Child survivors Rabbi Joseph Polak, right, and Robert Krell at the Havdalah service Nov. 2, part of the annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. (photo from Robert Krell)
When Halina Levitt was 2 years old in a part of Poland that is now in Ukraine, her mother left her with a Polish farm family to hide through the Holocaust.
“My mother luckily survived and came back to retrieve me,” Levitt told the Independent. “Of course, at that point, I was 5 years old and she was a total stranger to me. I didn’t want to go with her.”
The family who saved her didn’t want to relinquish her, either, and, as the conflict between the birth mother and the Polish family escalated, neighbours gathered and tried to intervene on behalf of the family as the mother tried to reclaim her child.
“She was quite scared for her life until we boarded the bus and got away from there,” Levitt said.
Rose Raport, a retired doctor from New Jersey, was also left with another family.
“I was given away to a Polish farmer at age 4,” she said. But her parents never returned. “I spent six years and, by the end of my stay with the Polish family, I found out that I’m left alone. There were no parents, there was no sibling, no family and that’s it.” She was turned over to the Jewish community and continued her life in a Jewish orphanage.
Karen Komar, a Massachusetts woman, managed to remain with her family in their home in Hamburg, Germany, until 1941. Then, an intervention by a distant American relative – Arthur Bulova, head of the Bulova watch company – succeeded in getting the family a visa to the United States.
These were just three of the experiences of people who convened in Vancouver Nov. 1-4 for the 31st annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants.
About 400 people attended the gathering – about 110 survivors, joined by members of the second, third and fourth generations, as well as spouses. Each has a unique experience, yet all who spoke with the Independent said such meetings are an opportunity to share time with those most likely to comprehend what they have endured and the lives they have led.
The conference was co-chaired by Vancouverites Marie Doduck and Dr. Robert Krell, both child survivors of the Holocaust.
The conferences create a feeling of belonging, said Doduck.
“Our survivors feel safe, they talk about their lives, their grandchildren, their past, their future, their thoughts in a safe place,” she said. “And the children felt a safe place to speak about their feelings, that they may not be able to do with their parents or grandparents.”
Child survivors – almost all of whom were hidden children during the war because almost none of the children who were sent to concentration camps survived – were not recognized, by themselves or others, as Holocaust survivors or as a distinct group until the 1980s. Because they were so young during the war, or because they were not in the camps, their experiences were dismissed by adults. A 1988 book by Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors began a reconsideration of the individual and collective experiences of the second generation, but also of those who survived as hidden children and who were not, until then, considered “survivors.”
“We still are the children inside of us,” said Doduck. “When I speak in schools, I speak of the child inside of me, not this mother, grandmother, now great-grandmother that they’re looking at, this old lady. This old lady is really Mariette the child, who is starting, after 70 years growing up … who had no childhood, who lived with bombs and death and starvation and disease. I knew that, if I was sick, I would die, and most of us have these kinds of stories.”
Categories can be fluid, Krell explained. As a hidden child who survived in Holland thanks to a Christian family, he is a child survivor. But he is also a second generation, because his parents survived the camps and came back to claim him. This was statistically extraordinary, as the Netherlands had one of the highest Jewish death rates by country in the Holocaust.
Krell feels a special kinship with Abe Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, with whom he organized one of the first child survivor conferences, in 1991. Foxman was hidden from ages 2 to 5, just like Krell. His parents also returned to claim him, an even more statistically anomalous outcome, given that he was in Poland, which had the most catastrophic statistics of annihilation. Krell tried to get Foxman to attend this month’s conference, but the distance was too great to travel.
Location is an important part of the conferences, said Krell, and accessibility is one of the reasons they move annually in Europe, all over North America and to Israel, depending on the year. This year, almost half the attendees were British Columbians.
More than three dozen workshops, panel discussions and plenaries offered a range of topics for attendees, with some exclusive to survivors or successive generations. An art installation and a musical concluding evening added to the weekend experience.
Guest presenters included Rabbi Joseph Polak, a child survivor of Bergen-Belsen and author of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring; Dr. Catherine Chatterley, founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism; Prof. Chris Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia; and Vancouverite Robbie Waisman, a survivor of Buchenwald, who spoke together with Éloge Butera, a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, about human rights activism. Krell’s plenary address opened the conference on the Saturday morning with a keynote titled The Future of Our Past: Informing and Inspiring Next Generations.
