How one man’s sketch provides a lesson in life

A young man was born in southern Europe in 1908. As a child, his mother would find him building structures from sugar cubes. He developed a love of art, but his mother convinced him to pursue a career as an architectural engineer. Then in 1940, the Germans invaded Ukraine where he was working. What occurred next is a lesson for our youth and our communities that help support them.

The Germans discovered he was Jewish, deported him to a German concentration camp, then transferred him to another and another. In 1945 he finally arrived at Mauthausen, where he became ill and was placed in a barracks known to house those expected to die. He was then asked by a guard to draw a birthday card. His reward, extra soup rations delivered by a fellow prisoner Edmund Staniszewski. The young man, aided by the extra soup, recovered from the illness.

Though he escaped that brush with death, he struggled to find meaning in life while being surrounded by those dying daily in his concentration camp. There seemed to be no hope of returning to a normal life, the actions of his Nazi captors had removed the humanity in living. Then something miraculous happened. His friend Edmund began discussing dreams of opening a café in Edmund’s hometown of Poznan, Poland. Edmund asked if he could design the café. His creative imagination began to race. Café Ace, which he called it, was produced using a series of sketches on 80 different paper scraps he acquired in the camp. Details included waiters dressed in ornate violet uniforms caring pink-veined silver trays. Through these drawings he created a safe, human place. Life began to have meaning.

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl researched keys to surviving the Holocaust, find a way to sustain purpose in life. This artistic engineer ignited his own creativity through drawings, bringing sanity to a desperate situation. His focus on creating this Café helped him develop purpose in a world filled with destruction.

Our hope is that our students will never experience such horrors. If you speak with counselors in our secondary schools and colleges you will find a key component of student depression is lack of purpose. They don’t see relevance in what they are learning and lack the ability to connect it to possible life/career paths. As a parent, community, friend, teacher, and education system, we need to provide and encourage students to engage in new experiences. We need to help them capture what the experience meant to them, like/dislike, encouraging them to learn more about the experience or move on to other experiences. Like this man, students need to create direction in their lives, goals with purpose. What do I want to do when I grow up? How do I get there? Each of us could be the role of the guard with the extra soup or the friend Edmund.

The man’s name, Simon Wiesenthal. After the Holocaust he did not return to engineering, but helped others pursue and bring his Nazi captors to justice. Perhaps Simon’s greatest gift is inspiring all of us that no matter what the obstacle we face, if we help each other find purpose in life we can bring light and hope to even the darkest moments of life.

Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)