Survivor Guilt in Holocaust Survivors and their Children
*California State University, Dominguez Hills, California
Pages 163 – 183
Rose F. was 19 years old in the spring of 1944, when she was deported from her village, which had previously been annexed by Hungary from Czechoslovakia, to a place where they were burning 10,000 Jews every day.
- When I came to Auschwitz, my sister was with me. She was only 14 and it was a miracle she got past Mengele. From the moment we got into the camp, she couldn’t eat. Once a week in Auschwitz you received some marmalade made from sugar beets in your hand. She couldn’t even eat that. The only thing she ate was the slice of bread she got and I used to get angry with her. Once I yelled at her, “If you don’t eat, you will die!”Needless to say, I know in my head I’m not the cause of her death… but in my gut I’ve believed that I caused her death. At another point we were separated and I went into the Czech Lager [camp] where Czech families were brought from Theresienstadt and eliminated and she to the C Lager. I tried to run back to her but I was caught by the Kapo, beaten, and thrown back toward the Czech Lager. For a while, through the wires, we would meet every day. It was the afternoon before Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], and that day I got three raw potatoes from somebody and r threw one over the wire to her. She picked up the potato and started to cry. I told her tonight was Yom Kippur and say some prayers… [she weeps]… I told her to go back to her barracks and we would meet again tomorrow. I was afraid the Germans would see us. The next day, she didn’t show up. And she didn’t come the following day either… [she sobs]… I knew it was trouble didn’t find out until after liberation there was a big action on Yom Kippur.
- I felt guilty for many years that maybe I should have run back and tried to get her with me or stay with her. Maybe I didn’t do enough to stay together. Maybe I was too selfish about saving myself. You can excuse yourself and say if I had run back my fate would have been the same as hers. There is no logic to my feelings.. but those words ring in my ears, “If you’re not going to eat, you’re going to die.”
Later in the interview, Rose spoke of her pilgrimage to Auschwitz 40 years after liberation.
- It was a devastating experience. I took my daughter with me. We went through the museum and I saw those windows filled with hair, and of course it brought back memories of when we were shaved [upon arrival]. And then the room filled with children’s shoes. That was the hardest thing. I had been repressing something before I saw the children’s shoes… I saw children carried by Nazi soldiers to the Pit and dropping them into the Pit. Those were the children who had come with us on the transport. At the time, I didn’t want to believe that was what I was seeing. I hid that in my memory until I saw the shoes. Then I decided I wanted to go back to the Pit.We came into Birkenau. It was snowing. Where the monument is which talked about all the nationalities which were killed — all the nationalities but Jews. There was a deathly silence. It was a very windy day and in the wind…[she sobs]… I could hear myself saying, ‘if you’re not going to eat, you will die.” Something I was trying for years to forget.It was like an echo in my ear repeating, and like a crazy person I turned to the Polish guide and I said, “And where are the children?” And she said, “What children?” I screamed at her, “You know what children! I want to go to the children’s Pit!” We went to the Pit. I took my gloves off and started to scrape the snow… And tiny fragments of bone were all over. I scraped and scraped… My daughter picked me up and said, “Mother, it’s time to go”.
“Survivor guilt” is the term used to describe the feelings of those who, fortunately, emerge from a disaster which mortally engulfs others. On an irrational level, these individuals wince at their privileged escape from death’s clutches. From a psychodynamic viewpoint, the Holocaust survivor’s guilt may reflect constraints against the expression of rage toward the perpetrators of his misfortune, toward the Nazis and their collaborators, and toward parents who failed to provide protection from those torturous events. Instead of expressing rage outwardly, the survivor turns it upon himself. Guilt is the embodiment of anger directed toward the self.
Survivor guilt may also motivate an individual to bear witness and to remember those who were murdered. The call to memory which many survivors answer has the salutary effect of educating others about the Holocaust and ensuring its victims are commemorated. However, survivor guilt also has the potential to compel an individual to remain mired in his past, to the relative exclusion of his present or future. Guilt is the penance one pays for the gift of survival.
Survivor guilt is an integral aspect of the sketches of Holocaust survivors of many social scientists (Harel, Kahana and Kahana, 1984). However, I did not find this phenomenon to be quite so widespread as we have been led to believe. Perhaps I would have found a greater incidence of the phenomenon if I had met these survivors soon after the end of the war. It is terribly difficult to maintain an awareness of guilt feelings for such a protracted period, particularly when one is so motivated to move forward with one’s life. Approximately one-half of those I interviewed articulated an uneasiness about their reprieve. The reasons for this discomfort varied.
