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Profound Lessons From Arnold Van Den Berg - Part 1

Lessons from the guru's speech at Baylor University

October 21, 2019

Arnold Van Den Berg (Trades, Portfolio) is a renowned value investing legend, featured in the books "The Great Minds of Investing" and "The World's 99 Greatest Investors." As much as he is a great value investor, he is also a Holocaust survivor. I have the privilege to know Van Den Berg personally and have learned tremendously from him. His wisdom extends above and beyond investing. I’ve especially enjoyed the life lessons he has learned as a Holocaust survivor. In a rare public speech, he shared with students at Baylor University stories and life lessons from his family’s Auschwitz experiences.

Below is the first part of my edited transcripts of his speech:

Lesson one: The importance of having principles in life

"One reason I survived the Auschwitz is that I didn’t go with my mother. The whole purpose of going to Auschwitz was just a way to turn to die. And they had the gas chambers going full time. They could gas 10 thousand people a day. So when you get to Auschwitz, the first thing they do is they gas the women and the children. There's no women that goes there and survived with children. So if I would have gone there with my mother, I obviously wouldn't have survived.

My dad took a very big gamble. I was about two and a half years old. My brother was about five years old. My dad arranged with the Dutch underground and they arranged with a 19- year-old girl to smuggle my brother and I through the German lines. That was a very risky operation because they checked passports at every place you went and we had some passports, but they were fake and it wasn't too difficult to be able to tell that they weren't real passports. So what they did is they put one guy in front of us. So she was sitting with us here. There was another the guy in front. So when the officer would come onto train and he would check the passport, he would keep him busy. He would ask him instructions on how do you get to this place and keep them busy. And the lady that hid me or took me said to me after I spoke with her after the war, she says her heart was beating so hard. It was just like it was going to pop out of her chest because she was so worried that they were going to check her passport. The whistle blew and she was so relieved. And so the officer had to get off the train and they never did check our passports. So we were able to get to the orphanage and I was in the orphanage from about two and a half to six until my parents were liberated from Auschwitz and came and picked me up. So the first lesson in the first principle that I want to discuss with you tonight is the principle of what would make a 19-year-old girl who didn't even know us risk her life to save a couple of kids.

That's a pretty amazing thing for a 19-year-old girl to do. But the most important thing that was even deeper than that. What could possess her father to send her on a mission like that? I mean, how many people would send their daughters on almost a suicide mission to save a couple of kids they didn't even know? So I struggle with that for many years. And when I was about 26 or 27, I went through a severe depression, and we'll talk about that in a few minutes. And I asked my psychiatrist, I couldn't figure it out. I said, what could possibly make some young woman do that for me or anybody else? He told me it's a matter of principle. If your life is more important than your principles, then you're going to sacrifice your principles. If your principles are more important in your life, you sacrifice your life.

So that's one of the things that I learned from that. It's very important to have a philosophy on life because unless you have a certain principles or philosophy, you could never take these kind of risks for other people. You would never go out on the limb like that because if your own life was that much more important, you sacrifice your principles. If your principles are more important than your life, you sacrifice your life. These people were deep Christians and they were willing to sacrifice their life or their principles. So that was one of the first lessons that really struck me that I thought was profound. And I made that a very important part of my life to think about that, that the thing that makes people take these kind of risks for other people is because they have a principle that is even more important than their life."

Lesson two: Never let arguments get in the way of making up with your loved ones

"The second thing that I thought was an amazing story is that my mom and dad were put in a holding tank where all the Jews were collected and they met a couple of people they became very friendly with and so they put him on this train to Auschwitz and that was the beginning of a horrible story because on this train it was during the winter, it was cold. It was three days going from Holland to Poland. There were literally no bathroom facilities on the train. Everybody was packed in the same thing. They had a little bucket in the corner where everybody had to go to the bathroom and there was no food, no water, no bathroom facilities. That was the first three days on the way to Auschwitz.

