Alex Buckman, a child survivor of the Holocaust, shared the story of his harrowing childhood years during a moving online event Jan. 27. The program, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the second annual such event organized by the Bayit in Richmond.
Buckman is the president of the Vancouver Child Survivors Group and has shared his experiences with thousands of students as a Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) survivor speaker.
“I was born on Oct. 31, 1939, in Brussels, Belgium,” he told more than 100 people who attended virtually. “My family was Jewish. I was 7 months old when Nazi Germany invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. Everything changed for Jewish people in Belgium.”
He recalled how, at the age of 4, he was escorted by a strange woman, as they traveled through the night, sleeping in forests and foraging for food. After days of walking, they arrived at an orphanage. He would only discover years later that his parents were sent to Auschwitz.
At the orphanage, he met up with his cousin Annie but was told that they were to refer to each other as siblings.
When Nazis would come for inspections, Jewish boys were hastily sent into a cellar. “They told us again to be very quiet, then they shut the two wooden doors, replaced the carpet and furniture,” he said. “In the cellar, we were very cold and scared and we peed our pants. We saw large things running around us. They told us later that they were rats. The first time this happened I was 4 years old…. It seemed like we were in that cellar for a very long time. Soon, we heard every footstep over our heads. We heard men screaming loudly in a language that we did not understand. We were scared. We did not know what was going on. They told us that we should not cry but we were scared children so we cried.
“Suddenly, we heard the pushing of the furniture and they opened two wooden doors and we saw the light,” he continued. “They asked us to come out but we did not want to go out. We told them that we had peed our pants [so] they promised that they would give us a warm bath. This happened too many times from the age of 4 to 6-and-a-half.”
Annie’s mother, Alex’s Aunt Becky, was sent to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. When each new train of prisoners would arrive, Becky would run through the crowds of arriving women calling the name of her sister, Devora.
“A young girl came close to Becky and said, I knew Devora but she is dead,” Buckman recounted. “Becky asked her: how did you know Devora? The young girl replied, I am from Belgium and I used to babysit her son, Alex. Becky thanked her and cried. Becky looked at the sky and prayed. She said, if I survive this, one day, and find Alex, I will raise him as my son.”
When liberation finally did come, it took time for the surviving family to find one another. Alex and Annie waited in the orphanage as one child after another was claimed by family. Alex tried to reassure his cousin, whom he believed to be his sister.
“I would tell her that our parents would come soon,” he said, “but, like Annie, I did not know what happened to our parents and why they were not coming for us. The orphanage kept all the children for another six months, hoping that our parents would come and pick us up. But no one came for us.”
The remaining children were transferred to a Red Cross facility in Brussels. Eventually, they were reunited with Annie’s parents, who Alex assumed were also his own. It was another cousin who, in an act of revenge for a childhood spat, blurted out the truth to Alex that his parents were dead.
Buckman went on to share his experience in April 2010 as a survivor-participant in the March of the Living, a program that brings Jewish youth to Poland and then on to Israel to explore firsthand the history of the Holocaust and its survivors who helped build Israel.
“It is almost impossible to describe the feeling I felt entering that camp, Auschwitz,” Buckman said. “On both sides of the camp there were shoes. As I passed the shoes, I caressed the little pair of shoes. The students were crying, but we had to continue.… We saw a mountain of glasses all tangled together.
“We finally walked in a shower room and I closed my eyes,” he said. “I was thinking of my mother and her sister.… We were told that the women panicked when they did not see the water come down from the showers. They ran toward the walls and scratched them with their fingernails. When I heard this, I turned and caressed the wall, feeling the scratches made by Jewish women prisoners. I wondered, were those scratches made by my mother? I would never know.
“In that room, I finally said, au revoir, Maman.”
At the commemoration, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, accompanied by four city councilors, spoke and read a proclamation.
All four Richmond MLAs were present, with Kelley Greene, MLA for Richmond-Steveston, reading a proclamation from the premier. Finance Minister Selina Robinson also addressed the event, as did Steveston-Richmond East Member of Parliament Kenny Chiu, who spoke of his own visit to Auschwitz.
The Bayit’s Rabbi Levi Varnai noted that this year’s event, which represents the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, also fell on erev Tu b’Shevat, the new year of the trees.
“The marriage of these two days is chilling,” said the rabbi. “Man is compared to the trees of the field, our tradition tells us. The six million souls murdered in the Holocaust were like individual human trees, each had the potential to grow, to flourish, and to bear fruit of the generations. They were obliterated, but one thing remained that can never be destroyed: their roots.
