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YOM HA’SHOA Starts This Evening: Remembering the Victims and Remembering Those Who Survived

These are trying times for all of us, and for survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, there are many current reminders and triggers of trauma that reverberate and might make this time even more difficult. It is particularly important in these challenging times to remember those who survived and are still with us, to show them our care in every way we can. Despite social distancing, which we must maintain, there are many ways in which we can connect with elderly relatives, with a neighbor or an old friend of the family; there has never been a better time than now to show we remember.

Survivors of trauma are more vulnerable in certain ways, but they also have much to share with us about endurance and resilience, because they have gone through terrible experiences and managed to move forward with their lives. We all need to access and amplify our strengths in order to deal with the challenges we face today, and survivors are models for inspiration and identification.

As Passover has just gone by, many Holocaust survivors have been completely secluded in their homes, too elderly to take the risk of any exposure to the virus. Unable to celebrate the holiday with family, unable to be comforted by visiting children or grandchildren, Holocaust survivors are now living through another cataclysmic event – the COVID-19 crisis. How are survivors dealing with this new catastrophe? How are they coping with the isolation and the separation from loved ones? How do they manage the fears that surround the pandemic? The fear of contracting the illness; the helplessness in the face of an invisible yet pervasive, deadly danger; the fear of loved ones contracting the virus, signifying new potential losses; the fears of shortages and rationing – all are potential triggers for memories of past traumatic experiences. One patient told me that she called the last remaining friend of her deceased mother, and the woman – who survived a concentration camp as an adolescent – said she had been crying for three days because the seclusion had triggered so many difficult emotions.

For many survivors, staying busy and social and having a structure and purpose in their daily lives have been important pillars of the resilient lives they built. The current limitations on mobility and on social activities obstruct these helpful coping strategies, and leave survivors alone with more time on their hands than they would like. The past tends to resurface in the later years of life, and life review is often very painful for people who endured extreme brutality and suffered the loss of their loved ones. Moreover, survivors of the Holocaust (and in fact, their children, too) have seen the worst of mankind. They have seen not only what perpetrators are capable of, but also what happens to people when food and other supplies are scarce, when survival mode takes over and the fight for one’s own and one’s family’s needs overrides civility. Survivors know how rapid the disintegration of social order can be, and many of them were not at all surprised when, during Hurricane Sandy, when gas distribution at the gas stations in NJ was inconsistent, there was an immediate need for police presence at the lines of cars waiting to fill up because brawls were breaking out, just within days. And yet, despite having seen the worst of mankind, many of the survivors I have known are outstanding examples of resilience. Many are managing their anxieties well, accepting the new reality and making the most of it, relying on past experiences and drawing strength from having endured and come through such difficult times into a better future.

As Yom Ha’Shoa approaches, we should recognize the incredible resource that survivors of the Holocaust, those who are still with us and those whose blessed memory is within the hearts of their descendants, embody for us all. Research tells us that our own resilience can be cultivated and amplified by finding and identifying with a resilient model, with someone who has experienced adversity and navigated it successfully. We can all look to survivors of the Holocaust for such models and inspiration. For me personally, the memory of my Holocaust survivor mother continues to provide the guidance and the inspiration for how to live my life. And so, in these uncertain and scary days, I focus on some of the tenets of her approach to life and try to emulate them. Translating from the Hebrew, the German, and the Polish in which my mother would have expressed them, I extract here the message from three short idioms my mother held dear, messages I see other Holocaust survivors trying to live by, and to teach us:

1. “There is nothing bad that does not turn out to something good.”

This message, from my mother, who was the sole survivor of her entire family, is the pillar of fire to follow in the times of dark. The message is: in difficult times, we have to make a conscious decision to move forward, to strive to see the positive and focus our efforts on that which is possible, rather than on feelings of helplessness and despair. This intentional shift in attention helps transform even bad situations into something more positive. I am full of hope that such a shift in perspective, not only on the personal level but on the social one, might come out of this somber time and leave us with a more mutually responsible society, as we understand how connected we all are in matters of life and death, beyond any racial, economic, political, or geographic boundaries.

2. “In life, you have to be flexible, like tall grass bending in the wind, not rigid.”

The message: One’s vitality and the ability to move forward despite disappointments, crises and unwelcome changes depend on our capacity to respond flexibly. A field of tall grasses bends in the wind and might even get flattened, but eventually the grass straightens up again without being broken.  The lesson to be learned is, when the winds of life blow hard, do not be stiff, because you might break. As the song goes, “move along, move along, just to make it through…”

3. “Let me think I am in the war.”

The message: When things seem too difficult to bear, when there seems to be nobody to turn to and no one who can help, one has to be able to fall back onto one’s own core resources. At such times, great strength can be drawn from knowing that one has withstood great difficulties in the past, and that one has somehow found the strength before to survive and to overcome. The knowledge of one’s inner strength and the confidence in one’s capacity to get through can be the positive outcome of having successfully survived extreme hardship. In the psychological literature, this type of strength and the optimism you have are referred to as resilience, hardiness and “post-traumatic growth.”

As my Holocaust parents’ daughter, as a parent to my own daughters today, I hope we will all find the way to connect with our resilience and humanity, to come together and learn from Holocaust survivors about the power each of us has to endure, and the need to make our world a better one.

Finally, we must remember those unique individuals who rose above all the darkness that was enveloping the world and, in a reality that seemed impossible to fight against, found the humanity and the courage to save others. Please watch the moving tribute below to Sir Nicholas Winton, a hero, an inspiration to us all. In times of challenge, we can cultivate our own resilience and moral fortitude by remembering that, in every generation, there are also such role models to show us the way out of darkness.



                     Irit Felsen


  1. Risa Katz says

    Thanks for sharing,Irit! I was particularly inspired by the clip you shared of Sir Nicholas Winston-a truly righteous gentile- as well as by your Mom’s a’h remarkable mottos – which we can all use and be strengthened by. Kol Hakavod!

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