The most discomfited survivors I interviewed were those whose children had been murdered while they themselves had felt powerless to alter their son’s or daughter’s deterioration and death. These survivors are tormented by their failure and by their loss. At 83 years old, Elisa K. was the oldest woman I spoke with for this project. A kerchief covered her head because of the chemotherapy treatment she was undergoing. After exchanging introductions, Elisa asked if I would like to sit in her backyard as it was such a beautiful summer’s day. We moved outside, but before I could even arrange my tape recorder and legal-size pad for taking notes, she blurted out with bitterness, self-recrimination and finality, “I had a daughter who was killed. Now you know my story”.
Born and raised in Frankfurt, in 1929 Elisa moved to Amsterdam, where she married a Dutchman. Her parents and two sisters emigrated to the United States in 1938. In 1942 she provided the German authorities with “proof” that her grandparents were Aryan and that she was divorced from her Jewish husband; as a result she was spared having to wear the yellow star and was able to have the “J” removed from her papers. Nevertheless periodically during the next three years she moved to different parts of the city with her daughter, Lily, as her neighbors became suspicious of her background. Elisa agreed to serve as a conduit for forged papers to the underground and was arrested after a member of the Resistance was followed to her home. She now berates herself for having gotten involved, thereby jeopardizing her 14-year-old child. “I could have avoided being picked up. I wasn’t identified as a Jew. I could have made it one more year. I was stupid. How could I have taken those risks with my daughter’s life?”
After the Gestapo had smashed in her front door, Elisa’s odyssey with her daughter took a more terrifying turn. She made what she perceived to be mortal blunders, and had feelings of inefficacy; clearly, it was these moments and these scenes that Elisa had compulsively conjured for the past 47 years.
- When they transferred us from the prison in Amsterdam to the train station to be deported, I think she could have gotten away… I should have said, “Run!”… But I didn’t… I couldn’t have gotten away, but maybe she could have.
In October 1944, Elisa and Lily were moved from Bergen-Belsen Ravensbruck.
- She [Lily] worked in the winter without gloves or shoes… I kept telling her that I would give her the world after it was all over… But she was becoming a ghost before my eyes… and I couldn’t do anything.
Just before liberation, the prisoners were herded onto transports which moved aimlessly across railroad tracks as the Allied armies approached. One morning, the trains finally stopped next to a field and the guards scattered. The prisoners were told that there was water a kilometer away.
- I left her [Lily] in the field because she couldn’t walk anymore. I got to the fountain, put my tin cup down while I drank. When I reached for the cup to fill it with water for my daughter, it was gone, stolen by one of the other girls… I couldn’t even bring water back to my daughter [she weeps].
After a night of sleeping out in the fields, Elisa awakened but her daughter did not.
It is the natural order of things for the older to die before the younger, for the adult to die before the child, for the father to die before the son. In questioning their providential fate, a number of survivors I interviewed were keenly aware of the unnatural process and outcome of the Holocaust. They saw the incontestable innocence of the children who had died and sometimes measured it against their own, asking, “Why me? And especially with the children?”.
I heard many stories from those I spoke with, I heard many stories all of which had the same agonizing conclusion of not having done one’s utmost to save loved ones. Oftentimes, survivors discovered the means of atonement for their “failure”. Jack D. occupied a privileged position in Auschwitz. Re was the servant of the Lager Elteste, the camp overseer.
- I had survivor guilt for years. I could never forgive myself… I had good connections in Auschwitz… but I didn’t do enough to save my brother. He was with me from the beginning, but with all the connections I had, I couldn’t save him. I had many sleepless nights about him. That was depressing me for years. It’s diminished… When I was living in Israeli always imagined what great things he could have done. He could have been a great architect, a great artist. He was so talented. Of all my brothers and sisters, he was the most idealistic, the best of us. The guilt slowly went away because I devoted myself to building the State of Israel. It was hard labor. There was little food. Every day, your life was at risk. So I felt I was doing something for Clal Yisrael (the Jewish people].
The concentration camp provided fertile soil for survivor guilt, for at its most fundamental it was a competitive planet. The overwhelming relief of not being chosen for extinction at the morning selection was coupled with one’s immediate knowledge that those who were summoned faced the Angel of Death. This clash of fortune and misfortune was a daily occurrence, as the crematoria demanded their quota.
