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Thoughts for Yom HaShoa, 2018

Beginning tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 11, 2018), we will commemorate Yom HaShoa. Many survivors, like my own parents, who were in their early twenties when the war destroyed their world, are no longer with us. The number of survivors who are still alive dwindles down with every passing day. But still with us are some remarkable child and adolescent survivors, those whose early years were spent during the horrors of WWII. Yet, these remarkable people, many of whom I know and love, have managed to adapt well. The psychological survival of these survivors who grew up and came into their own in a world of extreme brutality and loss is hard to comprehend. Anyone who had or loved a child is aware of the vulnerability of children and the deprivation, fear and cruelty they might experience when there is no protection available. There are tremendously valuable lessons to be learned from the successful adaptation of child and adolescent survivors of the Holocaust, for their lives are a testament to the human spirit, and to human resilience, which has not received appropriately sufficient attention in psychological research.

Paul Friedman who was appointed by the Joint Distribution Committee to assess the psychological condition of the surviving adults and children in the Displaced Camps in Europe commented on the special impact of childhood deprivation and traumatic experiences on the young survivors. He stated: “I found a situation that was well-nigh miraculous in view of the children’s past experiences. Here were no monsters, no savages, no psychotics. But I soon discovered that these children had serious emotional problems, usually of a neurotic nature. They would have been distinctly abnormal not to have had them. To have lived, as these children had, in Hitler’s Europe, was to have inhabited a world where all the accepted modes of human intercourse have been destroyed and all moral standards have been subverted. But the behavior patterns formed by these children during the years when they had to struggle for sheer survival could not be lumped together in an over-all syndrome…the patterns were too diverse”.

Despite the traumatic experiences and the extensive losses they suffered, child and adolescent survivors, as a group, have assimilated well into the environment to which they immigrated after the war, and have become personally and professionally successful individuals, who raised successful children. Their successful adaptation was achieved despite the fact that they received little support or understanding from their new environment.  I was fortunate to have recently had the opportunity to interview a group of child and adolescent survivors for a study requested by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The study collected information about the experiences of the young survivors in the time immediately after liberation and in the early years following the end of WWII. Did they speak of their ordeals? Did they talk about their Holocaust experiences with parents, if a parent survived, or with other survivors? Did others such as relatives who did not live through the war in Europe want to know about it? Did American peers or teachers express an interest? The findings from the interviews were stark: “nobody wanted to know”, the survivors unanimously stated. And they themselves did not want to talk, either. They wanted to forge ahead, make a new life, become “normal”. And that they did, not without scars or wounds, but in spite of them. We have so much to learn from the survivors, so much to listen to, to record for posterity, and to cherish. For this is a generation of human miracles, each and every one of them. They have been through the worst and have managed to maintain the best of the human capacity to overcome tragedy, to rebuild, to move forward and find meaning and love even after having known the profound pain of having lost it before.

Many of the survivors, now in their late years, are finally able and ready to share with the world their experiences. They tell us about experiences which are at the extreme of the human tolerance for suffering, and they share their personal stories of endurance and of the unique ways in which each individual found it possible to go on and to thrive. We must listen, carefully, as these precious lessons are passed on to us, the witnesses to the last witnesses to the Holocaust.

Irit Felsen

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