Holocaust Memorial Day

April 17, 2020

Submitted by Bea Hollander-Goldfein Ph.D. LMFT – Director, Transcending Trauma Project and Nancy Isserman – Co-Director. Transcending Trauma Project

Holocaust Memorial Day will be commemorated this year on April 21. It was established by the State of Israel in 1951 to commemorate the more than 6 million Jewish lives that were destroyed by the Nazi program of genocide. This day is observed around the world. Here in Philadelphia, you can log into a virtual commemoration sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

There have been several essays in the media about how recent events are triggering memories of the Holocaust for survivors, and more stories about Holocaust survivors will appear as Holocaust Memorial Day approaches. The Transcending Trauma Project, a long-term project of the Council for Relationships, has been studying Holocaust survivor families for 30 years. In that time, we have learned much from survivors and their family members about coping and resilience, and we have observed the intergenerational adaptation to trauma over three generations. A major finding of the Transcending Trauma Project points to the importance of the quality of family relationships in mediating the impact of trauma. It is a lesson important for all of us in today’s world.

As our lives have been disrupted by the restrictions required to combat the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus and as many have experienced the loss of loved ones who have succumbed to this threatening disease – we have all been filled with intense and troubling feelings as we attempt to cope with the current reality. On a personal level, I have had a hard time explaining my feelings even to myself. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I have a reservoir of feelings vulnerable to threats that are often part of our lives. I also have developed a pattern of coping that automatically puts things into perspective – because, after all, how can I complain in contrast to the suffering of my parents and the millions lost. This perspective is true and helpful, but it often serves to minimize what are real feelings even if they are “out of perspective”. Amid this challenging time, I received an email with an essay that captured my shifting feelings and affirmed my perspective. This essay was written by a child survivor of the Holocaust, and I share this with you as part of this blog.

Paul Valent, the author of this essay, is a child survivor whose family emigrated to Australia after WWII. He is a researcher, psychiatrist, and co-founder of the Australian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Child Survivors of the Holocaust Group in Melbourne. He has also engaged in the study of coping and adaptation in Holocaust survivor families and has published extensively on the profound importance of recognizing coping in the aftermath of trauma’s devastating impact.

Greetings to my Fellow Child Survivors of the Holocaust

“Who would have thought…again. Still, we child survivors of the Holocaust have always known that catastrophes could happen. Our skins were always thin.

But wait. This is quite different.

I vacillate. There is something familiar in seeing empty shelves in the supermarkets, people struggling for toilet rolls. I have trouble signing on to the Will we be short of food? Ah, after much frustration I managed to get on the Woolworths web site for home deliveries to old people. They can deliver in four days. Luckily we have sufficient food till then.

What about services, what if I run out of batteries, light bulbs, what if the phone or internet network seize up? What if I break a leg?

There is much talk in the media of the Apocalypse, or at least of a war footing, like in World War II. Yes, we always believed that what happened could happen again, but we did not really believe that it would. Who would have thought that in the dusk of our lives we would be thrust back into the world of our childhoods? That our worlds would change almost overnight from security to once again being the most threatened sections of the community- then as children, now as the elderly? That we would have to hide inside the four walls of our homes, afraid to go out, each outside person being a potential danger?

Police are starting to patrol the streets.

It’s difficult to trust our leaders.

There is talk of selections; who would be allowed scarce respirators?

And even if not we, will our families, from whom we are separated, for whom we yearn, for whom I have a pain in my shoulders through the empty embrace, will they be alright? It’s difficult to see them having to adjust to this abnormal world, the likes of which we hoped to spare them.

But then the pendulum returns. Of course it’s not true. I am oversensitive to the images that trigger childhood memories. It’s not happening again.

And we child survivors of the Holocaust are at the forefront of those who can provide perspective. No, this is not an Apocalypse, and no Second World War. Men are not sent to the front. They are sent home to be with their families. There will be no bombs destroying houses and facilities. If we are short of food that is because of panic buying, not because supplies are scarce.

Yes, we have to keep physical distance from others, but not emotional distance. We don’t have to wait months for a letter to know if a relative is alive. Modern media bring them to life within seconds.

In those days, the Nazis had unlimited power and their reign seemed to be endless. We were their ultimate victims and nine tenths of us died. Now we are not being persecuted. We are part of the general population fighting a common enemy. We are not being scapegoated. In fact most of the population is sacrificing to keep all vulnerable people safe, including us.

Lastly, there is an end in sight and we know that we will win. And then, in the euphoria of survival there will be pent up energy to renew, to enjoy. There will be a baby boom alongside an economic one, and who knows, people who have learned that the world can cooperate and hurl itself against common dangers will tackle old problems like climate change, nuclear build-ups, and national rivalries.

So yes, features of this pandemic remind us of our early trials, but the differences are large. That’s why, should the pandemic remind us of our early fears, we can reassure ourselves that no, it’s not happening again.

After reassuring ourselves we can reassure the world.”

Yes, features of this pandemic trigger for many of us echoes of other traumas and challenges. We can’t help but react to realities that we have never before encountered. And yet, in the midst, it is incumbent on all of us to realize that how we cope is not only about our own well-being, but profoundly affects our families and most importantly our children. We need to be aware of what we are feeling. We need to communicate openly. And we need to affirm those who depend on us – even in challenging times.