Extreme Passion, the Value and Danger—Holocaust Recalled
Harnessing extremes into creativity, loving concern for others, and actions to avoid societal upheaval, hatred, and destruction.
I recount an early life story that brought me to the realities and risks of the extreme passions and ideas we can get caught up in as individuals or whole societies with positive or devastating outcomes.
My mother’s lost cousin—Iren
When I was a child in the early-to-mid 1940s, my mother took me to a local shoe repair shop on Upshur Street in Washington, DC. The shop was near the community of row houses where we lived. The struggling shoemaker in the shop, amongst all his buzzing machines, appeared to be a reticent humble man with the look of one worn down by years of struggle and hardship. He had an unfamiliar accent. My mother knew he was from Hungary, where her parents had lived before migrating to this country in the late 1800s. My mother showed him letters she had received recently from a cousin, Iren, of her age whom she had visited when a small child with her mother while seeing their family in Hungary before the war years. I understood that a terrible war occurred in Eastern Europe, over now with the German defeat.
As a child, I only knew that horrible things had happened to the unfortunate people living there, including my mother’s cousin and her family. Her cousin, Iren, was now a refugee from her destroyed home and community and lost family members. With a voice of despair, the shoemaker in the store translated and read the letters to my mother. He helped to write and address my mother’s letters in Hungarian to my mother’s cousin with whatever money or goods mother could send.
My mother was never sure her letters or what she sent would get to her or past the authorities or people providing her refuge. My mother received the last letter from her cousin with her address in Isreal, where she successfully migrated. The letter had the cousin’s new address in Isreal and expressed hope to see her in the future. No further attempts at correspondence or contact were successful. When my mother finally got her opportunity to travel to Isreal years later, she was disappointed not to locate her cousin with the address on the letter.
Before my mother died, she gave the well-kept last letter from Iren, now worn, hoping I would reconnect with her one day. In the late seventies, my wife and I traveled to Isreal, taking with us the old worn letter of Iren my mother gave me before her death. It was my quest to find her, hoping she was still alive. What transpired when we got to Isreal was a blessing and inspiring beyond my belief and expectations, an important event in my life.
Avoiding the recurrence of tragedy by vigilance and remembrance of the lessons of the past—often forgotten and ignored
My account began in my early youth and developed as I got older, allowing me to fill in many gaps and missing pieces. I still, today, even with a more precise, fuller picture of the events with a more in-depth understanding of the dynamic, am stunned at the enormity and savage mass murder that destroyed a large percentage of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe.
The rise to power of the tyrants occurred from the contribution of many prominent and wealthy supporters and on the backs of slave labor and the stolen property from those displaced and, ultimately, victims of mass extermination. The victimization and targeting came from lies, falsehood, and propaganda spread by a deluded, malicious, extremist leader and his supporters who seized power over the government. The population that didn’t support him became vulnerable and victimized after the seizure and control of the new government and military. People say that it is incredible this could happen in modern times. But the latest warfare technology and the killing machinery of war made it more possible. The contemporary mass media and communications also made it easier to spread false stories, propaganda, and lies, putting a target on the back of all deemed inferior and under the devious rhetoric of creating a purer breed and powerful state—ethnic cleansing and genocide resulted.
I was better informed but somewhat overwhelmed by the immensity and scope of the occurrence, reporting of survivors, film segments, newspaper, and government records presented in the 2022 PBS, The U.S. and the Holocaust.1 The three-part documentary miniseries is about the Holocaust and the United States’ response. The series examines the horrors and devastation of the Holocaust in Europe and America’s response to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. The documentary was directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein and written by Geoffrey C. Ward.2,3
Between 1941 and 1945, during the Second World War in German-occupied Europe, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews in the 1941 to 1945 period—around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population plus other victims of Nazi persecution. The mass murders and policies of ethnic cleansing and extermination were carried out in pogroms, shootings, gas chambers, and gas vans in German extermination camps like Auschwitz, Bełżec, and Treblinka. More history…
America and the Holocaust documentary showed how political extremism, political isolationism, antisemitism, and fear and hatred of foreigners or immigrants contributed to the devastating events affecting many vulnerable people. The presentation follows what transpired before, during, and after the war: the politics and the hatred that was energized and actualized in the horrendous killing of over 6 million Jews and other minorities.
Seeing the program by Ken Burns and associates patched together for me much of the history not taught at the schools or universities I attended and not fully passed on to me by family members. However, I realized that I only had a partial picture of what occurred from the patchwork of information I received growing up. It is difficult to come to terms with the reality that the same political extremism and hatred are present and used politically as antisemitism and hatred aimed at immigrants and minorities.
The rhetoric of hate, falsehoods, and propaganda are today magnified by social media and its algorithms. The hate rhetoric is still disseminated by lies, age-old stereotypes, false stories, tropes, and propaganda in today’s society. Similar tactics used in the past by those obsessed with gaining power continue by instilling fear about the economy and of replacement by immigrants and foreigners.
In the documentary series, I watched the Nazi’s final push into Hungary, where parts of my mother’s European relatives lived. Families with young children were shown being brutally removed from their homes by the fascist supporters and soldiers. In my imagination, one of the young Jewish women looked like my mother’s cousin Iren. I remember the stark poem she gave me of just that moment.
Connecting with Iren and the realities of the past
It was a sunny, warm day in 1985, in the arid and desert-like landscape, when my wife and I walked into the modest hotel lobby near Jerusalem. We were to meet a newfound niece of my mother’s dear cousin. We were young and full of wonder, adventure, excitement, and anticipation that something profound would soon occur.
