Each time a Code Red rocket- warning siren sounds, Halina Ashkenazy-Engelhard, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, sits on her couch and gazes out the window at the trees surrounding her home in a gated community for the elderly in northern Tel Aviv.
“I am afraid of being in a bomb shelter,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“It reminds me of the time I spent in an underground bunker during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; it reminds me of death and of suffocation.”
For Ashkenazy-Engelhard, like for many Holocaust survivors, the current escalation – the sirens, the barrage of rockets, the loud booms, and the constant media coverage – has brought back memories of the atrocities endured and helplessness experienced during the Holocaust.
“It all comes back to me, when I hear the booms and the sirens, it reminds me of Warsaw and Berlin and the massive bombings we endured,” she recounted.
Two days ago, a week into Operation Protective Edge, she began having “atrocious” nightmares – of what specifically she wouldn’t or couldn’t say. Watching TV and seeing the pictures of Israeli children huddled in bunkers and of the Palestinian children that had died were too much for her to handle.
“I just broke down, I have always been strong but for some reason I just had an emotional breakdown,” she said.
Ashkenazy-Engelhard turned to the one place she said she knew she could find help: AMCHA – the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation.
“I turned to AMCHA and I just broke down crying,” she said. “Everything I went through [in the Holocaust] lives within my soul and so I am extra emotional to human suffering.”
Since its establishment in 1987, the Jerusalem-based organization has expanded to operate 14 branches throughout the country, providing psychotherapy and social clubs for Holocaust survivors, as well as volunteer services for youth to meet and interact with them.
During the current conflict, the organization has reported increased anxiety and elevated stress among Holocaust survivors in the South and throughout the country, and has expanded its efforts to assist them.
“Many of the Holocaust survivors experience what is called retraumatization,” Dr.
Martin Auerbach, national clinical director of AMCHA, explained to the Post.
“When you undergo a new current traumatic event it can reinforce traumatic memories, especially if they are from childhood. It acts as a trigger that reminds you of past memories and this can be very frightening,” he said.
According to Auerbach, it is very common for Holocaust survivors to experience increased anxiety, sleeping problems, nightmares and reminiscences from past traumas given the security situation.
“It doesn’t mean that Holocaust survivors function less well, interestingly they are able to function like most of us under the current situation,” he said.
He further explained that since the survivors know what it means to suffer, they are especially sensitive to the suffering of others on both sides.
“In Israel the children are frightened and on the other side they are also bombarded and the Holocaust survivor will have empathy for this,” he said.
Auerbach said that the longer these repeated wars go on, the more the survivors begin to question what their generation will leave behind for the following ones, saying that “for many of them, coming to Israel was tikkun olam [repairing the world], it was in some way a big hope that from extreme tragedy they could build something positive.”
Many of the survivors, said Auerbach, are not afraid for their own existence but worry about the existence of the Jewish state and Israeli society, as well as for their children and grandchildren.
In Sderot, for example, many survivors that he meets with do not seek shelters when the sirens sound as they are detached regarding their own safety, and are more worried for the next generations, he said.
“My grandchildren live in the South and I cannot sleep because I am thinking about them and the soldiers, why does what I went through in the Holocaust need to repeat itself now for the third and fourth generations,” said Zipora Peler, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv.
During this time of conflict AMCHA has expanded its operations to help the some 16,000 Holocaust survivors it treats on a regular basis, Auerbach said. Some 900 volunteers and therapists have been operating social clubs with special stress-reduction and recreational programming, providing extra therapy hours at branch offices and in clients’ homes, and initiating phone calls to clients unable or unready to leave their homes.
“Being alone is the most difficult thing for everybody, not just Holocaust survivors, if you want to help, try to think of whoever is alone and offer your human presence and your empathy,” said Auerbach.
For Ashkenazy-Engelhard, the word amcha [your people] has a much deeper meaning.
“I remember the first time I encountered [the word] amcha. It was in the beginning of May in 1945 and I had just returned to Warsaw from the labor camps when I heard two men speaking in Yiddish and I was so astounded that I followed them staring,” she recalled. “One of them finally turned to me and said, ‘Amcha?’” She recounted that she had no idea what the word meant until her traveling companion explained to her it was a secret word used among Jews to identify other Jews.
“It was years later that I encountered AMCHA in Israel,” she said. “This organization means so much more, it saves lives. Many of us have nowhere else to go. Our kids are grown up and our grandchildren no longer care. This is like a second home, with brothers and sisters with a shared past like mine that I can talk to.”
AMCHA operates a telephone hotline for Holocaust survivors every day between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. at (02) 633-5209. After these hours Holocaust survivors can also receive assistance through the ERAN emotional first aid hotline at 1-800-276-655.