then repurposed this exceptional medical facility for their Lebensborn programme to breed Aryan babies. 

As a father to a child with a rare disease, I was shell-shocked. I’m sure everyone in our group was appalled by the Nazi cruelty. For me, the story was an epiphany- an insight into how a cultured nation had morphed into genocidal maniacs. 

The so-called Aryan has blue eyes and fair skin; his muscles are toned, and his body free of blemishes. Aryan race theory sees value only in the physical. There is no definition of an Aryan soul. 

In 1906, a group of doctors in Otwock who could see past people’s physical limitations birthed a place where they could celebrate the souls of those whose bodies failed them. Their groundbreaking approach resonates strongly with what we have come to learn through Shaina. Shaina’s body doesn’t work as well as ours, but her soul is aflame. Our daily interactions with her, watching her unique sensitivity to others and unwavering happiness, inspire us. We try to see the world through her pure eyes.

In 1940, a soul-less band of reprobates snuffed out the souls of Otwock and tried to replace them with muscular bodies. They were incapable of appreciating the value of the spirit. 

The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov taught that what you see in others is a reflection of yourself. Those who cannot see value in every person have lost touch with their souls. When you lose touch with your soul, you become capable of the unthinkable. 

Shaken by the realisation, I stuck one of Shaina’s kindness coupons into the outer wall of the old sanitorium. It was an act of defiance against those who rate people on appearance. And it was a reminder that the barometer of a society’s health is how they treat those with different abilities. 

Kindness Coupon at the sanitorium in Otwock, Poland

Published by rabbiarishishler

Husband, father and rabbi of Chabad of Strathavon in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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