From Holocaust to Humanist

Halina and Geoff (left), holding aloft the Humanist banner at a Marriage Equality Rally, Melbourne, 24 Nov 2012. Photo (c) 2012 by Michael Barnett.

Halina Wagowska is a Holocaust survivor and a Humanist. She is also the author of an autobiography, The Testimony, published in 2012. Halina has been a human rights activist for decades and I feel privileged to call her a friend. She agreed to be interviewed for this blog, utilising postal correspondence during the days of COVID-19 lock-down.

1. How did you survive the Holocaust?

In the labour camp, my parents insisted that I eat part of their meagre food ration because I was growing fast. That enhanced my chances of survival and diminished theirs.

Prolonged incarceration combined with danger and the unpredictability of each next moment, required adjustments and survival mechanisms. Mine was to regress to a primitive state where all my tiny wits were focused entirely on the precise moment, interpreting sounds, silences and movements, all in terms of approaching danger. Rather like a small creature in the undergrowth of a jungle full of predators. I was too young to see the ‘big picture’ or to reflect, which would have kept me off guard. I believe that gave me an advantage over those whose high intellect did not allow for such regression.

2. What are your most powerful memories of the Holocaust?

The death of my mother in my arms in Stutthof. Loading bodies brought from the gas chambers into crematoria ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being beaten, kicked, and spat upon.

3. How do you think the Holocaust shaped you, and our world?

Prolonged deprivation (5 years 9 months) of any aesthetic experiences makes me appreciate and cherish art, music, books, theatre, and the beauty of nature, as great enrichments of life.

It shaped my values and attitudes, and it narrowed my focus onto issues, problems and behaviours that inflict pain and harm, eg. child abuse, racism, homophobia, bullying, social injustice, inequality of opportunity.

The world said, ‘Never again’ and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a major civilising step.

4. What, if anything, do you think we have learnt from the Holocaust?

Possibly that prejudices can have gruesome consequences.

5. In your book, you state that, “Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” (p. 195). Is this why you wrote your book?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I identify with persecuted minorities: people of colour, indigenous people, LGBT people, the Untouchables (Dalits). Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.

I wrote the book to meet an obligation. In the camps, we kept saying that if we survive, we shall have to testify until we die. Friends insisted that as all my previous testifying is in the archives of research bodies, there should be a public record. Hence this book.

6. Although your book is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also a testimony to the positivity and determination in your subsequent life. Is this a reflection of your slogan: “Don’t remain a victim”? (p. 197)

I recall my mother (p. 59) towards the end of the war, worrying about whether I will be normal if I survive. After the war, the notion of being normal transformed itself into not remaining a victim. In the book, I try to show that with determination, it is possible to lead a normal life after a catastrophe.

7. You once told me that Marie Curie was an early hero for you. How did she influence your life?

Poland was short of famous people and was very proud of Maria Skłodowska Curie. As a child, I fantasised that if I studied hard, I too might devise or discover something of great value to humankind.

8. Why/when did you become a Humanist?

I was born in Poland to parents who were agnostic and of Jewish origin. The all-powerful Polish Catholic church pervaded all aspects of personal life, institutions and social structures. It preached a very harsh, divisive and punitive religion. Hence my passion for secularism. Years later, my training in science reinforced my preference for evidence-based facts.

My values and attitudes had many aspects of Humanism without me qualifying them as such. I joined the Humanist Society of Victoria when I became aware of its existence.

9. What do you think Humanism has got to offer the world, particularly in light of humanity’s capacity for great good and evil?

Humanism offers a vision of a better, fairer world. I am not sure how we can abolish evil.

Humanism meets my needs and passions for secularism, rational, ethical approach to problems, for the protection of human rights and dignity, for democracy, for social justice and equity and for social action through group lobbying.

What I find attractive in Humanism is its fostering of altruism, of goodness for its own sake, and the taking of total responsibility for one’s actions.

10. You have been a human rights activist for many years. Why? What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

I need to be useful. Lobbying and working to improve the lives of others seems worthwhile. With other members of HSV, I looked after homeless students; provided books for bushfire victims; helped to ‘adopt’ a village of Untouchables in India to help them up from their imposed quagmire. I am in a group to raise funds for bursaries for Aboriginal students.

11. What are the greatest human rights challenges of our time? How do we solve these problems?

The climate emergency, if left unattended, will make life hazardous for the next generation, and cause the extinction of many species. We need to heed scientific advice on climate, and we need to foster democratic governance, social justice and equality. Beware also the growing economic divide between rich and poor.

12. What message would you like to give to future generations?

Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.

13. Is there anything else you would like to add?

In this one life we have, let us work to make this a better world.

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(The answers for Questions 8 & 9 include excerpted material which Halina previously presented to the ‘Australian Humanist’ magazine, No. 90, 2008.)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn