Personal safety refers to not only physical safety – freedom from physical harm – but also to psychological safety, which involves freedom from worry about physical safety as well as being victimised by unfounded criticism, unfair comparison and unwanted attention.
Personal safety must be our first priority no matter where we are or what we are doing. We need clear strategies to keep ourselves safe whether we’re driving a car, swimming in the sea, using a gas bottle, or accessing social media.
War, natural disasters and tragedy are threats to personal safety. They often occur unexpectedly, shattering our lives. Good people are justified in asking why these things happen.
Prior to World War II Jewish populations could not have foreseen the Holocaust. They were accustomed to anti-Semitic feeling but violent aggression was something else.
Many of the Jews sent to concentration camps were intelligent, educated, hard-working and ‘respected.’ Their lives were totally decimated by hatred and cruelty. Thousands upon thousands met their end in the gas chambers, many were shot by cruel and uncompromising SS soldiers, and some chose to end their lives by ‘running to the wire’ – touching the electrically charged barbed-wire fence.
James Moloney’s latest historical novel, The Love That I Have, is a heartbreaking, harrowing and hopeful story that delves into the horrifying realities faced by hundreds of thousands of prisoners interned in concentration camps during World War II.
Psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, was a Holocaust survivor. During his time in Auschwitz, he observed how prisoners reacted to the brutal and inhumane treatment they received. He says,
“The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others.”Victor Frankl
Frankl understood that without hope the will to live is diminished, if not lost.
“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”Victor Frankl
Since the death of our son, Adam, to suicide, I have spent many hours thinking about suicide prevention, weighing up the effectiveness of different interventions. I have often asked myself ‘What could we have done to keep Adam alive?’
There are two main aspects to suicide prevention. Our first priority is to keep ourselves safe. We need to ensure we are mentally strong and our hope is alive. We can’t encourage hope in another if our own hope is wavering.
Using the historical novel The Love That I Have as the basis for our thoughts we will consider five key strategies to strengthen our hope and five key strategies to impart hope to those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
The Love That I Have is an extraordinary story of love, loss and profound courage during World War II. There are two main characters: sixteen-year-old Margot Baumann, who leaves school to take up her sister’s job in the mailroom of Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin; Dieter Kleinschmidt, imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp for coming to the aid of his father who was beaten to death by German SS soldiers for harbouring a Jewish family.
Although Margot has no contact with the prisoners she does handle their mail. When she is handed a cigarette lighter and told to burn the letters she is horrified. Against the rules, Margot secretly smuggles letters from the prison and forwards them on to the prisoners’ families with the belief that the prisoners’ should be afforded the dignity of having their mail sent on to their families and loved ones.
Let us consider the strategies needed to keep hope alive whether we are ‘free’ or ‘imprisoned.’
Margot Baumann is an impressionable young girl living under the reign of Hitler. She says,
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved three things: the long summer holidays, my brother Walther and Adolf Hitler.”
Margot’s world and her place in it is undergoing an amazing transformation. She sustains her hope by…
(1) Valuing her UNIQUENESS
Margot is not like her sister Renata. Although somewhat naive, Margot is open to the truth. She believes in love and knows that it can be a power for good. Her principles are not to be compromised. As her eyes open to the horrors of the war and the treatment of the occupants of the overcrowded camps – whether they are Jewish, prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses or anyone who has opposed the Third Reich – she is determined to make a difference.
(2) Expressing her GRATITUDE
Margot is aware of her privileged life. There have been few demands made on her, her parents continue to be supportive, and she has a good friend in Lily. Margot is grateful for the offer of work in the mailroom as it fulfils a desire within her to do something to contribute to the war effort. Life has impressed on her that ‘if you keep your eyes clear and your heart open, there is always something to be grateful for.’
(3) Developing her AWARENESS
Reading the letters of the prisoners Margot realises that the Jewish people have deep feelings like her own. She begins to see how our attitudes about people are often distorted by war. Margot has been brought up to believe in the superiority of the Aryan people to Jews, and to admire Hitler. But the war and reading the letters in the camp mailroom changes that. She says,
“The letters showed me there’s love in all of us, that it’s a human thing and pays no attention to race or religion.”
