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Becoming Agnostic

Becoming Agnostic

Michael Otterman

(This I Believe, 2014)

The air was crisp, cold, and though it was only 3:30 PM, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows off the spindly trees that lined the long row of brick barracks. Initially constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz One was the first of three main concentration camps built by the Nazis near the city of Oswiecim in Poland. It’s a cramped space, claustrophobic—a squat building, guard tower, or bunk is never more than a few feet away.

The tour’s pace quickened as the last light prickled through the thin, almost translucent clouds above. Through the rooms filled with countless rusted eyeglasses, bales of matted human hair, tattered suitcases and shoes—all piled high and placed behind thick glass. I had to crouch forward to hear our tour guide’s raspy, grinding recitation of facts—the numbers of dead women, men, and children ground down by fate into dust and ash.

“Quick,” he said. “We still have time if you move quickly.” He pointed to a brick structure that looked identical to the others. Block 27, he explained, contained Yad Vashem’s new Jewish exhibition at Auschwitz, which had opened some months earlier. We hustled towards the building. 

High-tech audiovisual displays filled the space depicting life for Europe’s Jews before, during, and after the war. We moved briskly from display to display—too quickly to fully process the delicate atmosphere of mourning and reverence.

The final room held a book. Well, it was called a book—but really it was something larger, more interactive, and monumental. The Book of Names is comprised of more than 8,000 pages—58 volumes of 140 pages each. Each page measures about four feet high and about a three feet across. On them are printed front-to-back 500 names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Last name, first name, date of birth, place of birth, and place of death—over and over again. More than 4.2 million names in total are listed. The book’s enormous pages are suspended from the ceiling and pressed together—in total it measures more than 40 feet long.  How to quantify a million? Four million? Six million? Print the names, each and every one.

I wanted to linger in the room but time was short. It was about 3:55 PM now and the exhibition shut at 4. There were visitors milling about the large pages in small groups. I bounded up to a random page about a quarter of the way from the front of the book. Without even reading a word, I snapped a picture of the page and moved on—the rest of my tour group was already outside waiting for me.

The next day I Skyped with my parents and told them about the tour. My father mentioned that my cousin Karlee Sapoznik in Winnipeg had gathered the testimonies of her grandparents—both Holocaust survivors. The work was done as part of her Master’s thesis on forced labor during WWII. Like my own grandfather, my great aunt Hadassah—Karlee’s grandmother—had survived Auschwitz. My father suggested I get in touch with Karlee for the testimony. Within 24 hours after emailing her she sent me the relevant chapters from her thesis.

The accounts were riveting. In brief: Hadassah was placed on a work detail in Auschwitz after lying to the SS about her age during the selection process. She survived her time there and was liberated by the Russians. After the war she met Morris Sapoznik, Karlee’s grandfather. Hadassah was from the industrial city of Lodz, but Morris was from a small town in Poland called Berezno in today’s western Ukraine. When war broke out Morris fled east towards Kiev and ended up imprisoned by the Russians and sent to Siberia. He was released following the war and made his way back to Poland. After they met, Morris and Hadassah moved to Israel, then Canada where they raised a family.

Several days after receiving the testimony, I finally had about an hour to myself amid a busy schedule in Poland—just enough time for a look at the photos downloaded from my camera. I flicked through them quickly.

Photos from concentration camps, if taken, are admittedly odd mementos to dwell upon. But then I came to the photo of the Book of Names. I had gotten close to the page and snapped a shot that captured no more than a small section, about 6 inches across and about 12 inches high, of the vast page of names. When I had shot it, the names looked simply like block of repetitive text—but now I saw clearly what was printed on the page. Every name, about 30 in total in the frame, was a Sapoznik: Sapoznik, Khava, 1883, Plotnica, Poland, Murdered in Pinsk |Sapoznik, Khana, 1901, Bialystok, Poland, Place of death unknown | Sapoznik, Khaim, 1932, Rowne, Poland, Murdered in Rowne | Sapoznik, Mindel, 1892, Ilja, Poland, Murdered in Ilja |and on and on and on.

At first I didn’t react. Perhaps my psyche wasn’t ready to process this vexing coincidence at that very moment. I recall rushing off to meet my colleagues for dinner and thinking little about what this photo might mean. The next day I told the story of the photo to my colleague Sam. She was in tears. “You must send this photo to Karlee,” she insisted. “This is special. This is something,” she said.

I emailed Karlee the photo and explained the story behind it. Karlee called it a miracle and shared the photo with the rest of my Canadian family. She told me that it brought tears to everyone’s eyes.

This story has since become a litmus test of belief—I’m able to learn the worldview of my friends, family, and peers just by sharing it with them. Those who are spiritual or religious have also called it a miracle. More rationalistic minds offer a “what are the chances” type of response.

As for myself? Before Auschwitz One I was an atheist. I thought that everything was explainable by science and mathematics and that magical thinking was a virus worthy of eradication. But I realize now that there are things that don’t square neatly into such grim black and white realities. Today I believe in something, but I’m just not sure what that something is. I know that below the surface, something stirs. There is a pulse whose vibration I can now feel, but whose source I cannot discern.