A broad look at survivors

When discussing all aspects of what might be called “the survivor issue,” many more questions need to be asked.

POLAND’S PRESIDENT Andrzej Duda speaks during the ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1946 massacre of Jews in Kielce, Poland last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
POLAND’S PRESIDENT Andrzej Duda speaks during the ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1946 massacre of Jews in Kielce, Poland last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching a fundamental question that is frequently asked is how relevant will the Holocaust be in society once almost all of the remaining witnesses – nowadays mainly child survivors – have passed away? Elie Wiesel said that as the second generation listens to witness testimony, they become the witnesses. This raises another question: Are some memories of child survivors actually experiences they lived through, or rather things they heard? The issue of Holocaust testimonies becomes more relevant as the use of “Hitler” and “Nazi” in name calling becomes increasingly common. Such insults to draw attention are now mainstream and are even used by national leaders. Three Mexican presidents, including the current one, Enrique Peña Nieto, compared Trump to Hitler.
At the state level, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the prime producer of such insults. He asserted that he does not know whether Israel or Hitler is more barbarous. Erdogan also called the Netherlands “Nazi remnants.” His use of such false moral equivalence is so frequent that The Atlantic devoted an entire article to Erdogan’s statements of this kind.
Yet when discussing all aspects of what might be called “the survivor issue,” many more questions need to be asked. For instance, what additional relevant information can survivors still provide and in what areas? The answer includes memories of the reception survivors received upon returning to the societies they fled or were deported from. Much has been published about the most extreme negative events. The best known may be the 1946 Kielce Pogrom in Poland, where Polish soldiers and police officers killed 42 Jews and wounded 40. There is a great deal more, much of it negative, but also a substantial number of positive experiences.
Another important issue concerns post-war migration.
The big questions for survivors included whether to try to return to where they lived before the persecutions or attempt to start anew elsewhere. The help of some US Army rabbis and others who assisted in illegal emigration to Palestine is an interesting aspect of postwar migration about which more may be told.
Another survivor-related issue of importance is the reestablishment of Jewish communities and various organizations in formerly occupied countries. This is often a story of incredible perseverance. Part of my research concerns a small field, namely, the establishment of post-war Jewish youth movements in the Netherlands. In recording their stories one gets a view of the resilience of youngsters coming out of hiding or even returning from the camps. In addition, the role played in the initial post-war months by soldiers of the Jewish Brigade is memorable. The first post-war circumcision in the Netherlands was carried out by an American rabbi. It has also been documented that in some French cities US Army rabbis assisted in reestablishing communities.
The efforts of survivors to recover their stolen assets is another important topic about which many more personal experiences need to be recorded. To some extent payments were made for suffering during the war. German payments play a dominant role but there are many other cases of restitution. In 2014, the French state railways agreed to pay $60 million to survivors who were transported to German concentration camps. More than 70 years after the war the restitution issue has yet to be concluded, primarily in Eastern Europe.
It has been suggested that the experiences of hidden children navigating between their foster and real parents after the war can be considered a precursor of experiences in contemporary society. The complex relations of children with divorced parents and step-parents has become a life experience for many.
How Holocaust survivors coped with their wartime experiences can also serve those who have survived other genocides. A meeting 20 years ago with survivors from the Rwanda killings ago remains unforgettable.
They were grappling with many questions that Holocaust survivors are familiar with. Some of the Rwanda survivors’ realities are even worse: They live in townships next door to the murderers of their families.
A very different set of issues concerns medical, psychological and social aspects. Certain illnesses appear more among Holocaust survivors than other groups.
It is now known that they have a greater likelihood of osteoporosis, dental problems, impaired vision, and heart issues from prolonged malnutrition in childhood and early adulthood.
There is a need for further research on the transmission of survivors’ Holocaust traumas to the next generation. In the field of epigenetics, there are claims that some children of survivors show marked changes in their chromosomes which are the result of the experiences and traumas of their parents. This issue of epigenetic transmission remains controversial.
There are many other potential research projects as well. One concerns the contribution of survivors to their post-war societies. Another should deal with the history and role of organizations that assisted survivors.
In terms of the academic debate about what has the most effect on a person’s life, nature or nurture, i.e., genetics or life experiences, nurture has usually been the dominant factor for Holocaust survivors.
All the above and much more indicates that a broad analysis of subjects relating to survivors should be undertaken, and this should be done well before they are no longer with us.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman emeritus of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.