An important event took place in Vancouver last weekend, as hundreds of child survivors of the Holocaust convened at a downtown hotel for the conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. A Shabbat dinner, moving speeches, presentations and other events were attended by survivors, their children and grandchildren, with specific programs organized with the interests and needs of each group in mind.
Attendees felt the heavy presence of time, as some reflected that these conferences are seeing fewer survivors and that the firsthand knowledge of these events will soon be carried only by the second and third generations. (See next week’s paper for coverage of the event.) Attendees, who fortunately witnessed Vancouver over a few days of autumn sunshine, raved about the welcome they received from locals and the quality of the program and the achievements of the organizers. But it is Vancouverites who should be most honoured to have been able to meet and experience the spirit and resilience of these remarkable individuals. Each survivor has a very different survival story and life history, yet they come together in part because of a need to connect with others who are most likely to understand not only the facts of their Holocaust experiences, but the unique hurdles – and, notably, the many, many achievements – of having survived and thrived after an early life of often-unimaginable challenge.
We are now amid a week of solemn remembrance – the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, on the night of Nov. 9-10, followed by Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. These weighty commemorations are an opportunity to reflect on the past and to rededicate ourselves to a world free of hatred, war and genocide.
The past cannot be undone, but restitution and reconciliation can help to take that past and, in some small ways, find meaning that restores honour and dignity to the victims and those who carry their legacies. That is one of the themes of the new exhibit just opened at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC).
Treasured Belongings: The Hahn Family and the Search for a Stolen Legacy opened Thursday, launched at the annual Kristallnacht Commemoration with a presentation by Dr. Michael Hayden, a renowned Vancouver medical researcher. Hayden’s grandparents, Max and Gertrud Hahn, who were murdered in the Holocaust, had one of Germany’s most significant collections of Judaica. The story of the survival of parts of that collection – and the ongoing efforts to locate and restitute other items – is not so much, he says, about the artifacts themselves, but about reclaiming the individuality and dignity of his grandparents and the lives that were stolen from them. (Again, next week’s paper will feature coverage of this event.)
For Hayden, the process has been emotional, sometimes rewarding, sometimes disheartening. But it is an act of dedication to restore the individuality of two of Nazism’s victims. Sheer numbers of genocide victims are almost incomprehensible, especially to young minds, which are the most critical target of contemporary Holocaust education. Intergenerational narratives like those of the Hahn-Hayden family, illuminated with tangible artifacts, are a vital means to bring this history in a meaningful way to the generations who will not have the opportunity to meet and hear testimony from those who witnessed and experienced that cataclysmic history themselves.
Those of us who have had the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of survivors, or the experiences of veterans of the wars against tyranny, must appreciate the importance of being witnesses to the witnesses. We should take a moment over this weekend to consider how we can act in our daily lives to advance a world that does justice to their memories and experiences.
Dr. Robert Krell with Grade 12 King David High School students Gali Goldman, left, and Edden Av-Gay. (photo by Shula Klinger)
On May 2, King David High School marked Yom Hashoah at its annual assembly commemorating those lost in the Holocaust. This year, for the first time, the school hosted Grade 10 students from Alpha Secondary School in Burnaby.
The morning began with prayers for the victims of the recent Poway shooting in San Diego. After a minute’s silence, the assembly commenced with a procession led by child Holocaust survivor Dr. Robert Krell. Each of the five KHDS students in the procession carried a candle.
Originally from The Hague, Krell is founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and an educator and advocate for the centre’s programs. He is also professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, and distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He was introduced by KDHS students Estie Kallner and Mattea Lewis, his granddaughters. They spoke of their grandfather, thanking him for the “privilege” of hearing firsthand stories of the Holocaust.
Krell began his talk holding up a black and white photograph of himself as a baby. “Who was the enemy of the Third Reich?” he asked the audience. “This,” he said.
Krell was born when Holland was already occupied by Nazi forces. Indeed, the hospital he was born in was already partially confiscated by the Gestapo. He described how restrictions were imposed rapidly, every mundane aspect of Jewish life being placed under more and more stringent rules. Deportations began in 1942. Speaking of the local Jewish population being assembled for the euphemistically named “resettlement in the east,” he said, “No one panicked sufficiently.”
