On Compassion

by Site Author

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My grandmother lost her entire immediate family in the Holocaust: her parents and her two brothers. She lost nearly her entire extended family, as well—her entire extended family save for one cousin. Regina, my grandmother’s cousin, survived the concentration camps with her. The two of them stayed together for nearly the entire war, being moved from one concentration camp to another, and eventually being liberated by the Russian army.

Fifty-five years after the war, my mother visited Regina. It was 2003 and another war, the American invasion of Iraq, was underway. My mother and Regina sat together and watched the evening news.

US forces had just captured Saddam Hussein. They recorded a video of Hussein taken soon after he was captured. The dictator, now bearded, looked weak and defeated. He let a doctor examine him on camera, obediently following the doctor’s instructions.

Regina turned to my mother and said “I feel sorry for him.”

My mother was shocked. Here was a ruthless dictator, responsible for thousands of murders. He had ordered the massacre of Kurdish civilians, bombed Israel, invaded Kuwait. My mother explained: this was a man unworthy of Regina’s pity.

But Regina disagreed. She told my mother about the weeks just after she was liberated from a concentration camp. The German guards were suddenly prisoners of war, and the Russian soldiers were cruel to them. Regina watched as the Russians tormented the Nazis. And she felt sorry for them—even for them.

To be clear, my grandmother didn’t feel that way about the Nazis—most survivors did not. But Regina did. She was half-starved, her young body broken, her family murdered. She had spent over half a decade in the Krakow ghetto and then the concentration camps. But she still had compassion in her heart.