I used to be bothered by change, back when I thought religion’s purpose was to act as a bulwark against it. I was wrong. Judaism actually has a bias towards change, recognizing that both the world and our bodies are transforming dramatically by the second. Each person replenishes up to 70 billion cells daily; we’re not so much human beings as human becomings. At the Passover seder, the agent of stability (matzah) confronts the force of fermentation (wine), and long after the final afikoman crumb is consumed, the wine remains on the table. We still have two cups to go, plus another round for Elijah. Change wins.
Darwin was right. Survival requires constant adaptation. I learned the hard way how we must continually grow with the flow, and how each breath propels us forward.
Last April, just a couple of hours after my first visit to Auschwitz, I nearly died of suffocation. Earlier that afternoon, I stood in the gas chamber, struggling to imagine how I would have responded if crammed alongside hundreds gasping, denied of air. My eyes were transfixed by the victims’ scratch marks that can still be seen on the walls.
Still shaken from that close encounter with genocidal asphyxiation two hours later, I was having dinner in Krakow when a soup crouton no bigger than a pea — about the size of a pellet of Zyklon B — somehow got lodged in my trachea.
For what seemed like an eternity, I couldn’t breathe.
The world was filled with clogged air passages that week. My group’s flight from New York to Krakow had been delayed because of thick fog over Poland — the same fog that took the life of Poland’s president the next day. The following week we left Warsaw for Israel just as the airways of Europe were being choked by the Icelandic ash cloud.
In the midst of a large hall filled with hundreds of March of the Living teens and chaperones, the adults in our group sat at a long table for an impromptu staff meeting, a fortunate thing since our staff included two physicians. I sprinkled a couple of spoonfuls of soup nuts (the Israeli kind that I’ve always loved) on my vegetable soup. A few gulps in, I felt something not quite right in the back of my throat. When a swig of water didn’t clear up the problem, I began to get concerned. A few seconds later, I could feel the crouton slide an inch or two and my air passage was blocked.
I stood and began shaking my head. Someone near me asked me to try to breathe, but all I could do was let out a seal-like bark, loud enough to startle everyone in room. One of the doctors came up behind me, wrapped his arms around my diaphragm and pumped hard. I felt some air squeeze out, but the Heimlich didn’t work.
The doctor said that some air was getting in, but I didn’t believe it. Frankly, I’m not sure what I believed at that moment. I’d be lying if I said I thought about the irony of choking here, in Zyklon’s backyard. I didn’t see how people were reacting around me. All I knew was that my mouth was wide open, my face a contorted “Scream” mask, but no air was getting in.
My time was running out.
I mentally clutched every molecule of oxygen still in me and began to feel the compulsion to breathe again.
Another deathly croak.
“Some air is getting through!” I heard the doctor, but began to feel dizzy and a full panic set in. Not here. Not now. Don’t black out!
The doctor behind me attempted one more Heimlich thrust. Hard.
I felt a whoosh. Something moved inside. It was the soup nut.
I sucked in my most significant breath since birth, the last time a doctor had slapped some air into me. I breathed in Neshama, the sacred breath of Life, and each act of inhaling became a prayer, a testimonial to the priceless, fragile gift of being alive.
And then we all continued with our dinner.
Analogies are dangerous and I would never claim to have nearly become victim 6 million and one. I was no Janusz Korczak, the Polish president, or Anne Frank; just an unlucky swallower, one fortunate enough to have doctors around who were trying to save me rather than kill me. But I will now be able to convey the martyr’s story with a unique empathy. The overwhelming drive to survive and the terror of asphyxiation are things that I can now begin to understand.
The horror of being cruelly stripped of all humanity: that is something I’ll never comprehend.
Ten days later, our plane home from Israel took a circuitous, southern route to avoid ingesting that volcanic cloud of Icelandic ash. Somewhere over Provence, I set my iPod to shuffle and up popped John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
Corniest song ever written.
But maybe it was the lilting music, the lyrics or recalling Denver’s own untimely demise; it all suddenly hit me: the crematorium and the crouton, the overwhelming beauty and fragility of life, the enormity of what had nearly happened; it took my breath away.
Did that incident change me? Well, I’ve stopped eating those croutons. I smile more. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I get angry less. I feel revitalized. Rebooted. And I thank God every day for the chance to keep on changing.
I’ve taken about three and a quarter million breaths since that April evening. My heart has thumped about 700,000 times and 9.6 trillion cells have been replenished in my body. Now, for the rest of my days, I’ll be doing literally what the Jewish people have been doing for the past 65 years — measuring my life by the number of breaths taken since Auschwitz.
And I pledge, more than ever before, never to stop growing until the moment I breathe my last.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.