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Holocaust Prisoners Survived by Mutual Self-Sacrifice

In 1943, 230 women were arrested as members of the French Resistance and sent to Birkenau. Only 49 survived, but this in itself is remarkable. These women were as diverse a group as could be imagined—Jews and Christians, aristocrats and working class, young and old. Yet they were united by their commitment to the French Resistance and to one another. In her book A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorhead reconstructs the story of these women through the journals and memoirs of survivors. The solidarity of these women sustained them through unspeakable horror and torture.

In contrast, many Holocaust survivors hoarded whatever meager resources they could save for themselves. And how could they be blamed? Survival became the only goal—no matter what the cost, even to others. Yet, in most of the cases with these French women in Birkenau, their solidarity toward each other trumped the selfishness that engulfed so many others. As Moorhead writes, "Knowing that the fate of each depended on the others … egotism seemed to vanish and that, stripped back to the bare edge of survival, each rose to behavior few would have believed themselves capable of." Moorhead recounts that when unrelieved thirst threatened to engulf one of their members in utter madness, the women pooled together their own meager rations to get her a whole bucket of water.

This kind of love is very rare. Putting one's own needs first is as natural as breathing, and just as unconscious. Yet the women of the French Resistance provide a contemporary model of what Christ has done for us. But there are two big differences: first Jesus willingly chose to stand in solidarity with us in our suffering. Second, he stood in solidarity with his enemies. He walked among humans including the very least of these, and chose to share the horror of human death. Even after the victory of his resurrection from death, this One still bore in his body the wounds of his earthly suffering. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. This is solidarity for life.

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