Seventy-one-year-old Solomon G. was the only survivor of his Orthodox family, which had lived in a small town in southern Poland. After I asked him, “Have you ever felt any survivor guilt?” I was taken aback by the ferocity of his response. His anger poured forth as he enumerated his sins:
- I’m guilty all my life. I’m guilty I didn’t save my father, my mother, my sister. I feel guilty, I could have made Aryan papers for them. I’m guilty I tried to talk them into going to Russia, but they wouldn’t listen. I’m guilty, I don’t want to be richer than my father. I had opportunities to make millions. I always feel guilty. Why should I have more than my parents? Maybe I’m wrong. I’m guilty. I feel guilty all my life.In December 1944, when the war started coming to an end, although we didn’t know that, or we did not know to what extent — we were taken out of camp and started off to march — the Russians came near and the Germans took us out from camp and they marched us to other camps. It was terrible cold; we had no clothes. Whoever could not walk they shot. We had no food.At night they herded us in some farm… a barn. Next morning very early they took us out and we had to march again; we marched for days. And during the march, my brother… he could not walk anymore and he was taken from me and shot on the road.
It is difficult to say, [to] talk about feelings. First of all, we were reduced to such an animal level that actually now that I remember those things, I feel more horrible than I felt at the time. We were in such a state that all that mattered is to remain alive. Even about your own brother, one did not think. I don’t know how other people felt… It bothers me very much if I was the only one that felt that way, or is that normal in such circumstances to be that way? I feel now sometimes, did do my best or didn’t I do something that I should have done? But at the time I wanted to survive myself, and maybe I did not give my greatest efforts to do certain things, or I missed to do certain things (Langer, 1991).
Victor C. was transferred from one labor camp to another, always with his brother. At Funfteichen, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen, he was working in the Revier, when his brother was sent there because of an illness. From here, he says, there was no exit for the ill, except as a corpse. He himself was offered a better (and safer) job in the camp but couldn’t decide whether to stay with his brother or strengthen his own chance to outlive the others. He calls this enigma his albatross, the resultant wound a hurt that he has tried all his life to heal, without success.
- I left him there and I survived [prolonged weeping]. If I forget anything, this I will never forget. I try to justify my act with a practical approach. Can anybody understand it? Can anybody know my pain, my agony… that never leaves me? (Langer, 1991)
Shimon N., who fought with the partisans during the Holocaust, had an immediate response to my query about survivor guilt. “I don’t have any guilt feelings. I know why I survived. I was lucky and very resourceful.” Partisans acted, resisted, and that is why they survived, they tell themselves. Guilt feelings are therefore vitiated. Some ex-partisans believe that if others had been less passive, less naive, perhaps they might have survived as well. However Shimon, like Solomon 6., is nonetheless perturbed by his post-war bounty. “But, every time I eat and I see how much I have, I feel guilty… because my parents were so hungry” [he weeps]. And two hours into the interview, Shimon, who during our initial telephone contact informed me that he never talks about “those things” looked down at his folded hands and told me, “I wish I had been more persuasive, maybe less selfish. I had in Tomaszw a cousin of about ten. Sometimes I think I wish I had kept him with me and perhaps he would have survived… I met my cousin’s father a few years ago and I felt very bad… [he weeps]… Perhaps I could have saved him.”
Children of survivors may also inwardly question their entitlement to their abundance, their safety, and even their insecurities. They frequently heard their parents compare the “plenty of now” with “the scarcity of then”, They listened to their mothers wishing that they had had an adolescence. When they spoke of their problems, their fathers replied, “You think that’s a problem? You don’t know what problems are.”
When survivors do speak about their Holocaust years with their new families, many fail to mention that they had a previous family, children or a spouse, who were murdered in the Holocaust. To speak of them might have implied, albeit irrationally, a question of one’s total devotion or loyalty to one’s present family. The quality of “secretiveness”, a word which some members of the second generation have used to describe the atmosphere in their homes while they were growing up, can often be traced back to this issue. Typically, members of the second generation do not discover the existence of a predecessor family until adolescence or young adulthood.
David H. feels guilty about replacing his first two children, who were taken from him during the war. Children are not easily replaced. Furthermore, to enjoy his post-Holocaust children (or to enjoy any aspect of life, for that matter) would feel like another betrayal of the two daughters he was unable to protect. “You see… you loved so much your children that.. you’re afraid to love so much as you did before… not to make jealous the dead children… Like they’re saying, ‘You had two children… and you lost them in the gas… Don’t be too happy.'”
