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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Auschwitz. Synchronicity. God.


The term "Synchronicity" was coined by scholar Carl Jung. We use it to name those beyond-chance moments in life that bring together events in such a way as to give us a sense that there is some larger meaning, that unseen hands are commenting on our lives. The most frequently cited example: suddenly, without any prompting, you think of a friend you haven't heard of in years, and you then run into that friend.

Atheists insist that synchronicity is mere chance. Littlewood's Law of Miracles states that enough things happen in any given moment  that some of those events will appear to be miraculous. You think of old friends all the time. Eventually you will think of an old friend just before you run into that very same old friend.

That explanation works for me some of the time. Other stories of synchronicity, though, strike me as entirely beyond chance, beyond even the mathematics of Littlewood's Law of Miracles.

"Save Send Delete" tells the story of my debate, and relationship, with an atheist celebrity. In his public statements, he pooh-poohed synchronicity. With me, though, he was not so certain, and he did interpret events in our relationship as beyond chance. I did, too, and I write about that in the book.


We understand Auschwitz as the negation of meaning and the death of God.

Nazism really did tear the world apart. Nazis wanted to destroy what came before, including the Judeo-Christian tradition. They wanted to obliterate not just their victims' bodies, but their sense of meaning.

Here's the thing you might not expect – even in that absolute evil, that chaos, there was not only good, there was also meaning.

Of course Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, gave us "Man's Search for Meaning," one of the greatest books ever written. Anyone can embrace Frankl. An atheist can embrace Frankl. His book doesn't require a belief in the supernatural.

To me, the amazing thing is that even in Auschwitz, there were people who believed in God, and that even in the Holocaust, people noted, and took meaning from, synchronous events.


Well, of course, a skeptic might argue. Desperate people will find meaning in anything.

True. World War Two was a horror and it drove people to desperation.

But is that the only explanation? The only explanation of the many synchronicity stories told by those who survived World War Two? Human desperation combined with mere chance?

My dad served in the Pacific Theater. He saw combat – he had a lot on his mind. He had a dream that his brother, also in uniform, thousands of miles away, died. You know the end of this story. His brother had died. My dad had no way of knowing this. He was fighting in the jungle.

Even those who survived the ultimate horror, the Final Solution, tell these stories. They tell them a lot. One of the weirdest: Betty Schimmel lost her first love, Richie Kovacs, during the Holocaust. She later saw his name on a list of the dead. She married Otto, an Auschwitz survivor. Betty never forgot Richie, though. In 1975, on a return trip to Budapest, she looked across a restaurant, and saw Richie. She tells this story in her memoir, "To See You Again." Critics criticized the book for combining a Holocaust memoir with a hot love story. Life is not so neat. Betty's life story really is a combination of the two. With synchronicity thrown in.

Another. This is one I talk about in "Save Send Delete." Stefania Podgorska was a teenage Polish girl during World War Two. She was singularly unequipped to defy the Nazis. And yet defy them she did, rescuing thirteen Jews. Given the nightmare conditions of Nazi-occupied Poland, rescuing one Jew was more than most adults could do. But this was just a teen girl, one so untutored she didn't even know her own birthday. How did she do it? Partly, at key moments, with the aid of disembodied voices that told her where to go to find shelter.

I asked my friend Rabbi Laurence Skopitz, why don't those kind of angelic voices speak to more people? He said, they do, but people don't listen.

In fact, there are so many of these synchronicity stories that there is an entire book devoted to them: "Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope and Survival" by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal.


I just read a book I can't recommend enough: "The Auschwitz Volunteer." It's about Witold Pilecki, a hero among heroes. He was an underground resistance fighter who actually volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz, in order to organize and smuggle out information.

Pilecki was in Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943. And he repeatedly states, "I believe in God."

His faith amazes me.

And the synchronicity.

Pilecki gave a false name when he was arrested by the Nazis. He did this so that once he escaped with the information he had gathered and returned to his underground comrades, he didn't want the Nazis to go after his own family. He assumed that the man whose name he used was dead.

When the time was ripe, Pilecki made a hair-raising escape from Auschwitz. He was shot at twice, and wounded once. He ran wild through the countryside. His clothes were a giveaway that he'd been a prisoner. He was taken in by kind people who asked no questions. And, in this wild, chaotic, dangerous escape, he found his way to a house. It was the very house of the man whose name he had lived under in Auschwitz. Same man. Same birthdate.

This is beyond chance.

Does Littlewood's Law of Miracles explain it?

Was this real synchronicity, an event that suggests that some unseen hand is commenting on our lives?

Scoffers will ask, "Where was that hand when so many were fed into the ovens?" Believe me, I ask that question, too. And I find Pilecki meeting the man whose name he used to be beyond chance. Is all I'm saying. I'm not saying I can explain it all, because I cannot. I'm not offering an answer, here. I'm offering a question.


  1. Miracles? I'm sure there were many of those among the horrors. My mother was not a woman who believed in God/angels/miracles. She was a skeptic of the first order. My poem "What the War Taught Her" gives a pretty clear picture of that.

    Here's the poem:

    My mother learned that sex is bad,
    Men are worthless, it is always cold
    And there is never enough to eat.

    She learned that if you are stupid
    With your hands you will not survive
    The winter even if you survive the fall.

    She learned that only the young survive
    The camps. The old are left in piles
    Like worthless paper, and babies
    Are scarce like chickens and bread.

    She learned that the world is a broken place
    Where no birds sing, and even angels
    Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.

    She learned that you don't pray
    Your enemies will not torment you.
    You only pray that they will not kill you.


    That's what my mom learned in the war. But she admitted that she was saved by a miracle. The first day in the slave labor camp in Germany she was put outside to help bring in a beet harvest. This was in November. There was snow falling, the air was cold, and she and the other girls were dressed in stripped dresses of thin cloth. They had no gloves, coats, hats, and they had no shovels to dig in the frozen ground for the beets.

    My mom was sure that she would die there, but she didn't. A guard, a German soldier, saw her there and took pity on her and brought her into a barn and told her that she would milk the cows there.

    That soldier saved her life. He was the miracle.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing the poem, the story and the challenging thoughts.

  3. Small miracles

    The Cranes

    One by one,
    baffled mourners
    drifted back
    to fragile sanctuaries,
    leaving her alone
    to gaze into the abyss
    of freshly churned earth –
    where the once beautiful body
    began the slow passage
    back to dust.

    As she knelt
    craving his presence,
    Apollo blazed West
    meandering to destiny
    threatening to leave her alone
    in the land of night,
    where nocturnal creatures
    dwell ominously therein.

    But she remained faithful,
    still at one with him,
    her humanness
    causing signs
    in the heavenly places,
    provoking the servants
    to summon the cranes—
    to break the veil,
    their startling appearance
    and poetic laments
    letting her know
    she was not alone,
    giving her strength,
    to rise from her knees.

    As she drove off
    into night –
    the cranes followed,,
    flying around and around—
    until the cemetery’s gates
    clung shut behind;
    but she knew
    he would be with her,
    all the days of her life.

  4. Charles, thank you. And thank the cranes!