CENTER FIELD: How survivors suddenly became superheroes

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, reach out to a survivor – but not as a survivor. Free them from that all-too-defining category. Engage them as people.

Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2018 (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
Holocaust survivors enter Auschwitz 73 years after its liberation on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2018
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
Growing up in Queens, New York, the grandson of Russian-Polish immigrants who arrived before America closed its doors in 1924, I knew more recent, mysterious, immigrants my parents called “refugees.” These were parents with accents, not just grandparents. My parents’ all-purpose explanation “they’re European” covered many deviations – being stricter with their kids, dressing them more formally, pushing piano on them more aggressively, having fancier living rooms, and, sometimes, while serving us snacks or shaking our hands or doing something utterly normal, exposing those mysterious tattoos on their forearms. Those signs suggested they didn’t just come from Europe. They weren’t just America’s latest newcomers. They had survived an otherworldly hell during “The War.”
We didn’t use the word “survivor” then – and didn’t talk much about The War. It was off-limits for the young. When I was in seventh grade some parents in Solomon Schechter School of Queens even prevented us from watching a Holocaust film.
We knew about it of course. We joked about it. We watched Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart mock it – without getting offended. But we weren’t ready to deal with it.
Amid that loud silence, I’m ashamed to report we didn’t perceive these strangers as heroic. Their foreignness made them seem vaguely un-American, too exotic for the conformist public behavior expected in our square, middle-class Jewish world. As we matured, and became close with the few children who grew up in such households, their brokenness made them seem vaguely threatening, unreasonable, unfairly burdening their survivors – their kids! – with Old World stuff you were supposed to throw in the Hudson as you passed through Ellis Island.
Jump ahead to Montreal in the 1990s. Its Jewish population, unlike New York’s, surged after The War. In Montreal, accents among my parents’ generation are more common. And in Montreal, some survivors – including my father-in-law – appear to be superheroes.
If in 1970s New York, we noticed the broken ones while the healthy ones simply fit in, in 1990s Montreal we noticed the superheroes, while the still poor or ailing ones vanished. Suddenly, books, movies, endless discussions, constant references, and something I don’t remember hearing until my late teens, survivors’ testimonies, ended the silence around The War. Inevitably, because simply surviving the Nazi evil was a miraculous, courageous act, we approached survivors with the awe they deserved.
The survivors who “made it” were remarkable. They often told stories of beating the deadliest of systems, the steepest of odds; outsmarting Nazis, then dodging Jew-haters in their hometowns, smuggling others past the British blockade into Palestine, fighting in the ’48 war.
Many of their “rags to riches” stories also seemed epic – applying their survivors’ skills to escape a bad real estate deal here, charm a creditor there.
And so many of them, no matter where they stood religiously or politically, had other traits most North Americans, lacked. First, they are tremendously learned. Scratch many of these survivors and out comes a torrent of Torah and Talmud. Second, they are unbelievably generous. As many as 70 survivors contributed over a million dollars to build the US Holocaust Museum – testament to mindboggling wealth accumulated and magnanimity preserved (or restored). And third, they are grateful, they have the capacity to wonder, they don’t take for granted the miracle of their freedom, their prosperity, their offspring, their very lives.
Two things changed our perceptions, transforming broken refugees into heroic survivors. First, Elie Wiesel happened. Wiesel broke the silence. He epitomized heroism and wisdom and learning and candor – accompanied by worldly success, like it or not the validator of an American life well lived. Second, time – the cruel sifter – kicked in. The most broken survivors died. Others lived long enough to prosper. In America’s go-getter world, those who looked strange in the 1970s seemed much less strange – and more heroic – with a string of stores or shopping malls or books or political victories or stock options boosting them up.
The historian in me suspects two-dimensional characters. Imagine being a “broken survivor” today. Must they add shame that they didn’t “make it” to the demons haunting them? And how dare we neglect them, failing to give them the basics after what they went through for us – because we all were targets.
We also must beware imposing simplistic stereotypes – even benign ones – on victims of a crime that began with simplistic stereotypes. I know survivors who earned billions but remained broken. And I know survivors who never recovered financially but revived emotionally, even ideologically.
The Socialist Zionist Beryl Katzenelson taught that “People are endowed with... memory and forgetfulness. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden. We would become slaves to our memories.... And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness, spiritual life?” Surviving as individuals, and as a people, required mixing some memory with much forgetfulness.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, reach out to a survivor – but not as a survivor. Free them from that all-too-defining category. Engage them as people. And if no survivors are around, reach out to anyone in ways that transcend your usual categorizing. Because ultimately, we are all victims of short-order thinking – yet capable of the wonder and generosity some of those who lived through hell still can have.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work and was just published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.