On Feb. 19, the last known survivor of the Treblinka concentration camp, Samuel Willenberg, died in Israel. The news of his death led me to reflect on the most profoundly moving experience of my life: leading a support group for Holocaust survivors.
I am one of a tiny number of American family doctors to have completed a residency in Canada. I completed it with McGill in Montreal, at the Jewish General Hospital. The "Jewish" was a very traditional hospital, complete with rabbis, and "Sabbath elevators" that went up and down on Saturdays without pushing a button, one floor at a time, so that no work needed to be done on a Saturday.
In 1991 the Iraqis fired Scud missiles at Israel, provoking extreme anxiety among the concentration camp survivors of Montreal. My psychiatry professor suggested that I might want to volunteer to be a support group leader for those survivors.
I protested that I wasn't Jewish, and that I had ended up at "The Jewish" because of my fluency in Spanish, learned in my native California and helpful to the many Montreal immigrant patients from places like Argentina and Venezuela.
My psychiatry prof came back at me with the argument that I'd learn valuable skills in healing the wounds of loss, and, besides, the social worker who was a co-leader was Jewish. My professor's "suggestion" prevailed.
The first session with our 12 patients was every bit the pandemonium I had feared. The survivors were outraged, horrified and insulted that they had been sent a goy when "The Jewish" was, after all, full of good Jewish doctors.
By the middle of the second session, they had warmed up to me. And at the end of that session, one of the few men in the group observed that "maybe it's a good thing that Dr. Bonsteel isn't Jewish. So many people can't believe what horror we went through and the millions who died so pointlessly. If a non-Jew witnesses for us when we're gone, maybe they'll believe him."
And that observation was the beginning of profound friendships among us.
It turned out that this was one of the two things I could do for them -- to listen very, very attentively, evening after evening; to play back to them what I'd heard; and to promise to witness for them when they were gone.
The other was to teach them to meditate, something that took some chutzpah, as I wasn't very far along in my spiritual life at that point. But it worked. We'd end our sessions with a candlelight meditation with spiritual music, holding hands, and all 12 reported that it helped them to feel less anxious and to sleep better.
I doubt that any of those 12 souls is now still alive. And arithmetic tells us that it won't be too many years before we read in the newspaper that the last known Holocaust survivor of all has died.
Especially now, when the world is beset by racial and religious intolerance that makes many wonder if the human race has learned anything at all, we must remember those millions who died so needlessly and pointlessly. We must never forget the inhumanity of which mankind is capable.
Those of us who were witnesses to the Holocaust -- even if only very indirectly, like myself -- must continue to bear witness.
And we must strive to learn peace and harmony and love and to teach it to our children.
Alan Bonsteel, M.D., is a family doctor from Tiburon. He is affiliated with the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, which teaches its students meditation and inspires them to value peace and harmony among all religions, nations and ethnic groups.