Not surprisingly, sole surviving members of a family are more likely to experience survivor guilt than those who were left with a parent or sibling. Alone, they feel the void more keenly. The survivor who emerged with a parent or sibling may diffuse onto them his own illogical sense of responsibility for the deaths of others. These surviving family members also did little or nothing to save their loved ones. And ultimately, when faced with others who bore similar obligations, the survivor can conclude “there was little we could do”. Furthermore, if enough close relatives remained alive, one would not feel as though one were an anomaly. There was a logic to Daniel D.’s survival. “I cannot have the survivor guilt because my wife and daughter also survived.”
On a few occasions, I also heard anger from those who were the only remnant of their families. Anger at the injustice of others having been luckier than one’s own mother, father, sister or brother. Anger at the good fortune of those who survived with their loved ones. This rage erupted during those extreme times as well. Sixteen-year-old Selma B. and her mother were shipped from Stuthof to Auschwitz at the end of 1943.
- You can’t understand the humiliation of standing naked in front of the SS. Our heads were shaved and there was a very fast selection Prom the entire transport, only three mother-daughter pairs survived, including my mother and me. We were given the blue and white dresses and wooden shoes. After a shower we were put in Barracks Two. The women started screaming and I was terribly frightened. “Why is she alive when my mother was gassed! Why is she alive when my daughter was gassed!”
For David H., a tragic irony fuels the sense of survivor guilt. After Belgium was occupied, David’s first wife was offered the opportunity to be spirited away to her country of birth, England. She refused to leave her family and was eventually murdered. Of course, this pattern was repeated in thousands of homes where individual family members shunned possible avenues of escape because of their unwillingness to leave loved ones behind.
“Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another?” Primo Levi (1988) writes. “It is no more than a supposition. indeed the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother’s Cain, that each of us.. has usurped his neighbor’s place and lived in his stead. It is a supposition, but it gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; although unseen from the outside, it gnaws and rasps.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Barbara L., the sole remaining member of her pre-war family of six, told me that only 1 % of those on the transport that took her to Stuthof survived. She continuously observed that “stronger ones than me” expired from disease, beatings and starvation.
- You start taking stock and you know you came from a big family. I don’t know how to explain it to you. You think, “Why me? Why did I survive?” I was often miserable about it. You can also explain it in mathematical terms. The Germans had to kill a certain number of Jews. If you survived, you did on account of others. We were lucky, but some would consider it not so lucky… I’ve suffered from depression.. I’m told it’s because of the Holocaust… Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. You don’t talk about it… What am I going to make other people miserable for?
You can indeed explain it in mathematical terms. Four out of every ten Jews living in Western Europe during the Holocaust were murdered. In 1939, there were approximately three million Jews living in Poland. Ninety percent of them perished during the onslaught. Far fewer than 10% of the children emerged. Thus, a survivor may well ask, “Why me?”
Many survivors admit that it was not necessarily the best who survived. The pious passively placed their fate in God’s hands. The intellectuals placed their faith in the enlightened, rational part of man and the cultured German citizen of Goethe, Heime and Mendelssohn. “What am I doing here? I was less than him,” the survivor frets. “Why did I survive and not my brother and father?” Dora L. wonders. “They were better people than me. Coming from an Orthodox home, I was the only rebel in the family, and I survived and they didn’t.”
Finding a meaningful purpose for their post-war life alleviated the guilt of survivors. For many, replenishing their families and the Jewish people served as justification for having beaten the odds. However, when her children did not turn out successfully, one survivor was stripped of her raison d’etre, particularly because she blamed herself for the outcome. Esther F. ‘5 40-year-old son is a drug addict. Her 38-year-old daughter has never married, lives with her parents, and for the past six years has been too frightened to venture out of the house alone. “When I couldn’t cope with the kids [I had survivor guilt]. I said, ‘Why me? Why did I survive? What for? With all the troubles.'”
A few of those I interviewed uneasily compared their misfortune to that of other survivors. Not only were they reluctant to speak of their less torturous circumstances, which might elicit a sympathetic response, but in their hearts they felt they had been spared something they should have experienced –just as their less fortunate brothers and sisters did. Ethel J. lived in a small Hungarian village, and her severe persecution did not begin until the spring of 1944, when she and her family were herded into a ghetto. That June, she was deported to Auschwitz with her mother. “I always compare myself to other survivors,” Ethel remarked. “If I was talking to your parents from Poland who suffered more, I wouldn’t be able to grieve or feel pain… I don’t feel like I suffered enough. I even always compare my suffering to the suffering of non-survivors. I compare it, measure it. His was a ten but mine was only a nine… I need people to feel for me but I’m also ashamed of that need.”
