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Separation from the Family
The Vanished Communal Heritage of Holocaust Survivors
  Carla Lessing, C.S.W.

Adapted for The Hidden Child from an article published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Summer 1999

Holocaust survivors lost not just their families but they also lost their religious, social, and family traditions; their communities, and a rich cultural heritage. 
The loss of our communal and cultural heritage has not been recognized as a major loss in the vast Holocaust literature and research. 
They suffered a complete break with their pre-Holocaust lives and thus lost the basic sense of security, belonging and identity their communities had provided.

Every Holocaust survivor has a tragic personal and family history of loss. In addition, he or she has suffered the loss of a rich Jewish cultural and communal heritage.

Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazis not only killed six million Jews but they also systematically destroyed all the Jewish communities of Europe. The flourishing Jewish communities of Warsaw, Riga, Salonika and Amsterdam, just to mention a few, were destroyed, and hundreds of small communities vanished. Those who survived the Holocaust lost not only their families and their homes but also their social and family traditions and their communities. A survivor recalled thinking: "Even though the war was over, life was still a catastrophe for a Jewish child all alone in the world. In hiding I had hoped that there would be somebody alive and willing to take care of me. However, the Nazis had liquidated the ghetto and killed virtually everyone, including my grandmother. I was only 8 years old" (J. Marks, 1993). The survivors suffered a complete break with their pre-Holocaust lives and with that, they lost their basic sense of security, belonging and identity that their communities had provided.

Yael Danieli (1988), a clinical psychologist, writes: "The therapist is thus confronted with the discontinuity and disruption on all levels in the order of living -- uprootedness, loss of families, communities, homes and countries, and values. Recreating a sense of rootedness and continuity and meaningfully integrating the Holocaust in their lives are major struggles for the survivors and their children."

Martin Gilbert (1994) states: "Between 1000 A.D. and 1939, the Jews of Europe, despite constant persecution, maintained unbroken their traditional community and family life, including observance of the Holidays, the keeping of the Sabbath, communal self-help, charity, and the strong encouragement of learning and scholarship and a belief in the common destiny of the Jewish people to survive as a people."

The flourishing Jewish community of Salonika, Greece, had existed for over 2,000 years. Some of the Jewish communities in Germany were more than 1,600 years old and those in Holland, 450 years. Sighet, the community in which Elie Wiesel grew up, "was a typical shtetl, a sanctuary for Jews, in this case since 1640, when, according to historians, refugees began arriving from Ukraine, fleeing pogroms and persecution of the reign of Bogdan Khmelniski" (Wiesel, 1995).

Hundreds of large and small Jewish communities provided their inhabitants with a rich cultural, spiritual and communal life. P. Silverman (1992) writes: "On Friday and holiday nights our fathers would look around the synagogue for someone to invite home for dinner. Poor Jews from other towns would arrive in Jody on Friday knowing that they would find a home in which to spend the Sabbath. Our fathers would usually be among the first to take someone home with them. Our mothers encouraged them to do so and, since we had the nicest homes in town, they felt obliged to share their good fortune. Indeed, the arrival of the Sabbath always altered the mood of Jewish life in Jody. Just before sunset on Friday all our stores closed and business came to a halt. Rich and poor, every housewife was making challah and gefilte fish. Whole families walked together to the synagogue that night and again on Saturday morning. Lunch was the highlight of the day. After talking with friends and neighbors, everyone returned to a table laden with a traditional Jewish meal."

The Jewish quarter in Amsterdam was a self-contained community within the big city. It was a busy community where the inhabitants lived in small and crowded apartments. There were many little stores, markets, stalls and carts where merchants sold clothing, housewares, and food. The quarter had its own Jewish schools and wedding halls. It was a much alive but poor community, with hustle and bustle all day long. On Friday nights, just before the Sabbath, all activities stopped and peace and calm came over the community.

Dina Wardi (1996) writes: "Before the Holocaust the survivors' families were linked by chains of belonging and identifications to their extended families, their communities, their surroundings and the entire Jewish people -- and at the same time to the generations of parents and children. The Holocaust severed the links in these chains and nothing was left of them."

Most Holocaust survivors grew up in Jewish communities with a rich cultural spirituality and communal structure. It was there that they developed their sense of belonging, security and identification. It was there that their families had established deep roots. It was there that the Holocaust survivor had gone to school, developed friendships, celebrated holidays and family events, listened to family stories and, from very young, had participated in communal life. It was there that they learned the values of life.

Larry Rotenberg (1985), a child survivor, writes, "When I think back of the prewar world in which I was born, it is no doubt with a degree of retrospective idealization. I do not have a photograph of my parents. I do not have a single item out of my home prior to the war. I was born the youngest of five in an intact Orthodox Jewish family. My father was a rabbi in a small synagogue, where he not only led the congregation, but also acted as a cantor, a shochet (ritual butcher), and a general factotum. My days were spent following him around on his rituals. This seemed to provide for an eternal thread of security and love.

Older survivors had the experience of being an integral part of a cohesive Jewish community; living in such a cohesive community shaped their personalities, their identities and their bonds with the community. They had established strong roots. Child survivors old enough to have participated in the life of the community also developed communal bonds but they did not fully shape their personalities or identities. In contrast, the youngest of the survivors who were infants or toddlers at the beginning of the Holocaust missed out on the rich heritage of their parents. They survived the Holocaust in orphanages, convents, in the woods or with Christian families. Very few survived the concentration camps. They did not have the opportunity to develop the bonds of belonging to a family or to a community. At a very early age, they were torn away from their parents and communities.

