Haven’t we had enough of the Holocaust? When I first considered writing a book about the wartime experiences of Millie Werber, I thought, Why go through this again? A man I know—himself a child of survivors—urged me against the project. “All the stories are fundamentally the same,” he said. “They’re horrible, horrible, horrible. And then they end.” That’s true, of course. The stories are horrible, and there are as many stories—as many horrors—as there are survivors. Though exceptions certainly exist, on the whole it’s still the good versus evil of Elie Weisel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank, the books on countless high-school reading lists across America. More than six decades on, the tropes have become too familiar to have their deserved effect: the skeletal bodies, the rubber truncheons, the children, wide-eyed, cowering in fear. We’ve heard enough; we’re immune to the pain.
For me, writing a book about Millie was a way to conquer the immunity. To work with Millie and write about her was a way to actually know something in its details, to connect to something real. And I knew (or hoped) the project would be good for Millie too—to have someone wholly intent on her, absorbed in every nuance of her inner world. (I interviewed her for over a year before I began to write.) The project simply felt like an opportunity to do a good deed, for Millie and for myself, perhaps in equal measure.
Eventually, however, the story became compelling in itself.
Two Rings tells the story of Millie’s passionate and all-too-brief marriage to Heniek Greenspan, a Jewish policeman who was betrayed by a fellow Jewish guard. Through all the many horrors of the war, Millie managed to save the simple gold rings she and Heniek wore, and a single tattered photograph of two young Jews, hopeful and in love. They had been her private tokens, until now.
The context of Millie’s story is the familiar Holocaust terrain—ghettos, starvation, torture, execution; and there are heroes and villains, to be sure. But in its detail, the story of Millie’s love and loss, and the story of her improbable survival, are played out almost in miniature; you can’t tell who takes what part by the color of their uniforms or the cut of the clothes they wear. As distant as it is in context and in time, Millie’s story dramatizes the gray domain of real life, the world we always create together, no matter what our circumstance, which exists between the all-too-easy absolutes of good and evil.
Millie is 15, a frightened, fragile girl, working in a forced-labor ammunitions factory in Radom, an industrial city in Poland. Every night in her 12-hour shift, she must drill precisely-measured holes into 1,500 metal slugs. One night she somehow errs in every one: all 1,500 holes are wrong. She learns this the next day from the Polish supervisor of the factory, who is a man she doesn’t know, and a man who doesn’t know her—she is one face among thousands slaving in the dim light of the factory floor. The Germans will kill her for her mistake. But this supervisor—a Pole, a man well treated by the Germans, a man whose job it is to keep the Jews in line, who must guard against Jewish error, Jewish sabotage—decides to hide her mistake and save her life, surely at risk to his own life, and for reasons Millie will never know. They never spoke before this incident; and they never spoke after.
What prompts an act like this? This is not the grand gesture—the resistance leader organizing an against-all-odds escape for his comrades, the landowner hiding families in the cellar of his country estate. This is heroics of a different order. On a daily basis, the smallest choice: Take this bad slug from the box and substitute this good one. Is this not the grandest gesture?
Two years later, Millie is in Auschwitz. She has hidden her rings and her picture with the help of her aunt and a friend—good women doing small, good deeds. Millie’s barracks guard is a young Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia. She calls the inmates “Radomer whores,” demeaning the women with this slur every day. She beats them with her stick, thrashing them on their backs every day to herd them outside as they stand for their roll call in the frozen winter weather. No coats, no underwear, just women starving and shivering together in a line.
What prompts this? This barracks guard, too, is a Jew. This woman is a victim, too, a prisoner in a death camp. This is not the evil of the crematoria; this is evil of a different order. On a daily basis, the smallest choice.
Millie’s story, so distant from anything in my own experience, still speaks to my life and prompts me to consider my own moral bearing in the world. No choice is ever made in a vacuum. Choice is always constrained by circumstance—by culture, history, and context. Still, do we not, every day, make the smallest of choices that determine who we are in the world, whether in the boardroom, classroom, or voting booth? We are not heroes and villains of the grand gesture, not comic-book characters embodying the forces of good and evil, but imperfect, striving human beings caught in the complexities of history, deciding what to do with our lives.
Writing a book about the experiences of a Holocaust survivor is an act of historical testimony and vigilant remembrance. Never again. But it’s something more, too—or it became something more for me: a Holocaust story about someone so fundamentally different from me became a way to think about things fundamental to me, one small choice at a time.