BERLIN – The last day of the three-day Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in Berlin featured a focused discussion and examination of the experiences of child survivors of the Holocaust, a category into which most of those that outlived the Shoah in the crowded conference room fell.
Conducted in English and in German, this last event of the week, held at the Centrum Judaicum museum near the center of the city, was meant to be a wake-up call to the ongoing needs of Holocaust victims, said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the conference.
“How do we honor child survivors?” Schneider asked. “We need to ask what are the issues of child survivors today. When someone is subjected to trauma, what effect does that have over time? Problems come out even later in life.”
It quickly became clear that they are almost the only survivors left in the world, as Roman Kent, a Poland-born survivor of Auschwitz and the treasurer of the conference, spoke about how the trauma of surviving when your entire family perished extended to more than just loneliness after the war.
“Some things are intangible,” said Kent. “On our wedding day we didn’t have the parents and the aunts and the brothers.... I never thought I would be asked by my daughter: ‘Where is my grandma?’ I had no answer.”
Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said that today, Holocaust survivors find themselves hiding from rockets and bombs in the same way they used to hide from the police looking for Jewish children.
Stefanie Seltzer, another survivor from Poland and the president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, spoke about how years later, despite being only a child, the memories were vivid enough to bring her to tears, and to inspire her to start forming social groups of other child survivors.
“There’s no need for introductions or starting from square one,” Seltzer said. “We are each other’s family.”
The federation has conferences for survivors all over the world.
Despite being experienced 70 to 75 years ago, the trauma can be triggered at any time, almost regardless of how old the child was when they went through the Shoah, said Dr. Kurt Grünberg of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Berlin.
Every experience and trauma was different depending on: age, whether they were hiding or in a camp, how they were separated from their families, what that moment of separation was like and a myriad of other factors, Grünberg said.
Examining four different case studies of survivors and how they live today – underlining the fact that 1.5 million children were murdered – guilt, anxiety, antisocial behavior and even physical illness were all common manifestations of the trauma, he said.
“The long-term effects highlight the acute need for action, especially for those who are still being neglected,” Grünberg said. “The 1,000-year Reich lasted only 12 years, but the psychological effects extend across generations.”