Hope is a scarce commodity behind bars. Just ask the men in the maximum-security yard of the California State Prison at Lancaster. You’ll hear story after story of how a loss of hope can lead to bad actions and a feeling that nothing matters—a feeling that can breed tragic consequences for those unable to overcome it.
But a group of those incarcerated at Lancaster seeking to rekindle hope recently got a powerful boost from a most unlikely messenger: a 92-year-old named William Harvey who endured the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald to become perhaps the first Holocaust survivor ever to give testimony at an American prison.
Harvey regularly speaks at the Museum of Tolerance about his experience in the Nazi concentration camps when he was 19 years old, and of later immigrating to America to begin a new life. But this summer, Harvey decided to share his story with a collection of 25 men serving life sentences at Lancaster for convictions at ages 15, 16, or 17.
They are a diverse group, today ranging in age from 22 to 52; speaking English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; working as kitchen aids, porters, and clerks. What unites them is a desire to create solidarity around rehabilitation and hope for release, reflected in the name of the group they’ve formed, Youth Offenders United ’N Growth (YOUNG).
The event opened the same way that all meetings of the YOUNG group open: with a poem about hope. It was one of Mr. Harvey’s favorite poems—A Creed, by Edwin Markham—whose words he has lived by ever since he immigrated to California after World War II and a teacher asked him to memorize it:
There is a destiny that makes us brothers:
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.
I care not what his temples or his creeds,
One thing holds firm and fast
That into his fateful heap of days and deeds
The soul of man is cast.
In the audience that day, the YOUNG group was joined by 25 other prisoners, as well as Warden Debbie Asuncion, assorted correctional officers, and other prison staff. They listened as Mr. Harvey described his life as a Jewish child in Berehova, Czechoslovakia, and the fear he felt when Hitler declared on the radio that every Jew must die. They heard him describe how, at age 19, Nazi soldiers ordered him to leave his home and forced him and his mother and sisters into an overcrowded ghetto without adequate food, heat, or sanitary conditions.
You could hear a pin drop as Harvey went on to describe how soldiers then forced him and hundreds of others into cattle cars and took them to the death camp at Birkenau. His mother was sent in a line to be killed in a gas chamber, while he was taken to work in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and then taken to Buchenwald.
After a forced march in the winter of 1945, he was frozen, presumed dead, and taken to the crematorium. A prisoner working there realized he was still alive and transferred him to the infirmary. He weighed 72 pounds. The camp at Buchenwald was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945.
Blessed with his newfound freedom, Harvey immigrated to New York in 1946, and then to Los Angeles where he got his high school diploma. He became a cosmetologist, opened his own salon where he catered to stars like Judy Garland, and married his wife June Gardiner, who died of cancer in 1995. It was impossible not to see the genuine love and pride in Mr. Harvey’s eyes when he talked about his wife, two children, and four grandchildren.
The audience was riveted, and, at the end of his talk, asked how he was able to move beyond the horror and live such a rich life. Love and hope, he replied, are the most important things we have as human beings. When asked if he has forgiven the Nazis, he said he feels no anger towards them. “I feel bad for them because they were full of hatred,” he said. “Hatred is the loss of love, and to live without love is not living at all.”
Following the talk, Alex, one of the members of the YOUNG group, wrote a letter expressing his gratitude. “Thank you for coming to visit us and share your story. I feel such honor to have shared this space and moment in time,” Alex wrote. “I shook the hand of history, of survival, of love, of inspiration, and came away with a spark of purpose.”
Kevin, another member of YOUNG, wrote a letter on behalf of the group as a whole. “We thank you because you showed us what hope looks like,” wrote Kevin. “Hearing your story and knowing anyone can succeed as long as they don’t give up on HOPE, gives us the strength and desire to change—to become a better person, to be our true selves.”
That spark of purpose caught fire. After the event, the men in the YOUNG group decided to conduct a fundraiser at the prison to raise money for A Place Called Home, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk kids in South Central Los Angeles. “I wanted to give back to the community that I helped destroy,” said one group member. Added another: “It felt damn good. I felt like I was on the top of Mount Everest,” describing the sensation as “empowering.”
Some are preparing to attend parole hearings at which youth offender cases involving crimes committed before the age of 23 are reviewed—and support the consideration of youth as a mitigating factor. And other members were focusing on how to take advantage of changes in California’s criminal justice laws, such as Prop 57, which will offer new chances for the incarcerated to be paroled and require a judge’s approval for juveniles to be tried as adults.
It seems Mr. Harvey, and the members of YOUNG, have found a way to grow hope in the most unforgiving terrain. May it be an inspiration to us all.