“The roots of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust goes back 3,300 years to Mount Sinai. What gives Holocaust survivors the sustenance to keep going? What motivates future generations of Jews to double down on life? It’s not just the memory of those who passed away, it’s also the memories of hundreds of generations who came before them, the generations who struggled and prevailed against all odds…. As we remember today the six million souls who left us, we can also remember the millions of souls who came before them and the millions who will come after.
“Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we plant and renew,” said Varnai.
The Bayit’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day program was co-presented with partners including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the VHEC, the Kehila Society of Richmond and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. The program was emceed by Bayit president Keith Liedtke.
Earlier in the day, a national virtual commemoration took place, organized by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in partnership with the VHEC and other groups across Canada. Survivors, including Vancouver’s Serge Haber, lit memorial candles. Heather Dune Macadam, author of the book 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, spoke with Michael Berenbaum, a writer and professor and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust.
The author as an infant with her parents Sarah and Mechel, and brother Hy, in Kazakhstan, where she was born in 1944. (photo from Reva Kanner Dexter)
A year ago, I attended the 31st Annual World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, hosted by our own Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. I have kept the story of my own Holocaust experience suppressed because it never seemed as tragic nor as diabolical as others’. Furthermore, because I was an infant, born in 1944, I did not think that I had the right to call myself a child survivor. However, attending the conference changed that perception.
I claim the dubious distinction of being in the one percent of children born of Polish parents who survived. As three million Jews of Poland were murdered, I feel very privileged.
Of course, the circumstance of my miraculous survival is due to several factors. First, my parents escaped Poland in September of 1939. Second, they were living close to the Ukraine border. Third, they had the essential skills and resilience to overcome many hardships.
My mother Sarah (daughter of Pinchus and Chana) and my father Mechel (son of Israel and Esther) were born and grew up in small towns in southeastern Poland. Krasnystaw and Izbica were 12 kilometres apart. Close enough for biking and walking between the two towns along the Wieprz River.
Typical of small towns in that region and era, Sarah and Mechel grew up poor. Sarah’s father was a barber, who taught her his skills as soon as she could hold a razor blade. Mechel’s father was a tailor who had taught him the art of sewing, also at a young age.
Sarah and my father had moved to Chelm after their marriage, and Sarah was already six months pregnant when the German troops invaded.
Mechel was a member of a Zionist/socialist club, so he got the news early that the Nazis had taken over the town – 1,500 young men were rounded up and shot. Rumours of castration created panic. Mechel took off by bike with some of his pals, telling Sarah he would be returning.
Sarah’s birth mother lived in Rovno, Ukraine, so she made her way alone across the border with the help of a Yiddish-speaking Russian soldier. She had the prescience to bring her barbering tools. Little did she know that trains and train stations were going to dominate her life from that night forward for the next six years.
Sarah and Mechel gave birth to their first child, Chaim (Hy), who an aunt testified was born in Rovno, while an immigration document states that he was born in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Memories do seem to play tricks when the brain is violently assaulted.
The Russians saw and seized the opportunity of so many Jews fleeing Poland into Ukraine. They tricked Jews by telling them that eastern Poland was now under Soviet rule and that they would be given safe passage back home.
It was a lie, a big one. The Jews were shoved into open cattle cars and sent to forced labour camps all over the U.S.S.R. Workers were required to keep the country running under the murderous hand of Stalin.
My parents and baby brother survived the train ride from Rovno or Kiev, which finally stopped in a logging camp on the banks of the Ob River, in Siberia. They realized immediately that their lives were only worth what their labours could produce.
I recall stories of wolves howling in the night and rats “as big as kittens” stealing their meagre rations while they slaved in the tundra in the day and tried to sleep in the frozen barracks in the night.
My father organized a strike – after all, they were in a communist country weren’t they? The demands for better working conditions were answered rapidly by rounding up the leaders during the night and incarcerating them in the Gulag.
Sarah had to fend for herself again. Even though she was freezing, undernourished and exhausted, she had an ample amount of milk flowing from her body. This was noticed by the commandant, whose wife had just given birth and could not nurse their sickly baby. Sarah was promoted from lumberjack to nursemaid.
As the two women became friends, Sarah got news that Mechel and the other men were still alive.
In June 1941, when the Nazis attacked Russia, the Soviets granted amnesty to the surviving Polish citizens. Poland and Russia became allies. The Jewish prisoners were released, only into a more dangerous predicament.
With Mechel’s leadership, the ragtag group of Jewish lumberjacks built rafts, trusting the river to lead them to safety. They navigated the Ob River by day, roping up by night.