Later in the interview, Ethel told me that she goes to movies about the Holocaust and reads voraciously in this area. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “It’s a physical feeling,” she explained. “I go through it again. I need to feel it. When I don’t feel it, I feel like I’m numb… There may be an element of masochism. Like I got out of Auschwitz and I want to go back. It’s like reconnecting with something very real in me, like my authentic self. I need to feel that part of me is alive.” Ethel J. perceives her authentic self to be the self which suffers pain and degradation. Her authentic self is the self which lived in hell. Afterwards has been an overlay grafted on to cover the wound.
Those who never left its confines were mortally defined by the death camp. Having been stamped with affliction in Auschwitz, Ethel feels compelled to maintain that identity. She perpetually pricks her wound because she never wants it to heal. Ethel will die, as the others died, consumed by Auschwitz.
Conversely, Sonya W., who was living in Warsaw in 1939, does not feel survivor guilt because she knows, and is perversely relieved, that she experienced the Holocaust’s extremities. Upon arriving with her mother at Majdanek in May 1943, they were immediately separated and her mother was selected for the gas chamber. At the end of 1943, Sonya was moved from Majdanek to Auschwitz, where she remained until January 1945; she was then evacuated to a series of concentration camps in Germany. Significantly, Sonya is proud of how she behaved during those horrifying years.
- I was quite a girl. I give myself a lot of credit for being who I was. If! wouldn’t be the way I am, I wouldn’t have made it. There were ten people sleeping in my bunk in Auschwitz and we all had typhoid fever and I was the only one who survived. How come I survived? In all those terrible circumstances I was the one who gave others hope. I wish I could be that way today. I think I consumed all of my energy during this time. Today, I’m not so strong anymore.
When evaluating their behavior, most survivors told me they felt proud of, or at least at peace with, their actions. (“I didn’t sleep with soldiers or anybody else. Why should I feel guilty?” one woman rhetorically asked.) Many of these individuals also believe their survival was a consequence of an inner fortitude and personal courage. They were stronger than others, they tell themselves. “I never felt guilt,” 68-year-old Martin B. remarked.
- But in 1948 I was already married. It was Yom Kippur. My wife wanted to go to shul and I didn’t want to and we didn’t. When we were walking in the street in Astoria [Queens, New York we ran into some acquaintances. He asked me, How come I’m not in shul. I said “How can I go to shul and thank God that I survived when others didn’t?” What, was I better than others?…I survived despite all those who wanted to do away with me. I survived and I’m proud of it. While in Auschwitz I knew I had to risk my life to feed myself and I did it. One of my jobs in Auschwitz was to go through the clothing of those who arrived and of course we had to hand in everything. I and others saved some jewelry and at night I went to get a piece of bread for it. There was a choice — either you became a mussulman1 or you take chances, get food, and keep yourself alive.
Survivors are keenly aware that they are but a tiny minority in proportion to those who did not escape their persecutors’ sweeping hand of death. To still their discomfort over this propitious turn, they construe a logic or purpose to their timely deliverance. Eighty-four-year-old Daniel D. had said, “I cannot have the survivor guilt because my wife and daughter also survived.” Later in the interview he came back to this theme. “Of 2,500 in my camp, five survived. I told myself! have to survive because God didn’t bring me in this world to die like this. Number two: I had to survive to tell the people what they did to us.
At the age of 18, Ben K. left his parents and five younger brothers behind in the Warsaw ghetto and joined the partisans. He told me that, for the most part, he does not experience survivor guilt. “I had an episode like this three or four times. I had a dream about three weeks ago where I saw my mother and my mother asked me why I run away… At least one person from the family is alive to tell the story. If we all would be killed, there would be no one to tell.”
And yet while many have found a “reason” for their survival, Ethel J., who is acutely aware of her guilt feelings, still longs for a satisfying justification for her continuing presence. “I always feel like I have to earn my life,” she emphasizes.
After liberation, many of the survivors rushed into marriage and parenthood in order to fill the void left as a result of the war. After having children, these fathers and mothers would then take a step back, look at their sons and daughters, and articulate an explanation for their individual survival. Paul H. was the sole survivor of his immediate family of seven.