Most of the Holocaust survivors emigrated and started new lives in new countries, devoid of memorabilia and of feelings of belonging to a family, a community or country. Despite the monumental losses and suffering, the survivors focused on the future. They could not look back; the grief of all their dead relatives, their lost homes, their lost communities was too much to bear and would have paralyzed them. "The knowledge that they would never return to their birth place, and that their houses and communities had been destroyed was no less harsh a blow than the loss of their families. Only psychic emptiness could continue to protect them from being flooded with feelings of loneliness that threatened their very existence" (Wardi, 1996).

The survivors demonstrated unusual resilience in rebuilding their lives soon after the war. The adult survivors went to work, began to rebuild their lives, and started families. The child survivors went to school and acquired professions. Most of them married and had children. They all did so without the support of a community or an extended family. They learned new languages and new customs, and tried to adjust to new values and standards. They tried hard to lead normal lives, just like their neighbors. However, on holidays, family events, and vacations the absence of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins always reminded them that their lives were not like that of others.

The trauma of the Holocaust has remained central in the lives of the survivors. Even though some of them have not talked about their experiences in the concentration camps, in hiding, living in the woods or being on the run, the feelings and the memories are ever present.

The survivors who were adults during the Holocaust are now in their late 70s and 80s. At their advanced age, they are facing physical frailty, illness, hospitalization and sometimes institutionalization. The physical strength that made possible their survival in the time of persecution is now steadily waning. Most survivors very actively avoid thinking about their pasts. As the aging survivors naturally become less active, warding off intruding memories becomes almost impossible.

The survivors who were children during the Holocaust are now in their late 50s and 60s and are facing retirement. The anticipated loss or the actual loss of their work community is for child survivors a repetition of the traumatic childhood separations from their communities. For the child survivors, work gave them a place, separate from family and personal history, where they felt they belonged and with which they identified. With retirement that feeling of belonging ends.

Children of the Holocaust survivors grew up in a family environment that was either flooded with Holocaust stories or with silence. Their parents' anxiety, lack of trust and fear of more suffering and losses were transmitted to them in many ways. Anguish pervaded their childhood years. These children became keenly aware of the absence of family members. It is extraordinary for children of survivors to have had grandparents. Children of survivors also lack the continuity of their family's communal and cultural history. Many grew up without ever hearing family stories or seeing photographs of their parents' or grandparents' childhood. Even when they travel to their parents' birthplace, they find a destroyed community, with remnants of gravestones in the Jewish cemeteries. The discontinuity of their families' communal and cultural heritage is ever present, as is the loss of their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

There are venues that provide a temporary community for survivors; for instance, in weekend or one-day conferences for child survivors. There, participants attend interactive professionally led workshops and spend much time socializing and reminiscing. They meet others from their country of origin and have an opportunity to talk in their mother tongue. "Through such meetings, a negative sense of identity is transformed into a positive one, and a sense of belonging develops" (M. Bergman, 1990).

Support groups have been organized for survivors and for children of survivors. The groups provide a therapeutic milieu. Participants often echo these comments, "This is the only place where I can talk and people understand me," or "This is my family; I feel at home here, I can be myself."

Child survivors who were baptized in order to hide their Jewish identity will often say, "This is the only place where I can talk as a Jew about my feelings for the Catholic Church without being judged." The support groups have provided a place, especially for those who have been silent for decades, to listen to others and to tell their stories, whenever they are ready to trust others.

Many Jewish social service agencies have received grants to support the development of social clubs for elderly Holocaust survivors. AMCHA, the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation, has developed similar programs for their survivors in almost every city in Israel. The Joods Maatschappelijk Werk (Jewish Social Work Agency) in Holland also has arranged for survivors to meet on a weekly basis in social clubs.

Giving testimony or bearing witness for psychological or historical purposes has proven to be therapeutic for the survivors. Kestenberg and Brenner (1996) write: "Survivors who give interviews undergo a personal transformation. The decision to commit their testimony to our archives, where it is permanently recorded, gives them a sense of being an important part of history. To muster up the courage to make important personal contributions, and this enhances their self esteem. In addition, the therapeutic value of the interview -- the catharsis, the chronological ordering of their lives, and the act of being listened to by someone who values and respects what is being told to them -- cannot be underestimated."

Many Holocaust survivors speak in schools, synagogues, churches or community centers. Even though painful memories are stirred up each time they speak, public speaking helps their healing process and enhances their self-worth by providing another opportunity to be heard.

Writing a memoir is another valuable way to order their lives, express their feelings of loss and of despair, and relive the joy of their survival. "The acts of remembering and committing the memories to paper facilitate the mourning process, which is never complete" (Rosenbloom, 1988).

Among the survivors and the children of survivors are many artists who, through their art, are able to sublimate their conflicts and feelings about their personal and family history. Thus, to connect with her mother's prewar life and community, one second generation artist used the only link she found -- a few old photographs of unknown Jewish people from her mother's village -- and incorporated these into one of a series of Holocaust paintings.

How often have we heard a child survivor proclaim: "My life has changed since I attended the International Conference of Hidden Children. It was there that I found my brothers and sisters." Having lived for decades with the memories of the Holocaust, finding a community large or small to identify and feel a bond with is restorative.

Those who are deeply involved in Holocaust organizations experience real gratification in being a part of that community, in perpetuating the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims, in writing newsletters, and in organizing seminars and conferences.

The loss of our communal and cultural heritage has not been recognized as a major loss in the vast Holocaust literature and research. In joining Holocaust organizations and support groups or when attending conferences, survivors and their children obtain a sense of community. It is important for them to bond and identify with one another, and it is essential that they find a safe haven -- the community of Holocaust survivors -- to express their feelings of loss and loneliness.

Carla Lessing, C.S.W., is vice president of The Hidden Child Foundation/ADL. She is a psychotherapist in private practice

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