During the night, the women would scramble up the banks, scavenging for food on adjacent farms. My mother told us that she dodged many bullets through the darkness. But the plan succeeded in getting them to a train station.
The next few years, they were underground, following trains, bartering at train stations, trying to regain health. Sarah would do pop-up barbering, thankful for her tools and endurance.
They finally made it to Czymkient, Kazakhstan, where Mechel got a job sewing uniforms for pilots at a pilot training academy. I was born in December 1944. Hope and optimism returned to our little family.
Of course, the story does not end here. Other chapters will emerge, as I continue to pull pieces of the survival puzzle together.
Thanks to the conference, I realize how important it is to keep searching for objects and recording memories, which return our beloved victims and survivors to us in spirit.
Reva (Rivka) Kanner Dexter has been a docent at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre since 2007.
Simon Fraser University’s Prof. Lauren Faulkner Rossi, left, interviews child survivor Marie Doduck in a Zoom presentation Nov. 5. (screenshot)
For some survivors of the Holocaust, the COVID pandemic has brought back the traumas of the past. Marie Doduck spoke recently at a virtual event, recounting her survival story and her life in Canada, including her response to the initial lockdown in the spring. It is a response, she said, that is paralleled by many others in Vancouver’s group of child survivors of the Shoah.
Born in Brussels, the youngest of 11 children, Doduck spent most of her childhood hiding in orphanages, convents and strangers’ homes. In 2020, she found herself opening her front and back doors, reminding herself that she was free to go for a walk, yet haunted by the long-ago memory of hiding.
“It brought back a terrible time for us at the beginning of COVID,” she said during an interview that was webcast as part of Witnesses to History, a series presented by the Simon Fraser University department of history in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. “I know the other survivors feel the same way. I would say that was the hardest of all.”
When the war began, Doduck (then Mariette Rozen) was 4 years old. Her father died when she was a toddler and some of her older siblings were already married and had their own families. After the occupation of Belgium, those who remained at home set out on foot headed for Paris, where a sister lived, unaware that Paris, too, was under occupation. She remembers riding on the shoulders of her brother Henri and seeing what she thought was a magnificent sight.
“I saw this beautiful silver bird in the sky and I thought that was so beautiful,” Doduck recalled. It was surrounded by stars. “The next thing I know, I was flying into the ditch on the side of the road. Of course, the bird and those stars were planes diving and, even now, I can hear the whistle of the diving and the shooting. They were killing people on the road. That was my first contact with death and blood. It was all over the place.”
Soon, the family dispersed and Mariette began a years-long succession of shuttling between hiding places in various countries of northwestern Europe. A facility for languages began then and Doduck is now working on learning Mandarin, her 10th tongue.
In some homes where she was hidden, she would sit under the table while the family’s children did their homework. Then, after others had gone to bed, she scoured the homework to educate herself.
She also has something of a photographic memory and she realizes now that she served as a messenger, repeating what she had been told when asked by siblings who had joined the resistance and who could make occasional contact while she was in hiding.
As is the case with many survivors, Doduck has stories of almost-miraculous near-misses.
As is the case with many survivors, Doduck has stories of almost-miraculous near-misses.
While being hidden in a convent, she was exposed. The mother superior of the convent knew that Mariette was Jewish, but presumably most of the nuns did not. When one sister discovered her secret, she denounced the child to the Gestapo.
“Being a good nun, she went to the mother superior and told the mother superior what she had done,” Doduck recounted. “The mother superior had woken me up and taken me to the centre of the convent to the sewers and dumped me in the sewer. They came to the convent to search for me and they didn’t find me.”
In the sewer, filled with fetid water and rats, Mariette held her breath as she heard the boots of the Gestapo officers above her.
“I killed some rats to make a mountain so I didn’t have to stand in the cold water,” she said. “The mother superior saved me and that night I left and went to another place.”
Even more frighteningly, Mariette was rescued from a train almost certainly headed to catastrophe in the east.
“I was caught and I was put on a train,” she said. “I was the last one put on a cattle car and I was lucky because the cattle car had slats so I was able to breathe because they pushed us like sardines.… I remember the gate shouting and the clang, clang, clang, I can hear it now, and the lock.… Then the train stopped. I have no knowledge of places.”
The gate opened and Mariette saw a Gestapo officer.
“Black uniform, black hat, swastikas on his lapel, black boots, a leather strap with a revolver, a leather strap attached to a baton,” she recalled. “And, in German, he said, ‘What is my sister doing on this train?’ I looked left and I looked right. There was no other child but me.… This Gestapo that had probably killed hundreds of people, children as well probably, took me off the train, put me on his motorcycle and took me [away]. Years later, I found out that this Gestapo went to school with my brother Jean and used to come to my house on Friday to have dinner with us and he recognized me, that I was Jean’s sister.”