Krell went on to describe how, as family friends began to disappear, his “rather astute” parents fled their home, taking few possessions. “What would you grab?” he asked. His parents abandoned their photo albums because, in enemy hands, they would give away too much personal information.
Placed in the care of a local Dutch Christian family, Krell learned to call the parents Mother and Father. He described them as “the most wonderful people on earth.” With them, he said, his life was “comparatively normal.” That said, with the ever-present risk of betrayal, as a dark-haired child in a sea of blond heads, he was very noticeable. He was not allowed to look out of the apartment windows; there were Dutch Nazi sympathisers living within sight of his adoptive home.
One of the most powerful aspects of the lecture were Krell’s insights on human memory and identity under conditions of extreme stress. He described his recollections as “fragmented, not fully formed” and, while his young mind didn’t appreciate the extent of the horrors being committed outside, he said, “I knew something was wrong because I was part of another family.” His mother, he explained, remembered nothing of that period. Having given her young son over to a Dutch Christian, he said, “She was in shock for three months.” He spoke in the present tense of how his real identity vanished in hiding. “I melt into the family.”
As an adult, his adoptive sister, Nora, also buried some memories, which led to a conflict with Krell. He recalled being taken to visit his mother by Nora but Nora said she had never done that. This was a way of “denying me my memory,” he said, adding that this denial causes grievous harm to the psyche. Even though we have fragmented memories, he said, “we don’t want to give them up because they are part of who we are.”
In the end, the disagreement was resolved. Nora had indeed taken Krell to see his mother. Twice, he was nearly discovered and twice he narrowly escaped, first by covering his head with a blanket and, the second time, by hiding under a bed.
His years in hiding were characterized by unease, a looming sense of fear and constant hyper-vigilance. After the war, his family moved to Vancouver, leaving behind Holland, which he said he viewed as “a place of death.” He described himself as “the most eager immigrant-in-waiting that ever existed.”
Once in Canada, Krell reinvented himself, hiding his shyness behind outward charm and sociability. He said he became resilient, ignoring illness and pain, striving to forge a new life, a family and career for himself.
He spoke of the medical advice he received when dealing with overwhelming feelings – “You should get rid of your obsession with the Holocaust.” Instead, he helped found the Holocaust Symposium for high school students and facilitated the recording of 140 testimonies from survivors.
Following the lecture at KDHS, Krell answered questions from students, concerning Holocaust education today, as well as why it is that some people hid Jews and put their own lives at risk. Krell referred to “common decency,” adding that his own rescuers “didn’t know the precise nature of the unfolding danger, but once they had me, they were committed.” He told the students that, in spite of the “showcase” of the Nuremberg trials, “there is no justice.” And, are we at risk today? “Massively.”
In his closing comments, Krell shifted from storyteller to teacher, using the narrative of his life to guide the students in theirs. “Learn your history,” he said. “In it lies everything to secure the safety of your children and grandchildren.”
He said, “Without engaging with the Holocaust, you are at great risk of becoming an under-educated person, and that makes you vulnerable. This mass murder took doctors, lawyers. Physicians were killing children in 1938. It was the doctors, engineers, architects. Each of the professions we trust for our safety. They all worked in the service of mass murder. Safeguard your professions from sliding into the abyss. It happens so quickly.”
Grade 12 students Edden Av-Gay and Gali Goldman spoke with Krell after his talk. Av-Gay was struck by how “one person could experience so many miracles in his life, especially someone born into such hardship” and said, “His story is truly amazing.”
Goldman, who had recently given a class presentation on youth movements during the Holocaust, had heard Krell tell his story before. She said she was still touched by how “he lost so much but he has devoted his life to teaching about what he went through, even though it was horrific. He can still find parts of his story that were miracles.”
Asked about Krell’s decision to speak about his past, Av-Gay said, “I think it’s not a matter of him being comfortable telling his story, I think he feels obligated to do it, to share his past, to show what happened to six million Jewish people.”
Alpha Secondary Grade 10 student Amy Ricker said she found Krell “motivating and inspiring.” Ricker, who hopes to become a humanitarian lawyer, said she “teared up because he showed me how in the dark I have been, and how much I want to help people.”
One perhaps surprising message in his talk was a warning about tolerance.