- Why did I survive? We survived not by anything you did differently. It was fate. The guilt was afterwards. I had three beautiful brothers, a sister who had a baby… In the beginning, you felt it the most. Then you think, maybe I survived for a purpose. I never thought I would get married, have children, after what I had seen. But I did and maybe that’s why I survived.
Olga H. found a clear, unselfish reason to survive. In August 1944, she and her younger sister were deported from Budapest to Auschwitz. “My sister was weak and I took care of her,” Olga told me. “The whole time I was in Auschwitz, I thought when I would see my mother and father I would say, ‘Look, I brought her back.”‘
Some survivors move away from the small, singular moments of felt personal responsibility, focusing their wrath on the Nazis, the prime movers of the destruction. “Guilt for what? Whose fault was it?” Mina F. demanded. Many are also well aware of the random nature of their chosenness. On September 27 1942, Eva B. was marched with her handicapped parents (neither of whom could speak or hear) through the streets of her native Berlin to the railroad station. They were taken to a concentration camp in Estonia. Eva’s brother had committed suicide four years earlier. “I’m just lucky, that’s all,” Eva emphasized. “Sometimes I think if someone had asked my parents the question, they would say, ‘We’ll die and you live’… [she weeps]… I was many times in selections and wasn’t picked. Someone must have been watching over me… Why should I feel it [survivor guilt]? How can you determine who is who? It wasn’t my fault. Because I survived was not my doing. I was simply lucky ” Eva assuages her guilt by firmly believing that under the circumstances, circumstances in which the great majority of European Jewry was doomed to die, her parents would have wanted her to occupy one of the favored places instead of themselves.
Helen S. is also certain that her parents wanted her to live. She points out the futility of my question. Helen understands that the Holocaust was unprecedented in nature, and that therefore the Jews of Europe could not have anticipated what awaited them. She recognizes that without foreknowledge of the Final Solution, one’s behavior must be seen in a more accepting, less judgmental light. “Even in 1941, 1942, I didn’t have any idea what would happen to my parents and sister. Who would have imagined what would happen?… I know that my parents’ last thoughts in the gas chamber were about myself and my sister… and they were probably glad we were not with them.”
Most of those who did not evidence survivor guilt had contrived a thesis for its lack of personal relevance. Indeed, survivor guilt may be a reflexive response to preferential survivorhood, one requiring artificial justification if it is to be suppressed. A few survivors, however, simply do not entertain the possibility of such guilt: They have numbed themselves to all emotion associated with the Holocaust. “I’m not the type who lives in the past,” they reiterate in their keen desire to rebuild and live their lives as fully as possible. Others simply remain perplexed by it all — the persecution, the wanton cruelty, the undeserved blows, the sudden disappearance of their loved ones, and their fortuitous emergence from the darkness.
Little attention has been paid to the reactions of Jews, particularly those from Germany and Austria, who left Europe before the onslaught. We have read about the “brain drain” of scientists and the cultural exodus of those in the creative community, but we know virtually nothing about the psychological effects on the emigrant Jew who invariably left behind family members who were soon caught up in the whirlwind. Although these &migr6s are beyond the scope of this project, one former patient may provide clues as to how they responded emotionally to their timely escape.
At our first therapy session together, Rose K., who was born in Vienna in 1935, told me that she had never been able to say to herself, “You deserve to live.” Her father was deported to Poland when she was four years old. Rose and her mother then moved in with her grandparents. In 1940, she and her mother received affidavits from America which allowed them to emigrate. As a child growing up in her new homeland, she repeated to herself the incantation: “I won’t be happy until Father and Grandmother come”. (Her grandfather had died in his bed the night before she left for the United States.) When she was 12, she was informed that her father had been killed during the Holocaust. Throughout her adult life, the richer and more successful she became, the more depression she experienced. Whenever the cloud surrounding her lifts momentarily, and she begins to feel pleasure, she acts to ensure failure in some present endeavor. While married to a man 25 years her senior, Rose led a promiscuous extramarital lifestyle. All of her lovers have been much older than her, as well. Rose searches for her father; all of the substitutes are found wanting. She remains aloof from emotional intimacy for fear of losing or even causing a loss of one whom she might love. Now a grandmother, Rose has found it impossible to enjoy that status. “I feel like I don’t deserve to be a happy grandmother.” Her unconscious prods her to remember, and feel responsible for, the grandmother she left behind.
During the 1930s the British allowed the Jewish Agency, representative the recognized of the yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, to distribute the quota of immigration certificates which had been previously decided upon.