In the course of research for her memoir, Doduck recently discovered that her mother and one brother, Albert, were arrested and sent first to a transit camp and then on to Auschwitz. Her brother Jean, who was in the French resistance, was arrested elsewhere but was on the same train. Another brother, Simon, survived the war but died at Auschwitz in the weeks after liberation. Like thousands of others, he succumbed after well-intentioned Allied officials provided food to the starving inmates, whose stomachs could not assimilate it.
Including Doduck, eight siblings survived and somehow found one another after the war. One brother, Jule, chose to remain in Brussels with his family. Charles, who was also married before the war, moved to Brazil. Sister Sara went to the United States. Brother Bernard went to Palestine with Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement.
Doduck, aged 12 at the time, and the three other siblings – Esther, Henri and Jack – were four of 1,123 Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust sponsored to come to Canada under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress in 1947.
Her recollections of arrival in her new homeland are not warm.
As the children disembarked the ship in Halifax, they found themselves in a compound surrounded by barbed wire, as though they would try to escape. From there, they were moved to a room with bars on the windows.
“I wasn’t called by my name,” she said. Each refugee had a number pinned to their chest. Hers was 73, she thinks, or possibly 74.
“Nobody talked to us,” she said. “Nobody really welcomed [us]. We were just a bunch of probably wild children. I can only describe that I had an adult’s mind in a child’s body. We survivors saw too much dirt, too much killing, too much that a child should ever see.
“We were treated like we were nothing at all,” she recalled.
She wanted to go to Vancouver. She had seen a map and knew that there were beaches there.
“I remember as a child we used to go to la plage, the beach, with the family,” she said. “That was happy times.
“And just like Brussels, it rains a lot too,” she added, laughing.
The four siblings were fostered by four different families in Vancouver. While not all the 1,123 children who were sponsored found loving homes, Doduck believes that she and her brother Jack were among the luckiest.
Doduck was taken in by a couple, Joseph and Minnie Satanov, who had no children and, weeks after Mariette arrived, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. The couple would become surrogate grandparents to Doduck’s three daughters and Doduck would care for them in their old age.
Still, the early months were difficult. The Satanovs spoke Yiddish, but it was a “highbrow” variation, Doduck said. Hers was “street Yiddish” and the initial communication was largely pointing and miming.
While her foster family was wonderful, Doduck, like some other survivor refugees, said their treatment by the broader Jewish community was inhospitable. Asked if the community welcomed her and her peers, she replied: “I hate to say it, they didn’t.”
As a child, she didn’t understand it. As an adult, especially now, as she plumbs her experiences in the process of writing her history, she thinks she understands and empathizes.
“The community did not accept us,” she said. “They were fearful. I understand this now. They were fearful of what we knew, of what we saw. As a child, I didn’t understand that. As an adult, I understand it today.”
Her process of assimilation is akin to a split personality, she explained. She encompasses both the child Mariette and the adult Marie.
“Survivors – this is a secret but I’ll tell the world today – survivors are two people. Mariette is the child who is still in me and is trying to come out, and Marie [is] the person I created to become a Canadian and to fit into our society here in Vancouver.”
“Mariette is a child from Europe. Marie is the name I took in Canada to hide who Mariette was,” said Doduck. “Survivors – this is a secret but I’ll tell the world today – survivors are two people. Mariette is the child who is still in me and is trying to come out, and Marie [is] the person I created to become a Canadian and to fit into our society here in Vancouver.”
That internal dichotomy is most evident when she speaks with school groups and others about her war-era experiences.
“When I do outreach speaking, I speak as Mariette,” she said. “When I leave the school, Mariette is put on a shelf and Marie takes over and becomes a Canadian. Marie cannot survive with the memories if I don’t put Mariette on the shelf…. I can’t live the memories. It takes a lot out of me to relive.”
The stories she has to share can be harrowing and there are still details that she is only now learning as she works on writing her memoirs. Lauren Faulkner Rossi, an assistant professor at SFU’s department of history interviewed her for the Nov. 5 event and is collaborating on the memoir.
While the pandemic may have jogged loose deep-seated memories, Doduck sees other alarming parallels in the world today that hearken to the dark past.
“We are again being persecuted, we are again being hated, we are again being hit, we are again being abused constantly,” she said of rising authoritarianism and antisemitism in parts of the world. “I see what I saw as a 4-year-old, 5-year-old. I’m seeing it around the world and nobody seems to see it, that the hate is coming again.”
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.
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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.