“If Jews were ‘tolerated’ in Holland, and the result was the deaths of over 80% of the Jewish population,” he said, “then we have to do much better than just tolerance.”
As he finished his lecture, he said, “Realize what you have. Thank your parents and tell your irritating siblings that you love them. I urge you – be kind.”
Shula Klingeris an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Many child survivors of the Holocaust did not identify as survivors – and were not deemed so by other survivors, including their parents – until decades after the end of the Second World War. The emergence and evolution of the unique experiences of child survivors was the subject of the Yom Hashoah keynote address in Vancouver by Dr. Robert Krell, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Local survivors of the Shoah and their families, as well as the premier, cabinet ministers and other elected officials, joined hundreds more in Vancouver and Victoria to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, earlier this month. An event presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre took place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 11 and another took place at the B.C. legislature in Victoria the following day.
In his presentation, Krell spoke about how he was liberated at the age of 5, having been a hidden child in the Netherlands. From the only family he knew, he was returned to the parents of his birth.
“My father and mother’s parents – my grandparents – and their brothers and sisters – my uncles and aunts – had all been murdered,” he said. “I learned about being Jewish at home, hearing stories from survivors who returned. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places in Yiddish, ably translated by my second cousin, 8-year-old Millie, who had returned from Switzerland with her parents. We heard things no child should hear and, therefore, listened all the more attentively.
“That was my introduction to Judaism, an unforgettable litany of horrors visited upon Jews that imprinted on my mind,” said Krell. “So far as I knew … being a Jew meant death, for everyone was dead, save one first cousin and Millie.”
Finding one’s way through the present with such a burden was an added challenge. “The task of being normal when you know you are not is all-encompassing,” he said. “What I did not realize then was how deeply affected we children were by the events of the Shoah and how intimately the traumatic consequences were entwined with our daily existence.”
While at UBC, in his small private practice, Krell began to see the children of Holocaust survivors. “And, from them, I learned of the impact of the Shoah on survivor families.”
During this period, he was spearheading Holocaust education initiatives in the province, including the Holocaust Symposium for high school students, which will have its 42nd iteration on May 2, and video recording survivor testimonies. “But there was one overriding issue that became the driving force of my preoccupations,” Krell said. “I discovered child Holocaust survivors. That may sound strange…. They did not need to be discovered. But they had disappeared from view. For almost 40 years, child survivors did not identify themselves as survivors. Immediately after the war, children were discouraged from talking about their experiences. In any case, said adults, you were too young to have memories, lucky you. Therefore, you did not suffer like we did.
“Other well-meaning adults urged children to forget in order to get on with their lives. That is not how it works,” said the psychiatrist. “Traumatic memories experienced in early childhood are not forgotten. They remain and they return.”
Throughout the 1980s, child Holocaust survivors began to speak with each other and to the public. In 1991, 1,600 people, primarily child survivors and their families, gathered in New York. “The workshops provided a safe environment in which participants gained self-awareness and much-needed relief,” said Krell.
Yom Hashoah corresponds to the 27th day of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. “The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month,” said Vivian Claman, a member of the second generation at the Vancouver event. “On May 16, 1943, the revolt ended and a total of 13,000 Jews died. It was the largest single revolt of Jews during the Second World War.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, federal minister of justice, also addressed the audience. “I want to say that we hear you, we honour your lived experiences and your stories, and we renew our commitment, and we reaffirm our vigilance to speak out against antisemitism, to speak out against xenophobia, to speak out against any form of racism or intolerance as unacceptable in this country and throughout the world,” she said.
Councilor Raymond Louie, acting mayor of Vancouver, read the proclamation from city hall. Kaddish was led by Chaim Kornfeld, a survivor. Eric Wilson played cello, and singers included Advah Soudack, Kathryn Palmer and Mia Givon. Wendy Bross Stuart played piano and, with Ron Stuart, were artistic producers. The ceremony ended, as is tradition, with “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Partisan Song.
* * *
B.C. Premier John Horgan quoted Elie Wiesel: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
“That’s why it’s so important,” said Horgan in the legislature’s Hall of Honour, “that, on Yom Hashoah, we acknowledge, as a society … that this may never happen again provided – provided – we don’t let time and the sands of history go through our fingers and we remember the words of the survivors that I was fortunate enough to hear today and we remember the millions and millions of lives that were lost because of hate, intolerance and because people didn’t stand up fast enough.”
