I recently finished reading "A Boy from Bustina: A Son. A Survivor. A Witness," written by Andrew Burian, a Holocaust survivor whose life changed forever at age 13 when his hometown was invaded by Nazis. Mr. Burian’s book is a testimony to his family and the child he was before he became a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the man he became while undergoing unspeakable horrors there, his rebirth as a survivor upon liberation, and his enduring status as a witness and a source of hope and inspiration for his children, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that his story continues to be told. There is a quotation from Mr. Burian found on the first page of the prologue. It reads, “This is what happened to me. This is what I saw. There was not one Holocaust. There were six million Holocausts. I am witness.”
As someone who has studied both the Holocaust and medical humanities, this quote struck me in an incredibly powerful way. In the field of medical humanities, we advocate for the importance of seeing each patient as a person, not just a diagnosis. We argue that it is essential to understand what the person’s life was like before the illness, what he or she values about life and hopes to achieve after the illness. Only by understanding the ways in which the illness impacts the individual’s narrative can the healthcare community truly provide care that is in the best interest of that person. Valuing the dignity of the individual and his or her life story helps enhance communication between the provider and the patient, improve the quality of diagnosis, and increase the likelihood of compliance with a mutually agreed upon treatment plan. An ethical healthcare system must have its foundations in the patient as a person, not as a disease or a statistic.
The phrase “Holocaust” is typically used to describe the murder of millions of innocent victims by the Nazis, six million of whom were killed because they were Jewish. Last week, Yom Hashoah programs throughout the world honored the memory of the six million who perished. We sometimes light six memorial candles, each one representing one million lives lost. By constantly grouping the victims together, we risk losing sight of each individual’s experience; the six million Holocausts Mr. Burian referenced in the opening statement of his memoir.
The field of medical humanities advocates for the inclusion of humanism in medicine, for taking the time to learn the story behind each patient, for treating the individual instead of the disease. It is absolutely necessary for the field of medicine, ethics and the Holocaust to do the same. It is our duty to bear witness to the events that took place during the Holocaust and the ways in which these events impacted individuals, families, and societies as well as the medical profession itself. We must do our best- difficult as it may be- to learn the story behind each victim and understand each individual’s experience. Upon entering the concentration camps, prisoners were dehumanized and branded with a number on their arm that served as a new identity. This number transformed people into prisoners by robbing them of their names, their stories, their family histories, and their entire lives up to that point. Those who survived were marked forever, the number shaping not only their past but their future.
While we can’t turn back the clock and take away the pain and suffering these people experienced, we can do something. We can reverse the dehumanization that was at the root of so much suffering by ensuring that we remember not only the singular Holocaust (as it has come to be known), but the six million Holocausts that Mr. Burian wrote about in his memoir. We must remember his story: the idyllic descriptions of his pre-war childhood, his family and his neighbors; the comment he overheard when he arrived as the youngest person at Auschwitz-Birkenau (“What is this terrible vile smell and why are ashes falling from the sky?” “They are burning gassed people. Tonight they will be burning you.”); the realization at age 14 as he fought through emaciation, hypothermia, and exhaustion during the Death March that “the body and mind can endure the most brutal punishment when there is a goal to reach, when there is hope, when there is an end in sight”; the tears of joy that overwhelmed him upon being unexpectedly reunited with his father and brother at a hospital after liberation, and the significance of his father’s decision to change the family’s last name from Brandestein to Burian to ensure their lasting safety. We must bear witness to the stories of Mr. Burian and all those who have been brave enough to revisit the most horrific days of their lives. They deserve to have their stories told, and we have a responsibility to hear them. Each of them has a story to tell that is reflective of their unique experience. We need to understand, preserve and protect each one of their stories. We need to speak about names, not numbers. We need to find a way to humanize those who fought through the most inhumane period in history. Only then will we fulfill our obligation to “Never Forget.”