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From Oppression to Liberation
The Experience of the Remnants of European Jewry
 Eva Fogelman, Ph.D.

The expression remnant (sheerit hapleta) is found in the Bible. "And God sent me before you a remnant in the Earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance" (Genesis 45:7). "For out of Jerusalem shall a remnant go out, and they that escape out of Mount Zion" (Isaiah, 37:31, 32).

Elie Wiesel, when he was liberated from Buchenwald, said: "We did not 'feel' the victory. There were no joyous embraces, no shouts or songs to mark our happiness, for that word was meaningless to us.... Some of us organized a minyan and said Kaddish. That Kaddish, at once a glorification of God's name and a protest against his creation.... It was a thanksgiving for having spared us, but it was also an outcry: 'why did you not spare so many others.'"

After the liberation, when the liberated met the liberators and relief workers, who were the "first normal" people the survivors encountered, a psychiatrist came to survivor Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft in Bergen-Belsen and said he found his first patient. She wanted to know what he saw. The psychiatrist said: "I saw a woman in her barrack looking into a broken mirror and combing her almost bald head with a broken comb." Dr. Rosensaft suggested, "Why don't you offer her an unbroken mirror and comb. If she refuses to exchange them then you have yourself a patient."

According to psychoanalyst Paul Friedman, it was impossible for the survivors to revert instantly on liberation to the people they were before. It was truly amazing to him that the Displaced Persons in Europe were capable of any social expression at all.

We need to understand how people subjected to prolonged barbaric brutality are able to learn to live and love again and to integrate a fragmented self into a whole person.

Emotional states are multidimensionally determined, and are dependent on internal and external factors. There were different clusters of survivors, according to age and duration of persecution, the mode of survival, and the extent of loss. Also, the quality of life and opportunities in the Displaced Persons camps impeded or enhanced rehabilitation and integration into society.

The early researchers understood these differences. Nonetheless, they agreed that one common denominator to a greater or lesser degree existed for all Displaced Persons, adults and children alike: emotional numbness or shallowness. The condition developed as a defense against daily dangers and anxieties that they suffered during the war.

The psychoanalyst Henry Krystal, who conducted psychiatric evaluations with thousands of Holocaust survivors and was himself a survivor, explained this emotional anesthetization. Krystal explains these emotional states as the inability to enjoy oneself and to know what one is feeling, which describes what Wiesel explained about liberation.

What are the psychological processes that each person underwent during the initial phase following liberation? They needed to reconnect with their core self.

What was their identity? How did they make the transition from being oppressed to being free people when they were surrounded by well-meaning anti-Semites? (Classic examples are General Patton and the British.)

In each survivor's recovery there comes a moment of realization: the creation of a new identity or loss of an old one. Elie Wiesel poignantly describes his arrival at a splendid chateau in Ecouis, France, with other children from Buchenwald. Rep-resentatives of the O.S.E., a children's social service agency, gave them tefillin, religious books and pencils and paper.

Said Wiesel, "We held our first mincha service, and we all said Kaddish together. Though we knew it well enough, that collective Kaddish reminded us that we were all orphans."

Many inmates had a sustaining fantasy in the camps, in hiding, or on the run: the fantasy of being reunited with loved ones. How does one restore oneself when the sustaining fantasy does not come true? Finding out that no one had survived eradicated the mental courage that sustained camp inmates. Can you imagine not knowing who you are, what your real name is, or when you were born? Who was left in your family?

We are often defined by our roles in our family, our sexual identity, religious identity, professional identity, national identity. Living without closure and without an identity impedes adaptation to the real world.

Imagine being a young man in your early 20s. Before the war, you were expected to get a trade or go to school. You are now too old to go to school, and you haven't practiced a trade for as long as six years. Who are you? Who would want to marry you?

You were a mother whose child was taken from your arms never to be seen again. You've lost your identity as a mother. You ask yourself, "How can I bring any more children into the world if I could not protect my child?" If you've never had a child, you ask yourself the same question.

Consider a survivor's Jewish identity. You were hidden in a convent and they rescued you from a certain death. You lived among Jews who think you are "crazy" for crossing yourself and saying "Hail Mary." You are angry with the Jewish God who took away your mother and father. How do you begin to develop a positive Jewish identity when being Jewish was a death sentence? What Jewish values do you embrace as a free person?

Then there is the issue of the fragmented self. A displaced person whose life was torn apart has a self that requires a reintegration. For children whose lives were disrupted for six years, and whose pre-Holocaust memories are vague or nonexistent, it is impossible to reconnect to an amorphous previous self. If you used to be a participating and valuable member of your community, and now you are a victim with nothing except typhus to your name, who are you? If you are an emotional child in an adult body, who and what are you?

The Displaced Persons had to reconnect themselves to their pre-Holocaust selves and continue to develop themselves from there. They had to get physically well; they had to train themselves in new jobs. They had to learn new languages, to learn to interact and to trust, and, most importantly, they had to connect to their prewar selves. Without transitional objects, people, places and values from the past, the rupture is onerous.

That is why, when survivors are interviewed or they write their memoirs, it is so important to include the stories of their prewar families and lives. Often it is their own family histories that inspired the survivors and drove them to choosing life.

The internal drive for integration of the self was a motivating force for daily living as a displaced person. For some, the first step was to go back to their hometowns or cities. They longed to be connected with the place, familiar objects and people.

Displaced persons experienced emotional voids due to losses. Some filled the void by helping others. Youngsters busied themselves with learning and playing. Some adults tried to make a living or prepared to make aliyah. A large percentage of single men and women of marriageable age filled the void by getting married. All of the above were coping mechanisms that facilitated a movement towards a life force and moving away from a death force.

The Displaced Persons camps helped restore the dignity of the survivors as human beings. The DP camp served as a self-help community. It was a holding environment in which people felt they could communicate with others who understood them. They empowered themselves by doing, by building schools, training themselves, and generally coming back into a world of politics, religion and "normalcy." By electing their own leaders, they stopped feeling helpless and became members of the world community.

In the end what remains is this: the survivors are very much the people they were before the war. The central core of their personalities survived with them, and their Jewish values, whatever form they took, often assisted and sustained them -- and still do. The mourning, that began the day of liberation, continues to this day.

Some are still in shock and denial. Others are still feeling the emotional void and are depressed or enraged, or full of survivor guilt, or helpless, or ashamed at what they did or did not do. And yet, most survivors have channeled the rage, guilt, helplessness, shame and grief to affirm life.

We, the second generation, are the symbol of the survivors' creative endeavor and an affirmation of life.

We will not let them down. 

Excerpted from a speech presented at Life Reborn conference of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, January 2000

Eva Fogelman, Ph.D., was born in a DP camp. She is a social psychologist and psychotherapist and the author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust.

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