Selena Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, who is Jewish, emceed the commemoration. MLAs of all parties were present. British Columbia is the only province with a Yom Hashoah commemoration in the legislature.
“We are here today to think deeply on one of the darkest moments in human history so we can remember and, in our remembering, stop it from happening again,” she said.
Opposition MLA Sam Sullivan said, “It is only through knowledge and recognition of humanity’s worst capabilities, including the profound banality of evil, that we can strive for ensuring justice and good in the world and ensure that such heinous acts will not happen again.”
Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions, shared the story of how her father hid his Jewishness with the intention of protecting his family after he survived the Second World War in Europe. Darcy shared the story with the Independent last year. (See the Feb. 24, 2017, issue.)
Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Carey Brown chanted El Maleh Rachamim and an adaptation of the Kaddish, also by Wiesel, which includes the names of camps and other places Jews were interned. Members of the audience spoke out names of places that they or family members came from or experienced.
MLA Nicholas Simons played Kol Nidre on the viola while Holocaust survivors Daniel Wollner, Alex Buckman, Rita Akselrod, Suzi Deston and Edith Matous lit candles. Another candle was lit by Nathan Kelerstein, a member of the second generation. A seventh candle was lit by representatives of other groups targeted by the Nazis, including people with disabilities, who were represented by Meyer Estrin and his mother Tzvia Estrin; Peter Csicsai of the Romani Canadian Alliance; and Jonathan Lerner, in memory of gender- and sexuality-divergent peoples. A group of young people, led by Hannah Faber, sang.
Micha Menczer, a Victoria lawyer who deals with First Nations and aboriginal rights, spoke as a child of a survivor of the Shoah. His mother, he said, spoke frequently of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save or help Jews.
“I learned also that, while Jews were a central target, others were attacked, deported and killed because of their race, political or religious belief, disability or sexual orientation,” he said. “Very importantly, my mother taught me that this does not diminish the memory of the Shoah or those who perished to give full recognition to the pain of other people and to the heroism of non-Jews who helped at great risk to themselves. It takes nothing away from our collective memory as Jews to honour those people and remember others who suffered.”
Dr. Robert Krell with the Hon. Coralee Oakes (left), minister of community, sport and cultural development, and the Hon. Judith Guichon, OBC, lieutenant governor of British Columbia. (photo fromB.C. Achievement Foundation)
On April 24, 2015, Dr. Robert Krell was among those honored at the 12th Annual British Columbia Community Achievement Awards ceremony held at Government House in Victoria, where he received a B.C. Community Achievement Award medallion and certificate.
“These honorees exemplify what it is to go above and beyond; to do what needs to be done and to give without question their time and energy for the betterment of their communities,” said Keith Mitchell QC, representing the British Columbia Achievement Foundation.
In a personal letter received from the premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, Krell was honored for his “many years of commitment to developing anti-racism, antisemitism and Holocaust education programs for people of all ages. By establishing the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 1994 and documenting Holocaust survivors’ testimonials, you have ensured that no one will ever forget what Jewish people went through during the war. Your work with child survivor groups is further testament to your dedication to helping people gather together, talk to one another and know they are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of what they and their families experienced.”
Hidden as a child in the Netherlands during the Holocaust, child and family psychiatrist and University of British Columbia professor emeritus, Krell understands the necessity of Holocaust remembrance: learning from its lessons, providing education, supporting survivors and ensuring their stories are not lost. In addition to founding the VHEC, he also founded a group for child survivors, giving voice to their experience.
In late August, a $250 million fund for Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust was established. (photo from Memorial de la Shoah, Paris, via claimscon.org/2014/09/child-survivors)
On Wednesday, Aug. 27, a symposium was held at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. The topic was Lost Childhood, referring to the impact of the Shoah on Jewish children who survived and continue to live with its consequences to this day. The audience was comprised of German government officials, members of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and child survivors of the Holocaust.
Among those present were members of the negotiating committee, including Ambassador Colette Avital from Israel, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat from the United States, Roman Kent, treasurer of the Claims Conference, and Greg Schneider, who serves as executive vice-president of the Claims Conference. From Germany, representative Rüdiger Mahlo and deputy director of negotiations Konrad Matschke were in attendance, as was Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, and Max Arpels Lezer, its European representative.