As Margot’s awareness grows, her relationship with her mother becomes strained. Her mother has absolute faith in Hitler. When her two sons, Walther and Franz enlisted with the German forces, she felt immense pride.
(4) Drawing on her COURAGE
Margot is a resilient person with unwavering courage. She comes to know Dieter Kleinschmidt – through the heartfelt letters he writes to a Jewish girl named Margot Lipsky. Margot starts communicating with Dieter, imagining herself as the other Margot. She soon discovers the stark realities of living in the camp and fears Dieter may not survive the brutal winter conditions. She blackmails her sister Renate and her married lover Captain Goldapp into transferring Dieter into the laundry where it is warmer, and where he is assigned safer work. This is a high-risk strategy that could have threatened her position in the mailroom. Fortunately, her sister Renata knows Margot will never go back on her word. The relationship she has with the married Captain Goldapp will remain a secret.
(5) Accepting the COST
At the end of the war, Sachsenhausen is abandoned and Dieter is released. With the Russian army fast approaching Captain Goldapp offers Margot’s family a safe escape. Margot chooses to reject the offer and hide in the garden. She is determined to look for Dieter at the camp but is captured by Russian soldiers. They brand her cheek with the cigarette lighter which has a swastika embossed on the side panel. The pain is intense but the humiliation is greater.
Dieter Kleinschmidt has seen how the death of hope kills, even more so than hunger or typhus. His hope is sustained by Margot’s interventions. Her words and actions speak into his life, encouraging him to believe that he might stay alive.
Margot’s approach is to prove that she cares for Dieter by
(1) Showing acts of kindness
Dieter welcomes Margot’s acts of kindness. His job in the laundry provides Margot with the opportunity to see him face to face. Margot sees Dieter’s gaunt appearance and his need for proper footwear. She brings him scraps of bread and her brother’s boots which he gladly accepts. The boots prove to be crucial to his survival.
(2) Believing in the power of words
Dieter needs the strength of another human being to prop him up against the doubts, the despair, and the dark voice that whispers in his ear.
It is Margot’s letters that provide a source of hope. They transport him to another place. They assure him that life as he knew it is still possible. They provide relief from the oppressive atmosphere in the camp. They energise him.
(3) Reaffirming a person’s worth
Life in the camp is designed to break down any sense of dignity and purpose. A person’s identity ceases to have meaning. You are either a number or a colour. Addressing another prisoner isn’t tolerated. Margot knows this from the many letters she has read. She says,
“I’m standing where the prisoners line up for roll call, which sometimes goes on for hours, where they are beaten if they speak to one another, beaten if they faint, beaten if a guard feels like beating them.”
On the occasions Margot meets with Dieter in the laundry she addresses him by his name. This has a profound effect on Dieter. He says,
“When you said my name, it sounded strange. No – it sounded wonderful. In here we are numbers. I’ve seen prisoners beaten for calling another by his name.”
(4) Embodying courage
As Margot’s connection with Dieter deepens, she is prepared to do all that she can to try and save him. Margot’s determination in the face of insurmountable odds impresses Dieter. He is inspired by her acts of courage. He sees his survival as important for them both. When Dieter learns of the painful injury inflicted on Margaret by the Russian soldiers he recognises his love for her.
(5) Maintaining a connection
It is the loneliness that threatens Dieter Kleinschmidt’s chances of survival. The feelings of disconnection increase his levels of fear and anxiety.
Dieter finds letter writing preserves his sanity. It is only by writing letters to ‘Margot’ that he is able to find an emotional connection that keeps him strong. He says,
“My body’s exhausted and I’m hungry every hour I’m awake, but it’s loneliness that stalks me like a wolf in the night. I keep it at bay by writing letters, as many as I can afford the paper and stamps for…”
Suicide prevention is a shared responsibility. No one is excluded. But we need to prioritise our own personal safety. This is achieved by keeping hope alive. The strategies needed to make this happen include valuing our uniqueness, expressing our gratitude, developing our awareness, drawing on our courage, and accepting that there will be a cost.
Suicide prevention involves reaching out to people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. It is demonstrating that we care. The strategies mentioned are well within our capabilities and include showing acts of kindness, believing in the power of words, reaffirming a person’s worth, embodying courage, and maintaining a connection.