Several years before her death, my mother regretted not finding her cousin during a trip to Israel. The cousin had migrated there after her release from a Nazi concentration camp. The Nazis had invaded her hometown in Transylvania, near the Hungarian border. After the war, my mother’s cousin, one of the few family survivors, wrote one last letter to my mother after migrating to Israel.
My mother had given me an addressed envelope received from Isreal after World War II from Iren. My mother hoped I would find her beloved cousin and complete the connection my mother had wished for. My mother remembered Iren as a small girl whom she had met when visiting their European family with her mother. After their visit, the two cousins kept in contact with an occasional letter.
Now, Iren’s niece took us by car to the rustic lodging where Iren and her husband were staying. I had located Iren’s niece by taking the envelope my mother had given me, with the old address and family name, to a multilingual shop owner. He took the time out from his work in his small stall-like shop to phone twenty or so people with a family name similar to the one on my mother’s envelope. He repeatedly told our story until Iren’s niece recognized it on one of the calls. The shopkeeper was so sweet to help us, and of course, we bought a few gifts to remember him and his colorful shop.
When we walked into the room, Iren, who appeared slightly frail and elderly with a concentration number tattooed on her arm, beamed with such warmth and a smile that our hearts melted, and all of us were crying and hugging. A profound sense of meaning came with the joining of our hearts and family’s past. The occasion was also profoundly moving, as we visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem just the day before. There were many reminders of that era’s horrific events, such as the exhibit of thousands of children’s shoes belonging to the many sent to the crematoriums at the death camps. Some of these children were from my mother’s and Iren’s family.
It was profound to meet Iren as a survivor of one of the worst tragedies in modern history. Iren had not only survived, but my impression was that she had moved to a much higher place of spirituality and love, though she still carried the deep scars of her losses and sacrifice. She had also become an accomplished poet and gave me some poems about her Holocaust experience, written in her native Hungarian, trying to find meaning in suffering and loss. When I returned to the states, I found a Hungarian professor who translated her poems.
Iren was one of the few in her village and family that survived the Nazi concentration camps and lived to write about the ordeal of what happened. Her poems were written—from 1944 to 1945—during her last days in her native town of Nagyvarad and as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Her poems of the time are shared, as Iren wished, to remind everyone never to forget and watch for any movement towards hatred, division, and violence. Her poems give a poignant reminder of the fate of a democracy that evolves into a brutal, totalitarian, fascist government.
Nineteen Forty-Four – On the Ides of March
Gendarme boots rumble on the streets of Varad
Up, up, Hungarians – they shout – Line up
Stand behind us – to search after Jews.
Bring together, big and little,
Rich, poor, infants and mothers,
Old and young, sick and aged
No trace should remain for those who may multiply.
The bell rings – even heaven is shaking
Jewish children run out of their homes Shema Yisrael – they shout — and the echo spreads
To thirty thousand Jews waiting for their fate.
Their homes devastated, desecrated, orphaned…
The Jew is public prey — taken prisoner by evil
Robbed, deprived, naked pariahs
Miserable orphans, bleeding from a thousand wounds...
As the Holocaust occurred in more modern times, the events are well documented in films, personal accounts, and meticulous recordings. The thorough documentation of the period has helped refute the deniers or those that wish to minimize the actual occurrence. It is less clear of the enormities of events in prior times when recorded information was often scarce or vague. I thought it should be a worthwhile addition to education in schools to afford a better understanding and respect for the past and realize the destructive force in the human psychic and behavior when left to the unchecked rhetoric and actions of extremists and totalitarian leaders.
Harnessing the extremes of love and hate for creativity and productivity or the opposite
Extreme passion in love or hatred can motivate new ideas, concepts, positive actions or creations, or clashing of opposite and destructiveness. When approached with open-mindedness, the opposite poles of emotions, and passionate reactions, attention to either or both sides leads to better outcomes. There usually is negativity or destruction when one strong or overbearing personality with an extreme or stuck mindset gets control. It might require getting unstuck from tightly held anger, belief, or an attraction and intense desire as an addiction or obsession.
Teamwork means moving forward effectively to achieve goals with all the separated individuals working together in a collaborative and complementary manner. Flexibility and desire are also critical to pulling everything together for a creative new synthesis and direction. When one has developed the ability to detach enough, see the larger context and perspective, with the readiness to moderate one’s passions, there is the possibility of a productive and beneficial outcome.
The extremes of fear of loss, and vulnerability, mainly when significant past trauma and loss has occurred to an individual, can block creativity, productivity, and emotional well-being and stifle the work or forward progress of a couple or a group. When arrogance and hate override the love and care for others, at its extreme, it has the potential for harm and devastation. It is a sad tale with repeated past occurrences towards vulnerable minorities when there has been a failure to be vigilant and remember the past’s lessons.
Be informed by the history of the past, be more aware, and be active in preventing tragedies from reoccurring
Understand the influence of others when you are not well-informed or vulnerable to deception
Learn your vulnerability to extreme passions, moods, anger, hatred, and passions
Be mindful of social media and their algorithms misuse, which can drive extreme political divisiveness, anger, and hatred
Study and practice equanimity and moderation as from the influential teaching of past teachers and scholars: the Stoics, Yogis, Buddhists, Judeo-Christian, and other spiritual and religious traditions
Moderate the extremes of your passion, love, and hate into creativity, loving concern for others, and actions
Let your attention to your inner fears, worries, resentments, and extreme feelings, wake you up, inspire you to make changes, and resolve problems that abound in yourself and others.
Article by Ron Parks