A variety of speakers, from historians to psychiatrists, politicians to psychoanalysts, participated in order to press the case for restitution to previously overlooked Jewish children, now aging in trying circumstances connected directly to their early childhood deprivations and traumas. The negotiations following the symposium took place on Aug. 28, and resulted in the recognition of child survivors as a distinct entity deserving of restitution. Mahlo noted, “German politics has been made aware of the particular fate of the child survivors and its negotiations with the German government, the Claims Conference succeeded in establishing a Child Survivor Fund. With this, the loss of childhood is recognized for the first time as a case of damage.”
A fund of $250 million was established for Jewish child survivors worldwide. My address, entitled The Continuing Struggle to Survive After Survival, follows:
I stand before you keenly aware that I am here only because of a narrow escape from those who sought to murder me. As a Jewish child born in 1940 in The Hague, Holland, my family was ordered to report on Aug. 19, 1942, for “resettlement to the east.” That meant being assembled at Westerbork and, from there, deported primarily to Auschwitz or Sobibor.
My mother and I would have been killed shortly after arrival. Mothers with babies were doomed. One hundred and eight thousand Dutch Jews were sent to the factories of death. About 5,500 returned.
I stand before you keenly aware that I am in Berlin, the city in which were conceived the most grotesque crimes in human history. It was here that the minds of well-educated and presumably civilized Germans formulated plans for the annihilation of Europe’s Jews: men, women and children. And, by war’s end, in German occupied countries, 93 percent of Jewish children had been murdered.
I survived in the care of my Dutch Christian rescuers, Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, who I shall visit in The Hague in two weeks. Nora is 83 years old, nearly the age of Anne Frank had she lived. But the Frank family was betrayed and deported on the last train to leave Holland, on Sept. 3, 1944, destination Auschwitz.
And I stand before you also aware of the great strides that Germany has made to preserve this history and to remember not only what it has done but to teach this history to succeeding generations, indeed, to the world.
For those who pose the question concerning whether there are long-term consequences, a story. One day, my mother, in her mid-80s, suddenly apologized for giving me away into hiding. I was stunned. I told her she had been heroic; there was nothing to apologize for. Her response, “When I left you, you tried to follow me pulling a little suitcase, and I looked into your eyes and knew you would never forgive me.”
And it is true. She was so smart. She knew that having saved my life through her uncommon courage that I would nevertheless be unable to truly forgive her for abandoning me. A child cannot comprehend the reasons for such a rejection. That, we learn only as adults. We live with such complexities, we Holocaust children.
What was done to us involved not only physical annihilation. Those who survived also experienced the touch of death, the murder of the soul. My parents, who miraculously survived in frightening circumstances, never recovered. How could they?
In 1945, my father learned that his parents and two sisters were dead; my mother was informed that her parents, two brothers and little sister were dead. And so, there were three of us. Only the son of one of my father’s sisters survived also.
We spent those postwar years in shock. While Dutch citizens resumed their lives, traumatized by years of occupation but largely intact, Dutch Jews were shattered. I saw them. They came to our home, some with whip lashes on their backs. I heard them describe the horrors of the camps, the smell of the crematoria. It was too much for a little boy aged 5 or 6. And you may ask, even today, were there consequences and did they last all these years? The answer is, “What was done to us, never, ever left us. The Shoah envelops us like a shroud. But we put it aside so that we can function as if normal.”
For children under the age of 16 in 1945, there was little help. Most surviving children were orphaned and housed in orphanages or shelters such as Ecouis in France, where 426 boys from Buchenwald were looked after by the OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants]. And yes, of these boys told by a psychiatrist or psychologist that they would never recover, the majority led productive lives, even attained great achievements. They included Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a chief rabbi of Israel, George Goldbloom, a U.S. businessman, and Kalman Kalikstein, a physicist who worked with Einstein.
But who can say that they recovered from the Shoah? Elie Wiesel, who devotes his life to healing, injustice and Holocaust remembrance and education? Rabbi Lau, who is now the director of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority? Their lives remain rooted in Holocaust memories. The Holocaust’s imprint was too traumatic to overcome, too painful for healing, and medical professionals shied away from us in the postwar years. There was no help.