Anyway, when they got to Auschwitz they immediately separated people into two lines. And the first line was that if you were old, if you were a woman with children or if you were sick or you couldn't work, you would go on to the one side. All of those people would go to the gas chamber the first night. If you were strong, if you were healthy, if you look like you were younger, you would go to the right side and then you would go into the barracks and you would go to work. Now as you will imagine what's happening to gas chambers is they made people feel like they were going to take a shower so they had everybody go into this big room and they had them undress, put their clothes there, say be sure you remember where your clothes were because after the shower you come up and get your belongings. And then they crammed everybody into this big room which had shower heads and from the shower heads came the gas and so after about 15 to 20 minutes of suffocating with the gas, everybody was dead. Then they took him out of the gas chambers and put them in the crematorium.

This friend of my mom's was on the train with her and she got there and she was a young girl and she had a fight with her mother. And so they weren't talking on the train. When they got there her father went up to her and said, 'Pepe, I have a very bad feeling about this place. I really think that you ought to apologize to your mother.' So she thought about it. She said, 'You know that you're right.' So she went up, they hugged and kissed, and they made up and she never saw her mother again. She went to the other side and that night in the barracks, they had all these barracks where people were sleeping there, and she said she couldn't sleep. She just kept thinking. She went outside, walked outside, there was a woman standing leaning against the wall and she was looking around and she saw this big chimney and out of this chimney was just nothing but black smoke. And she was thinking, 'I wonder what that is.' So she went up and asked the lady what is that chimney there. The lady said, 'I’m afraid to tell you this, but when people of a certain age get here, and especially if they have children, they go into the gas chamber and that's the crematorium. And I'm sure that with your parents that that's probably where they are right now.'

And she says that was just the most amazing thing that she just couldn't even comprehend it. Can you imagine out of a normal society being in a place when all of a sudden they just take people's lives without thinking about it? And it was just a very, very troubling period for her, but she says the greatest lesson for her, and that's what I want to leave with you, is that you never let arguments get in the way of making up with your loved ones. Because just think if she hadn't made up with her mother, the lesson is there. She made up with her mother and at least her mother went to her grave knowing that she was on good terms with her daughter. And she didn't have to live the rest of her life feeling guilty that she didn't make up with her mother. So that's one of the lessons that I learned from this, is that whenever you have a quarrel with the loved ones you make up right away because you never know and you don't have to be in a concentration camp. Somebody could have a heart attack. There could be an accident. It could be a stroke. There could be any number of things. I gave a speech to a group of middle schoolers who were studying Anne Frank and I got a letter from one of the girls and she said, 'I want to thank you for bringing that subject up because I had a fight with my little brother. But I went home and we made up and we went to a football game that day that night and there was a large stadium and he fell off. It was almost 20 feet. He fell almost right on his head.' She also said she was thinking about it all the time in the hospital how she was so happy that she was able to make up before this terrible incident. She said, 'Fortunately, I do believe he's going to make it, but you just never know about these kind of things.'"

Lesson three: The power of the subconscious mind

"I don't want to dwell too much on the hardships, but the most important thing that I learned from these kind of experiences and talking to my parents is you learn a tremendous power that we all have within us the power of the mind. And I call it the power of the subconscious mind. And I’m going to give you guys a couple of thoughts on this. And I want you to think about this because you have no idea of the power that we all have within ourselves. And it's only when it get tested at the level that you get tested in these environments that you really see what comes out of that.

And just to give you an example, my dad was on a death march. Now here's what you want to think about. I'm five eight and about 155, 160 pounds and my dad was just one inch smaller me and, by the time he was there for six months, he was almost 85 pounds. So he weighs almost half of what I'm weighting today. He was very weak and everybody was at that level. And he said there was an interesting thing that he observed. There were a lot of young kids that came into the camp; young, strong guys from Poland and Russia, different places, and he says they be working along and they be working with a shovel and he would be struggling to lift something up. And these guys are just, he said they were just so used to working hard. They were very strong kids. But he says after a while when everybody got down to skin and bones, the young people seem to die off much quicker than the older people and he got the thinking about it and he got to talking to people and talking to these young kids and what you realize is that there's a point where the suffering becomes so intense, that unless you have something to live for that is greater than yourself, you just give up and let go and at that point if you just wanted to die you just lay down that day and you could die. You were just kept alive by a will to live. If you had no physical strength, it was all mental.

