PTSD among Israel’s Holocaust survivors

A group of volunteers provides comfort to traumatized Shoah survivors in assisted living facilities, via regular visits.

July 10, 2019 15:39
PTSD among Israel’s Holocaust survivors

ELIRAN KEREN’S mother developed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder due to her experiences in the Holocaust. Today she lives in a home for Shoah survivors in Sha’ar Menasheh.. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)

 ‘There was a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor living here at the Holocaust assisted living home, and all she talked about all day was her desire to see Yehoram Gaon. So, one day, I decided to call him. I told Yehoram about the woman who was obsessed with him. ‘She has dementia,’ I told him, ‘and all she does all day is sit with her headset on and listen to tapes of your music from the 1970s.’ Yehoram asked me where the assisted living was located and I replied: Tsur Moshe. A long silence descended upon the line, and then finally Yehoram said, ‘I’m in Tsur Moshe.’ A few minutes later, he arrived at the door holding a huge bouquet of flowers. As soon as she saw him, she cried out, ‘Yehoram, My Yehoram! Can you come give me a hug?’ It made me feel so good knowing that I’d been able to help her fulfill her lifelong dream.”

This is just one of many stories in Eliran Keren’s compendium of stories. Seven years ago, Keren gathered a group of volunteers to visit with Holocaust survivors with PTSD who live in assisted living facilities. As I sit with him, Keren’s phone rings again and again with calls coming in from volunteers who are running a program, in which survivors tell their personal Holocaust stories to groups. There’s a huge demand for survivors to come to schools or to people’s homes, but Keren flatly refuses each request. “None of our residents are strong enough physically or emotionally to tell their horror stories – and certainly not in a location they’re unfamiliar with.” On the organization’s Facebook page, Keren writes, “Unfortunately, over half of our residents suffer from PTSD, and so bringing up the horrible events that took place during the war is very dangerous for them.”
In addition, Keren forbids the volunteers from speaking about the Holocaust with the survivors. “When I started working at the assisted living home, representatives from Yad Vashem used to come and spend about 20 minutes with each survivor asking them questions about their experiences during the Shoah,” Keren continues. “I would estimate that probably half of their responses were true and the other half a complete fabrication. After the Yad Vashem representatives would leave, the survivors would curl up underneath their blankets and stay there for three months.” 

How do they handle Holocaust Remembrance Day?
“Every day is [Holocaust Remembrance Day] for them. We hold short ceremonies all the time and we never need to bring in speakers from other places. Every year, I succeed in coaxing another resident to tell one more anecdote. But only when they’re ready to do so.”
“WE ALL have challenges to face during our lifetime,” says Keren, 48, whose parents are Holocaust survivors of Hungarian origin. “Hashem gives some of us especially large challenges from our first day on earth. My mother had serious emotional problems. I weighed 5 kg. when I was born and got stuck on my way out. Finally the doctor succeeded in pulling me out, but this left the entire left side of my body damaged. To this day I still don’t have use of my left arm. And yet, I see this as a blessing. When I was a little kid trying to learn how to tie my shoes, I became very creative. My parents were not in a good place and weren’t much help to me. So I learned to tie my shoes using my teeth and my toes in conjunction with my right hand. I learned a very important lesson that day: to think outside the box.”
As a result of her experiences during the Holocaust, Keren’s mother developed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “I don’t actually have any memories of my mother,” explains Keren. “My parents were pretty old when I was born and by that time, my mother had undergone quite a bit of electric-shock therapy. She was in and out of psych wards all the time and wasn’t really functioning well. I was always the first kid to arrive at kindergarten in the morning because I was still wearing the same clothes and shoes from the previous day.”

What was your childhood like?
“Extremely lonely. My parents divorced when I was six and from that time on, I spent most of my time in hospitals and boarding schools. Every year on July 1, my father would drop me off at the hospital and only come get me when September came around. There was a surgeon there, a professor who was a hand specialist. I recall falling asleep from the anesthesia before a surgery, counting back from 10, thinking that I was surely going to die this time. But then I would wake up and I was still alone. They kept trying to fix my fingers by moving tendons from one place to another, but it never worked.”