Think of it. Before the war, every psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychologist focused on the traumas visited upon a child in the developmental years. Anna Freud discussed the vulnerability of a child’s ego. One symptom, and therapists recommended years of individual or play group therapy to heal children suffering from anxieties. But postwar, where was this legion of therapists? They were nowhere to be seen. They were not prepared to deal with us, we were the carriers of traumas too great to confront.
We left for Canada in 1951 and I set about becoming a normal Canadian. With after-school jobs and summer work, I put myself through medical school, then psychiatry in Philadelphia and Stanford, and became professor of child psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
In the 1970s, Holocaust survivors brought me their children and I worked with Holocaust survivor families struggling with overwhelming memories, some of which complicated the lives of the entire family. I helped some of the adults fill out restitution forms. A particularly poor and troubled survivor patient who had worked in the mines as a slave laborer, and who lost eight brothers and sisters, was awarded $1,300. I was furious upon hearing this. He saw it differently: “They acknowledged my suffering. They owned up to what they did to me.” I learned from him that reparation is not just about money, it is also about justice.
I soon discovered that Holocaust survivors who sought restitution were, in many instances, directed toward German psychiatrists for evaluation. Can you imagine it?
One child taken by her mother in an effort to obtain some financial help faced a particularly gruff doctor who yelled at her in German. This particular child, who, when hidden with a Polish family, had sat in total silence under a dining table at which German soldiers had a meal. Had she spoken, moved or coughed, her death was inevitable. And, years later, she endured this harsh treatment from a German physician. Dr. Kurt Eissler, in his powerful article “Perverted Psychiatry” in the American Journal of Psychiatry (1967), cites instances of reparations exams performed by appointed German psychiatrists:
“A Jewish woman aged 23 years lost her father and two younger sisters upon arrival in Auschwitz. She went through four concentration camps in which she often had to collect corpses. Amongst her complaints during examination were lack of initiative, difficulty in concentrating, poor memory and hypermnestic preoccupation with traumatic events. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was ‘anxiety neurosis, unconnected with the persecution.’
“A woman was interviewed whose parents, brother, three sisters with their children, husband and 8-year-old daughter had been killed during the course of the persecutions. She herself spent years in a ghetto and in several concentration camps and had frequently been beaten to unconsciousness. She complained of depression, anxiety, phobia, feelings of guilt. The doctor denied any connection between these symptoms and the experience of persecution. He included in his report, ‘despite such grave experiences, of which no one is spared, most people continue their lives and have no chronic depressions.’”
It may stretch belief, but these psychiatrists frequently attributed the excruciating symptoms of atrocity to the patient’s prewar personality or to that of their upbringing.
It is no wonder that children who survived the Shoah all but disappeared into their own lives. The few who tried to talk were told that, as children, they had no memories and, therefore, did not suffer; or, if it looked like they were suffering, were told to forget it and get on with their lives. The comparative few who applied for compensation were humiliated and shamed again.
I got on with my life. My Holocaust preoccupations never stopped. I did not let on. But, when I presented myself for a Dutch restitution program to personally experience the process, the examiner, a pleasant lady representing the Netherlands, asked me why I thought I should seek compensation. After all, her Dutch husband had been a child during the war and he did not need any help. She did not even recognize that her non-Jewish husband suffered neither loss of family nor required hiding, at risk of discovery and death. Yes, he was hungry also.
As protocol dictated, she referred me for a psychological interview. I felt confident. After all, I was a 60-year-old professor of psychiatry, successful in my career and with a lovely family. I was asked the reason for my assessment and then I cried for two hours. I remained in therapy for five years.
I became deeply involved in the self-discovery of child survivors and our emergence as a distinct group of Holocaust survivors that culminated in the 1991 Hidden Child Conference in New York. From 1982, I worked with Prof. Sarah Moskovitz, author of Love Despite Hate, concerning 24 child survivors found in Terezin and brought to England for their recovery, and followed up by her nearly 40 years later. In 1982-83, I helped found the Los Angeles Child Survivor group and we began to write about child Holocaust survivors and their coping skills and adaptation.
In the course of that work, we defined child survivors generally as those children who were aged 16 and under by 1945, and we also examined restitution issues concerning children.
