Humanity Amidst Horror

Humanity Amidst Horror

Her father's Holocaust memoirs offer some life lessons for BC biologist

By Mark Sullivan
Staf Writer

"To save one life is as if you have saved the world."

The saying from the Talmud carries special resonance for part-time faculty member Carol Chaia Halpern (Biology), a Romanian-born Jew whose father's life was spared during the Holocaust through the unexpected kindness of a German Nazi officer.

Part-time faculty member Carol Chaia Halpern (Biology), with a page from the World Wide Web site containing her father's memories of the Holocaust. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Her father, Mendel Halpern, now 91, relates his Holocaust experiences in the Ukraine in a series of memoirs that have been translated from German by his daughter and posted to JewishGen, a Jewish genealogical web site .

As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches on May 2, the human spirit that shines like a beacon from Mendel Halpern's harrowing stories is crucial to note, says his daughter-translator.

"It is important for people to realize that not all the Germans were necessarily always carrying out the evil," she said. "There were instances when there really was humanity."

One story that stands out in the memoirs involves Mendel Halpern's rescue by a Nazi officer, who intervened to prevent the Jewish woodworker from being shot, then extended his protection to Halpern's wife and toddler son, even visiting their home one night for cordials and conversation.

More than a half-century later, in 1995, Mendel Halpern, living on Long Island, searched for and located the former German officer, Wilhelm Braunschweig, who years before had risked his own life to save a Jew's. Braunschweig, a veterinarian, had taken up residence in California, and the two struck up an amiable correspondence that lasted until the German émigré's death the following year.

"This man risked his life to save my father's life, my mother's life and my brother's life," observed Carol Chaia Halpern. "The soldier he was with pointed his gun at my father's head, but he said, 'No, don't shoot him.' My father felt the blessing of that."

Chaia Halpern, one of Mendel and Hilda Halpern's four children, was born in Romania following the war, and moved as a girl with her family to Israel and then to New York City. (She adopted the anglicized name Carol on arriving in Queens as a teenager in the 1960s.)

Her parents didn't talk much about their Holocaust experiences when she was young, she said, though she did hear pieces here and there. "When I was growing up, we were always urged to eat all the food on our plate," she recalled. "My mother's mother had died of starvation, and her sister almost had."

It wasn't until 1997, when her father, inspired by the example of Elie Wiesel, wrote down his Holocaust memoirs that she read the full story of her parents' resilience in the face of hardship during the war.

Five times Mendel Halpern looked down the barrel of a gun and somehow lived to tell the tale. His stories are heart-rending, such as the account of the brother-in-law shot for smuggling soup to his starving family, his corpse eaten by scavenging dogs.

But then there are the stories of Braunschweig, and of the German dentist Ernst Hermann, who showed Mendel kindness in treating a badly impacted tooth, and engaged him in collegial conversations lasting into the night. (The dentist's sister-in-law, it turned out, was Jewish, and Hermann told how colleagues moved her from one hospital to the next, repeatedly breaking her leg bone to keep her admitted - and safe.) Years later, Mendel Halpern would visit the Heidelberg cemetery where Hermann lay buried and recite the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer of the dead, over the dentist's grave.

"My father has his doubts about God, in some ways," said Carol Chaia Halpern. "But he believes it must have been an angel or God that saved him."

The stories have played a role in her own spiritual journey, Halpern said.

As a research scientist with a doctorate in biology from Rockefeller University, she once was engaged in cancer research on tumor viruses. "I got disillusioned," she said. "What was missing for me was the spirit in science."

She now teaches a Capstone course at Boston College on integrating spiritual and scientific beliefs. The class opens with a period of meditation. "For me, the challenge is to help them take steps to begin the journey to know the self," she said.

Halpern said she observes Jewish traditions while tending toward a broad view of spirituality.

"God is everywhere and everything," she said. "God is in me and works through me. The more I learn about how the body works, how cells work, the more incredible it is.

"The spiritual path I am on has really helped me to understand what this life sphere is about," she said. "Life on Earth is a school. We're here to learn and to grow. Ultimately, the goal is to move toward God, to re-unify with God.

"The suffering, the negativity we experience in this sphere is part of the human condition. In some ways we all contribute to that. Part of the path I'm on is to uncover our own shadow side - the way we are unkind, or self-centered, or unwilling to feel.

"Feeling our own pain becomes a doorway to compassion. Evil rises out of an unwillingness to feel. If you are numb to pain you can inflict pain on others. The Holocaust is a prime example of numbness."

Halpern, a biologist turned student of the human spirit, teaches comparative animal physiology, among other courses. Her given name, Chaia, depending on the pronunciation, means "animal" or "alive."

"I always say I'm trying to live up to my name by being animated in my teaching," she said.


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