IN 2016, Keren received the Magen Prize for Outstanding Volunteers from the Health Ministry. He is currently living in Pardesiya with his wife Galit and their three children, who are 17, 20 and 22. His father died a year ago and his mother, who is 80, has been living in a home for Holocaust survivors in Sha’ar Menashe for the past 20 years since his grandmother passed away. 
“I succeeded in adopting the woman who failed to raise me,” Keren explains. “I don’t believe that she abandoned me. The act of abandoning is something done intentionally. My mother just had no capability. When I arrived at the assisted living home, I saw incredible loneliness and people suffering from PTSD who would stick a few meatballs in their pockets before leaving the dining hall. They would sit all day in a wheelchair staring off into space, waiting for something to happen. I would visit my mother once a week. But being there was like sitting shiva. A never-ending shiva for my living-dead mother.”
When he was 35, Keren decided to make a change. “I told my wife, ‘Seeing my mother in that place is sapping me of all my energy,”’ he recalls. “So I decided to sell my real estate business and my apartment in Ramat Gan and move to Pardesiya near my mother’s assisted living. Luckily, my wife and kids agreed to come, too. Some people say this was an extremely radical move, but I felt like I was drowning. I began spending more time at the home.”

What would you do while you were there?
“I would just talk with the people living there. Or hold their hands; make a party if someone had a birthday; buy clothing for a resident who was in need. When I’m awarded prizes for my accomplishments, I tell people I didn’t do all this work because I’m such a good person, but because I was trying to fill the hole in my heart that formed due to the absence of my mother. Whenever I go to friends where their mother prepared a home-cooked meal, I devour the food since I never had that as a child.
“One year, when Hanukkah came around and my wife suggested that maybe we light candles with friends instead of going to the assisted living, I realized that it wasn’t right that I was spending all day and night at the home, that I wasn’t an employee there. I realized that I needed to bring adults and children from the community into the home.”

FOR SEVEN years now, Keren has been working on a variety of projects with thousands of volunteers, including schoolchildren, college students, young Arabs, women’s groups and IDF disabled veterans.
The first program he created was Mishpacha Michabeket, in which people adopt a Holocaust survivor. “I always tell volunteers that this connection is for life and lasts until either the survivor or the volunteer dies,” explains Keren. “It’s like adopting a child. You don’t do it for a week. It’s a long-term commitment. The survivors have been abandoned enough times already. These volunteers become the most important person in the survivor’s life. And so if you leave them, they would die of a broken heart.”
The next project Keren formed was a way to fill in the lonely afternoon hours. They would take trips to the Kotel or the sea and organize lots of workshops, usually connected with the upcoming holiday. “One day, just before Jerusalem Day, I asked everyone when they’d last been on a visit to the Kotel [Western Wall],” continues Keren. “One man told me he’d never been there. ‘When I arrived in Israel,’ he told me, ‘they decided I was mentally disturbed and so I’ve been living in institutions for the last 53 years.’ Another guy told me, ‘I was at the Kotel when Rav Goren blew the shofar.’ I decided right then and there that I was going to take them on a field trip to the Kotel.
“That was in 2014, after the three boys were kidnapped, but before Operation Protective Edge broke out. I’d received the security clearance for the buses and we were on our way with six buses equipped for wheelchairs and two emergency medicine service vehicles that would accompany us all the way onto the Kotel grounds. Volunteers from the IDF Oketz Unit were waiting on site to welcome the survivors. When the first survivor was lowered down off the bus in her wheelchair, and saw the two rows formed by IDF soldiers who were singing and welcoming them, with the Kotel in the background, she broke down crying. A female soldier approached her and gave her a big hug.
“The details of a survivor’s story are not so important. What matters is what kind of PTSD they are experiencing. Most survivors who arrived in Israel had a successful absorption process and went on to have productive, happy lives. They served in the IDF, fought in wars, studied in the university, married and had children. And yet, they were never really able to forget the horrors of the Shoah and many of them had extremely complicated relationships with their children. 
“Some survivors took on life with zest, like Eli Wiesel, Tommy Lapid and Efraim Kishon. But many are like my mother: the walking dead. They scream out from recurring nightmares they have every night. Many of them are compulsive hoarders. Some have spent the last few decades in mental institutions. Instead of diagnosing them with PTSD, they were considered mentally unstable.”

ONLY IN 1998, 50 years after the founding of the country, was a public investigation commissioned by retired judge Ya’acov Bazak to expose the poor conditions of psychiatric hospitals. The report harshly criticized hospital conditions and demanded that the Ministry of Health build special homes for Holocaust survivors, using the reparation funds from Germany. There are currently three such homes that help survivors suffering from PTSD: Sha’ar Menashe, Lev Hasharon in Pardesiya and the Shalvata Mental Health Center in Be’er Ya’acov. 
According to an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office made in September 2018, “The Israeli government has invested over NIS 5.5 billion for the benefit of Holocaust survivors, and is fully committed to caring for Israel’s Holocaust survivors.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner. 

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