"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Yom Hazikaron – Israel’s Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism – is immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day. One link between these two days is clear: Israelis owe the very existence of their state to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for it. But also, just as Jewish tradition recognizes joy in times of sadness and sadness in times of joy, Yom Hazikaron’s somber end heralds the beginning of the joyous and festive Yom Ha’atzmaut and vividly portrays our ability to transform tragedy into triumph.
As I interviewed survivors of terrorism, their families, and the families of the bereaved following the second intifada in Israel and listened to their stories, I heard this same theme. I heard how they are able to continue life with new vitality, purpose, insight and productivity, contributing to society and turning tragedy into action. I learned how they can live and move forward with their feelings of grief, pain and helplessness, overcoming suffering and moving forward from terrorism to hope and optimism and from grief to meaning and healing. And I felt their steadfast belief that “the enemy had a victory over me when they killed my son, and will have another victory over me if I go down with him. I have chosen not to give it to them.”
While each story is unique and there is no one recipe – no right or wrong way – for dealing with horrific experiences, some common qualities that enable growth and positive outcomes emerged from their stories and can be cultivated to master any crisis.
Many survivors find meaning from their past experiences and from the attitudes they take toward unavoidable suffering, acknowledging the human potential to grow. Some construct meaning through self-transcendence or altruism, seeing negative events as an opportunity to help others, contributing to society and turning tragedy into action or activism. They may be creative, finding the silver lining, giving back and moving forward. Many bereaved family members also create memorials to meaningfully recognize and honor their loved ones.
It is no small coincidence that many of these attributes have been reported in Holocaust survivors as well or that a week ago, we observed Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – commemorating both the tragic and the triumphant.
This remarkable ability of survivors – whether of the Shoah or of terrorism – to transcend suffering and embrace life – inspired me to explore what it is in the stories of some individuals that allow them to move on from some of the darkest experiences possible to make sense of their lives and move forward in their lives.
My interest in survivors began years ago as I heard the extraordinary stories of survivors of the Holocaust, in particular those few members of my own family who had survived. Over 30 of my relatives were murdered in Vilna, in what is now Lithuania. Most of my family members who survived left Europe for Palestine or the United States in the early 1930s, including my mother’s parents who were ardent Zionists and moved to Jerusalem with their three children.
A few cousins remained behind and lived to tell their stories. Sima Shmerkovitz Skurkovitz, as a 17-year-old girl, lived through the hell of the Vilna Ghetto and Nazi concentration camps but managed to survive without losing her humanity. Her singing gave hope to her companions in the terrible darkness of the Nazi Holocaust.
Izaak Wirszup, his wife Pera, and her daughter Marina also survived the Holocaust.
Izaak lived through the Vilna Ghetto and the camps and believed that he was spared in order to make a difference. He encouraged me and others to “try for the maximum.” Out of their struggle came a survivor’s love of life.
Izaak expressed it this way: “We have seen how love, friendship, and help can transform the most fragile souls into individuals stronger than steel.”
But my need and desire to understand Holocaust survivors – their voices, their faces and their passions – went well beyond my own family history.
In the summer of 1995, I joined together with almost 375 people from different religions, generations, nationalities, communities and social and professional backgrounds at the Turning Point ’95 International Leadership Intensive held in Poland at Auschwitz- Birkenau, the extermination and labor camps that had been liberated 50 years earlier. Touring the camps with three survivors – two Jews and a communist resistance fighter – offered me a personal and concrete dimension to a tragedy that is still difficult to comprehend.
As a second-generation witness, I deeply sensed and identified with the horror and the pain. At the same time, I felt the hopes of those who not only suffered such horrendous events but who thrived in spite of them. I came away with an important question: How can we learn from our experiences to prevent genocide? A trip to Israel in October 2002, at the height of the second intifada, helped me connect what I had learned about Holocaust survivors to what was happening now in Israel, Palestine and the Middle- East.
Once again, I observed the strength of the human spirit to cope with tragedy and uncertainty and I began to reflect upon a new question: How can we move beyond the trauma of such an event? To answer these questions, I knew I had to listen more. I wanted to understand and know the voices faces, and passions of these otherwise ordinary people, this time those who experienced acts of terrorism and moved forward in their lives, creating meaning from their experiences and making a difference in the world.
And so, I have taken on the difficult task of gathering and sharing their remarkable journeys in remembrance of the past and as a responsibility to the future. Their powerful stories are testimony to their inner strength and determination – a victory of the human spirit – and inspire each of us as we meet the challenges in our lives. I hope these stories can shed a little light on someone else’s path through a dark period of their life.
The writer, who holds a PhD, is a Fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University.
She is the author of "Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing," Gefen Publishing