AWAKENING

AWAKENING

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Awakening

Listen and you will learn.

Shlomo Ibn Gabirol

There were so many admissions that night that I had begun to lose count—and my temper. A seasoned intern, I had learned well the art of the quick, efficient work-up. Short-cutting had become a way of life. Morning was coming and, with it, my day off. All I wanted was to be done. My beeper sounded. I answered it. I heard the tired voice of my resident say, “Another hit, some ninety-year-old ‘gomer’ with cancer.” Swearing under my breath, I headed to the room. An elderly man sat quietly in his bed. Acting put upon, I abruptly launched into my programmed litany of questions, not really expecting much in the way of answers. To my surprise, his voice was clear and full, and his answers were articulate and concise. In the midst of my memorized review of systems, I asked if he had ever lived or worked outside the country.

“Yes,” he replied. “I lived in Europe for seven years after the war.” Surprised by his answer, I inquired if he had been a soldier there.

“No,” he said. “I was a lawyer. I was one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Nuremberg trials.”

My pen hit the floor. I blinked.

“The Nuremberg trials?” He nodded, stating that he later remained in Europe to help rebuild the German legal system

Right, I thought to myself, some old man’s delusion. My beeper went off twice. I finished the examination quickly, hurried off to morning sign-out and handed over the beeper.

Officially free, I started out the door but suddenly paused, remembering the old man, his voice, his eyes. I walked over to the phone and called my brother, a law student, who was taking a course on legal history. I asked him if the man’s name appeared in any of his books. After a few minutes, his voice returned.

“Actually, it says here that he was one of the prosecution’s leading attorneys at the Nuremberg trials.” I don’t remember making my way back to his room, but I know I felt humbled, small and insignificant. I knocked. When he bid me enter, I sat in the very seat I had occupied a short time before and quietly said, “Sir, if you would not mind, I am off-duty now and would very much like to hear about Nuremberg and what you did there. And I apologize for having been so curt with you previously.” He smiled, staring at me.

“No, I don’t mind.” Slowly, with great effort at times, he told me of the immense wreckage of Europe, the untold human suffering of the war. He spoke of the camps, those immense factories of death, the sight of the piles of bodies that made him retch. The trials, the bargaining, the punishments. He said that the war criminals themselves had been a sorry-looking bunch. Aside from the rude awakening of having lost the war, they could not quite understand the significance of the court’s quiet and determined justice or of the prosecution’s hard work and thorough attention to detail. The Nazis had never done things that way. So moved had he been by the suffering he encountered there that he had stayed on to help build a system of laws that would prevent such atrocities from happening again. Like a child I sat, silent, drinking in every word. This was history before me. Four hours passed. I thanked him and shook his hand, and went home to sleep.

The next morning began early, and as usual I was busy. It was late before I could return to see the old man. When I did, his room was empty. He had died during the night.

I walked outside into the evening air and caught the smell of the spring flowers. I thought of the man and felt despair mixed with joy. Suddenly my life seemed richer and more meaningful, my patients more complex and mysterious than before. I realized that the beauty and horror of this world were mixed in a way that is sometimes beyond understanding. The man’s effect on me did not end there. Despite the grueling call schedule, the overwhelming workload and the emotional stress of internship, something had changed within me. I began to notice colors, shapes and smells that added magic to everyday life. I learned that the gray-haired patients that I had once called “gomers” were people with stories to tell and things to teach. After nearly two decades I still look to the night, remember that man, and reflect on the chance and privilege we have to share in the lives of others, if only we take the time to listen.

Blair P. Grubb, M.D.

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