The value of reading obituaries

Jul 26, 2018

Carl Wernicke
Credit IHMC

I’ve talked before about the value of reading obituaries, still very much the province of newspapers, either in print or online. As John Maynard Keynes famously noted, in the long run we are all dead. So rich or poor, famous or obscure, good or bad, the obit is our shared legacy.

One reward of reading obits is gaining the understanding of the value of a life well lived. And while it is easy to be impressed by the lives of the rich and famous, or by those who achieve incredible things, some of the most rewarding moments come in the artful telling of an ordinary life. And of course they inform of us not just about history, but how the lives of those people made that history.

But maybe the most special moments come in seeing how the ordinary and extraordinary intersect in life, especially when the extraordinary is thrust upon someone who might otherwise have been very ordinary.

Such is the case of Gena Turgel, whose obituary I read earlier this year in The New York Times. I haven’t been able to forget her.

Despite the early death of her father,  Samuel Goldfinger, Gena and her family were living a comfortable life in Poland when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939 and began rounding up Polish Jews. Her brothers and a sister ended up dead, but not before her sister was subjected to brutal medical experiments.

Turgel and her mother were moved through a series of concentration camps whose names have become synonymous with the worst of human evil. At one point Turgel was herded naked, with others, into what they were told were showers in Auschwitz. She said nothing happened for a long time, but finally water came on. She learned later that this was a common deception for tricking people into entering gas chambers, and concluded that maybe something went wrong and they were spared.

Gena and her mother were then moved to Bergen-Belsen, where she and others tended to a young woman who was delirious with fever. Despite their efforts,  the teenaged Anne Frank died of typhus in March 1945, barely a month before British troops liberated the camp. At the time Frank was just one of hundreds of inmates dying every day.

Within six months Gena had married one of the British soldiers, a marriage that lasted for 50 years. She went on to relate her story in a book and interviews, and  worked with Holocaust educational groups. In 1981 she escorted Queen Elizabeth  to her seat at a Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in London.

Those of who didn’t live it will never understand the pain the survivors of the concentration camps had to overcome to return to the sanity of ordinary life. For them the concept of ordinary had been irretrievably altered.

“I adopted three ambitions,” she said later. “To learn the British way of life, and to learn the English language, and to write my memoirs in case I forget. But how can one forget those atrocities?”

All too soon there will be no more living Holocaust survivors. But we will always have their obituaries to tell us who they were.