Daniel: A Hint of Compassion
Vladek was notorious, the subject of jokes and gossip in Auschwitz work camp X. He was a Polish country boy who received packages from home with fruit and woolen socks, so he was potentially a person of some standing. All the same, he never washed.
Otto, the German barracks chief, one of the first inmates of Auschwitz, #14, ordered him to bathe. First in a nice way, that is to say with insults, then with slaps and punches, but in vain.
There came a mild September Sunday, one of the rare work free Sundays, and Otto took out one of the huge soup tubs, rinsed it, and then filled it with hot water. He put Vladek in it and washed him from head to foot. Otto could have beaten him up or had him transferred to the punishment camp.
That evening Yom Kippur eve, and the inmates got in line for soup, as on every other evening. Otto was in charge of dispensing the soup. When Ezra got in front of Otto, he did not hold out his mess tin. Instead, he said: “Mr. Barracks Chief, for us today is a day of atonement and I cannot eat my soup. I respectfully ask you to save it for me until tomorrow evening.”
In all his Camp years, Otto had never run into a prisoner who refused food. He told Ezra to step aside and come back to him after he had finished lading it out.
Was Ezra perhaps less hungry then on other days?
Ezra answered that certainly he was no less hungry, that on the day of Yom Kippur he should also abstain from work, but he knew that if he did so he would be denounced and killed, and therefore he would work because the law allows disobedience of almost all precepts and prohibitions in order to save a life. That nevertheless he intended to observe the prescribed fast because he wasn’t certain that this would lead to his death.
Otto could not leave that after so long in Auschwitz Ezra had any sins for which he had to atone. Ezra explained that the atonement was not a strictly personal matter. The day and the fast contributed toward obtaining forgiveness from God for sins committed by others. “My sins too,” asked Otto. “What about their sins,” he continued, pointing at the German guards.
Ezra answered that, unlike Jonah the biblical prophet who brought forgiveness for all people, he was a simple man. He must insist on asking Mr. Barracks Chief that his soup be saved until the following evening, and also next morning’s bread. Do not keep the soup warm; keep it cold.
Otto asked why, and Ezra answered that there were two good reasons for this, one sacred and one profane. In the first place, he began to speak in a Talmudic singsong and to sway a little back and forth from the waist up, according to some it was inadvisable to make a fire on Yom Kippur even by the hand of Christians. In the second place, Camp soup tended to go sour quickly, especially when kept in a warm place. All the prisoners preferred to eat it cold rather than sour.
The following evening Otto presented Ezra with a huge portion of bread and soup.
How did Ezra know he could risk asking Otto for this consideration? Because Ezra saw that Otto did not beat Vladek, that he rinsed this soup pot before the bath, and that he used hot water, not cold, to bathe Vladek. (Primo Levi; “Moments of Reprieve,” The Cantor and the Barracks Chief)
“Daniel set the resolved in his heart to not be defiled I the Kings food nor by his drinking wine, so he requested of the Officer of the Eunuchs that he not be defiled. The Lord gave Daniel to the Attributes of Kindness and Compassion before the Officer of the Eunuchs. The Officer said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who has provided your food and your drinks, lest he see your face is more ill at his then the other youths in your situation, and you will forfeit my head to the King!” (Daniel 1:8-10)
Once Daniel heard the Officer, rather than execute Daniel, speak from his heart, he knew that he would get his way.
It only takes one tiny act of compassion to open the door for other people to begin to hope. Daniel heard the compassion in the voice of the Officer, and Ezra saw the compassion in the bath that Otto gave Vladek.
Daniel, the teacher of how to survive and thrive in exile, taught us to look for, grab it and hold on to such expressions of kindness and humanity. This is a less in we must take with us, especially in our darkest moments. It is also a lesson that we must always offer such expressions of kindness to others so that they can find hope. When we hate each other, we destroy far more than relationships; we deprive others who live in a world of hate of the opportunity to discover seeds of hope.