Many selections were influenced by political considerations outside the awareness of the applicants. For example, Labor Zionists preferred pioneers, those who would work the land. The Betar movement coveted potential recruits for Etzel, a right-wing, militant underground movement in Palestine. Ultimately, however, it was the immigrant brought to the safety of Palestine who was subject to the psychological consequences of these criteria imposed from afar. For the Jew who received a precious immigration certificate knew that another Jew had not.
I have often been asked by those who left Europe in the late 1930s if they, too, fell under the rubric of survivor. The question has a pleading quality, the questioner seeking grace. (I have been asked a similar question about these individuals by their children.) The question reflects the need to identify with those who suffered, and the disquieting belief that they themselves did not suffer enough. The question reflects their need to bridge the gap. The question reflects their need to quiet their survivor guilt.
An even more insidious and self-destructive element than guilt has also been observed in survivors of the Holocaust. One can balance guilt with restitution. Shame, however, results in a certain withdrawal, in a belief that one is not worth consideration. For the survivor who experiences shame, there is a further disbarment from humanity.
Krystal (1968) wrote: “They [survivors] have a perpetual need to atone for cowardice or other failures’. There is either real personal shame or assumption of collective shame for the failure of Jews to fight the Nazis.” Another clinician reported the observation that although survivors cannot recall any particular act for which they feel guilty, they nevertheless experience a vague sense of having committed something for which they should feel ashamed. Primo Levi (1988) noted: “When all was over, the awareness emerged that we had not done anything or not enough against the system into which we had been absorbed… Consciously or not, he [the survivor] feels accused and judged, compelled to justify and defend himself.” Having experienced such feelings of powerlessness to control the natural order of their lives, and such humiliation at the hands of another human being, a few survivors, despite outward appearances of success, continue to consider themselves shamefully inadequate.
Some social scientists have suggested that, as a result of the humiliation and utter powerlessness they experienced, some survivors have developed a hatred of the self. “In the jails and camps of the Third Reich all of us scorned rather than pitied ourselves because of our helplessness and all-encompassing weakness. The temptation to reject ourselves has survived within us” (Am6ry, 1986). Furthermore, this hatred was exacerbated in those who had introjected the negative images of the Jew propagated by the Nazis.
I did not discern a blatant self-hatred in those I interviewed. Perhaps the relative brevity of our meeting (four or five hours) precluded my glimpsing an element which the survivor, understandably, would not wish to reveal. However, I do not believe this was the case. For most survivors, their tenacity during the Holocaust in the face of overwhelming odds and their successful adaptation to a new, post-war life have provided a counterbalance to their felt shortcomings during that time. At least on a manifest level, when survivors look back at their behavior, at how they comported themselves during the Holocaust, they are somewhat sanguine. Many remember the aid and comfort they gave to others when there was precious little of either for themselves. They understand the limited control they could have exerted over the cruel demands of their environment. They remember their very real fear as they were continuously exposed to and surrounded by death.
- First of all, I was very scared. I had to face death day by day. I had to see cruelty for no reason. If he felt like it, a German just let his dog bite us. Or if they wanted, they just took one of us at a Zahlappell [roll-call] and shot us. None of us imagined we would ever be free. It was frightening. You always walked past dead bodies. You had to concentrate to always stay straight for hours and hours. If you fell, you knew this would be the end.
And they realized that all of their efforts must be directed toward overcoming the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to life. “We were only interested in survival. I don’t remember in camp thinking about moral issues, or any other issues for that matter.”
For those who were of a young age at the time of the Holocaust, their youthfulness may have served to focus their attention on the self and its preservation. Indeed, some survivors harbor unconscious anger toward parents who erred in judgement or who did not provide the protection that the child naturally anticipates. Because of his age, therefore, the child survivor can more easily refuse to accept responsibility not only for his own actions, but also for his failure to shield others.
Posing as a gentile, Solomon G. joined the AK, a Polish resistance movement. In 1942, his comrades discovered he was Jewish and threatened him with death. Returning to his family in the Warsaw ghetto, he pleaded with his parents to attempt an escape, but to no avail “Our parents did not believe in killing, in fighting. So we were like sitting ducks,” he angrily remarks.
The Nazis’ brilliantly designed 4eceptions dovetailed with the Jews’ need to retain hope, to avoid consideration of the worst. Jews believed that they would survive because of their usefulness as labor for the Third Reich. They were told that “resettlement” meant fresher air and more bountiful provisions; but while some Jews did embrace the ruse that living conditions were better in the East and willingly boarded the transports for supposed destinations, most clung to the familiar and hoped for the speedy defeat of their tormentors. Even when rumors of the death camp destinations did reach the ghettos, they were brushed aside as the hallucinations of men gone mad.
“Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?” I asked. Martin B. was 16 years old when the Germans occupied the small town of Niemce in southwestern Poland, the town in which he lived. “In October 1939, many Jews were leaving and going toward Russia. My mother… she was a bright woman… [he weeps]… She said, ‘Lot’s leave everything and go to Russia,’ Then there were all those second thoughts — it will be cold, we don’t know anyone, what will we do? Who would have thought such a catastrophe would happen?”
Jack D. grew up in a middle-class, modern Orthodox home. He and his five siblings went to a German gymnasium, or high school.
- I was angry at my parents because they wouldn’t leave Germany when we could have. My mother couldn’t believe that the world would let Hitler do what he promised… I implored my mother to get out. After Krisrallnacht we could have left, But we had a good life in Germany and she wouldn’t leave it. Perhaps if I had pushed more… My brother left for Palestine and we in the family never forgave him. We decided, we as a family would always stay together.
Paul H. was 14 when he was taken, along with his mother, to the Lodz ghetto from the town of Zgierz. On one of the last transports in 1944, they were both deported to Auschwitz. After their arrival, Paul wanted to stay with his mother, but she slapped him on the face and pushed him across to the men’s line, to life.
“Would I have done something different? No. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know what Auschwitz was even when we got there. If someone tells you they knew, they don’t know what they’re talking about!”
A sense of responsibility and a desire to huddle together restrained many from abandoning their families and fleeing to safer ground. Yet despite their intentions, the following survivors were ultimately unable to shield their parents from death. They may, however, have spared themselves the torment of survivor guilt.
- I didn’t want to leave my parents. A man came to my house and said he could get me papers to go to Switzerland, but I wouldn’t leave them alone. But I am not sorry. I could not live with myself to know that I left my parents.I wish I would have run away with my family. We were an extremely close-knit family. When the Germans came into Lodz the whole city was running away. We managed to go with a mob of people in the direction of Warsaw. After about a mile, my father said he was going back with my mother and sisters and we, the boys, should keep going. My brother ran east to the Russian zone, but, after a week, he returned because he felt so guilty about abandoning the family… I don’t know if I could live with myself if I had saved myself and the rest had perished. I would always worry that perhaps I could have done something.
I couldn’t have done anything differently. I was trapped by circumstances. In 1940, when my sister ran away to Russia, I ran away for a few months too to the other side of the River Bug. But I felt very bad that I left my parents behind so I went back to Warsaw. I was glad I was with my parents. I never would have forgiven myself if I wasn’t with my parents until the last minute.
Ripped from the human cloth before, many Holocaust survivors have now segregated themselves from others, convinced that no one could empathize with or comprehend their ordeal. They may easily reject you and I as being soft and naive. Ironically, this prevents them from making normative comparisons with others, from feeling a part of the whole. They believe that
they cannot measure themselves against others because of their indelible differentness, that no one is like them. Guilt or shame provide further impetus for their psychological withdrawal from those who did not experience the Holocaust.
How does one overcome guilt, humiliation, shame? How does one shut away a time and a self and assert a radically different identity? How does one cut out the middle section of one’s life and maintain a continuity between the before and the after? How does one reassert one’s dignity?
For the most part, survivors can look back and feel at peace with their behavior during the Holocaust. And while they may primarily attribute their survival to luck, they also convince themselves that such survival required a particular inner strength. They reflect that they survived while millions of others perished. Any feelings of inferiority engendered during their dehumanization process are buried by an assertion of superiority. They point out that even after all they experienced, they were able to successfully re-establish their lives, have families and be productive members of society. Dignity has been restored.
1The term mussulman was used by prisoners to refer to other prisoners who, due to starvation or illness, were very near death and consequently listless and apathetic.
Amery, J. 1986. At the Mind’s Limit Schocken, New York.
Harel, Z.; Kahana, B.; and Kahana, E. 1984. “The Effects of the Holocaust: Psychiatric, Behavioral, and Survivor Perspective”. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 11:915-929.
Hassan, J. 1984. “Survivors”. Community Care June: 11-14.
Krystal, H. (ed.). 1968. Massive Psychic Trauma. International
Universities Press, New York.
Langer, L. 1991. Holocaust Testimonies. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Levi, P. 1988. The Drowned and the Saved. Summit, New York.