And so what he learned is that these young people who weren't married, who didn't have wives, who didn't have kids, they didn't have things to live for like some of the older people did. The most important thing is that you have to have something beyond yourself to want to live and survive and go through these situations. And just to show you how difficult it was, the cold was, the level of cold in Poland is so severe it's below zero. You had just regular clothes. You'd have to get up at four thirty or five o'clock. You'd have to stand in a place where they take roll calls and you'd be there for an hour and a half. If you didn't have any shoes, you would just stand barefoot into snow you had the standard attention and it was a long process. Then you got a piece of bread which is about this big and about two slices bread thick.

That was your daily bread. And then you get a little water down soup in the afternoon or the evening. A lot of times you wouldn't even get that. But that was the normal portion. Then you had to work for twelve hours a day. And in my dad's case, he had to work on an airfield. And the ground was so hard when you hit it with the shovel. It was just like trying to chop into cement. The ground was so frozen, it would just bounce back. And then if you didn't dig hard enough they'd come and beat you and sometimes they just knock you down, they would hit you so hard. So it was a very, very difficult life. And many people died, got sick, and were gassed, and so on and so forth.

But one of the things that I want to talk about is the power of the mind. And to give you an illustration of that. My dad was on a death march. They had to go to a camp. It was 60 kilometers. They got up early in the morning. They got a piece of bread and they started marching. There was no breaks, no more food and no more water. And the snow was halfway up to your knees. So the snow was about up to here. You had to march. And if you fell down or you struggled or you caved in, they shot you.

So you have to march straight on without any breaks until you got to the camp. He says they started with a whole field of people and just a small group made it. And so what is the thing that could make a person survive that kind of situation? When you're freezing, you're cold? You're hungry. And so he said what he had to do is he had to totally focus his mind on just moving his legs. And he said he would lock his knee and then you had to lock your knee to make your next step because if you didn't have your knee lock, you would be so tired you would just fall under the ground. You couldn't get up. You'd be shot. So it was the most important thing that you learn about the focus of your mind. And once you focus your mind on something you can do extraordinary things. He said you couldn't think about how cold you were. You couldn't think about how angry you were. You couldn't think about how thirsty you were. You couldn't think about how tired you were. You couldn't think about how far you had to go because any one of those things would have just weakened you.

The only thing you had to do was think about moving that leg and moving one leg at a time. And if that's what you can do and if you continued on, then you were able to get through it. And that is the power of the mind. And if you will take in your life and focus your energies to that degree, then nothing is impossible. And I want to give you one quote here by one of the greatest psychologists of all time. "The subconscious mind contains not only all the knowledge that has gathered during the life cycle of the individual, but then in addition it contains all the wisdom of past ages, that by drawing upon its wisdom and power, the individual may possess any good thing of life from health, happiness, riches and success." And I would encourage all of you to study the subconscious mind because by drawing upon that principle you have the ability to do extraordinary things. I've used it in my life to overcome my physical disability. I became a champion gymnast by using the principles. I used it to build a business. I used it to build my life, and by drawing on that those principles you can get through an awful lot of difficulties that you may never get through any other way.

I would also encourage you to study hypnosis. I use self-hypnosis and hypnosis on my family for many different things. And that is a great field in which you can find a lot out about yourself, about your past. And if you've ever had particular problems with anything, by going into the subconscious mind you can find out what those problems are and correct them as I've done in my life. And it's a wonderful principle, and if you ever get into a situation where you have that kind of situation then I would encourage you to do it."

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About the author:

A global value investor constantly seeking to acquire worldly wisdom. My investment philosophy has been inspired by Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Howard Marks, Chuck Akre, Li Lu, Zhang Lei and Peter Lynch.

Rating: 5.0/5 (8 votes)



Jean-Francois Nobert
Jean-Francois Nobert premium member - 3 weeks ago

Exceptional article Grahamites! I can't thank you enough for sharing! :)

Thomas Macpherson
Thomas Macpherson premium member - 2 weeks ago

Wow. So much to take away from this. This is one of those pieces you need to print up and take a week or two to process. Thanks for sharing this. And a special thanks to Arnold for opening up his heart and sharing his experieces with us. A deeply moving witness to history.

Grahamites - 3 days ago    Report SPAM

Jean-Francois: Thanks for the nice words. And of course you are welcome!

Grahamites - 3 days ago    Report SPAM

Tom - You are welcome. Yes, Arnold's life experiences are one of a kind. I've learned so much from him.

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