In 1998, Sarah and I coordinated a survey of child survivors to inquire about their experiences for war-related consequences. One thousand questionnaires were sent out. At that time, child survivors were aged mid-50s to mid-60s and were asked, “As you look back on your life, how do you think you were affected by your Holocaust experiences in childhood, physically, socially, emotionally, educationally and economically?” Six hundred and sixty-four child survivors responded.
The general findings revealed a staggering number of separations from parents with three-quarters of fathers and two-thirds of mothers never returning. More than half of respondents lost both parents.
Three-quarters of the child survivors in this survey reported themselves to have suffered serious to severe lifelong effects emotionally as a result of their traumatic past.
With respect to restitution, there were at that time, six main road blocks to obtaining restitution.
Missed deadlines: Many children did not know how to make claims. Nor did they know if their families had property or insurance. Children placed in adoptive or foster homes were not in touch with the community. They were taught not to think of themselves as survivors. When they did, it was too late to apply. According to our survey, over half never applied or had applied and been rejected. One third of those who applied received a one-time lump sum payment, one half of them less than $700 US.
Documentation requirements: In most cases, young children had neither the knowledge nor resources to obtain proof of country of origin, birth certificates, death certificates or names of witnesses. As one respondent stated, “First they killed my family and now they want proof that they existed.”
Time requirements for those in hiding or in ghettos: In order to qualify, a child was required to have been in closed hiding (confined) for 18 months. “Open” hiding (able to be outside) did not warrant restitution – as if these children had not also suffered loss of home, family, identity and religion, leaving them with feelings of abandonment, identity confusion and loyalty conflicts. A 1987 study by Moskovitz had also revealed that over one half of child survivors in hiding were harshly treated, beaten, and one in five were sexually abused.
Time requirements for six months in concentration camp: In Treblinka and Majdanek, young children were unlikely to live more than one day. In Auschwitz, the majority of adults lived no longer than three months. It raises the question, “How many days in Auschwitz are required for the experience to have left its mark on a child?”
The means test: One’s economic status was required to be at poverty level, precisely the persons who cannot afford legal advice or the resources to pursue rightful compensation. Even today, the annual net income for residents of Canada to meet the income eligibility requirement for a monthly pension is $29,103.
Requirement to be interviewed by German psychiatrists: Under certain circumstances, such as continuation of pension, an interview is arranged with a German psychiatrist rather than simply a board-certified psychiatric practitioner. This raises a single question: Where any Jewish child survived the Nazi occupation, what could possibly be grounds for discontinuing a pension? Each and every child has suffered enormous losses, profound disruptions, fear and malnourishment, and lifelong consequences.
To summarize, in our survey, child survivors reported themselves, despite personal successes and achievements, as seriously and permanently affected to this day: emotionally, 81 percent; socially, 69 percent; educationally, 66 percent; physically, 67 percent; economically, 65 percent.
We are 15 years beyond our 1999 survey and child survivors are now aged mid-70s to mid-80s. And, for many, the war’s memories are returning to cripple them once again. For those persons who have had reasonably normal lives, childhood recollections are a nostalgic review of mostly cherished memories. For child Holocaust survivors, it is a trip back into bottomless despair.
It should be noted that in Los Angeles this year there is a shortfall of $1.1 million for the care of Holocaust survivors. This is being raised by the local Jewish community. A typical account follows:
“I am a 78-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. I was a child during the Nazi occupation and I was hidden in the countryside by a Christian farm family. Both of my parents perished in German concentration camps. I immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s.
“I live on a limited income. I receive $800 in monthly income from social security and a $1,100 monthly pension from Holland. I rent a small apartment on the west side of Los Angeles that costs $1,180 per month. I have a lot of medical bills related to hearing loss, arthritis and psychiatric care relating to chronic depression.
“Last year, I was granted about $4,800 from the Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need Fund. This was a life saver for me. I used the funds to cover dental work and bills relating to my apartment. I am feeling much better and able to eat and chew without pain.”
I suggest you view those who express need with compassion. Do not humiliate them with seeking proof beyond establishing they lived under the Nazi domination and survived. And do what is right and just to ensure their remaining years are dignified.
Remember that it is not only about establishing a degree of
financial security. It is also about assuring a measure of justice. And justice demands an official acknowledgement by responsible governments, particularly those that collaborated in the murders of my people.
It is growing late in the day. Our sun is setting.