Holocaust Survival:  Then, Now, and the Future

By:  Megan  McDermid

Ft. Pierce, Florida


 

Annihilation, survival, and liberation were the forces at war in the history changing atrocity known as the Holocaust. To survive became the "raison d'etre" for great numbers of imprisoned Jews. The survivors today struggle to keep the memories alive and to maintain the remembrances of that unconscionable time. The shocking reality of the camps propelled the liberators into a frenzy of activity to release the captives and minister to them physically and emotionally. Fifty years later, many of the remaining liberators still live with the horrific memories that cannot be forgotten. because of the life changing pictures, forever etched on their minds, the liberators and survivors guard the reality of what occurred and are determined to prevent its recurrence. Surviving in the concentration camps required hope; survival after liberation demanded the grace to live with the past and to accept the present, and to sustain the memory of the Holocaust entails boldy proclaiming its reality.

While being held captive in the filthy, disease ridden concentration camps, survival, for many, was the priority. In the prisons' oppressive environment, which strove to quench every positive emotion including compassion, hope was the "medicine" necessary to stay alive. It was apparent that those who lost all desire to live usually deteriorated quickly which resulted in their death. One of the prisoners stated, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how" (Frankl 8). The Jews had to discover a meaning for their lives in order to strengthen themselves to bear the horrible "how" of their existence. Identifying a future goal gave them inner strength by focusing them on something for which to strive. A great deal of effort was required to banish the thoughts of suicide entertained by nearly everyone at some point in his captivity. For those with a family member, a loved one, or a home to return to, these became their motivation for survival. To keep their spirits from despair, many made it their obligation to remind themselves constantly and those around them that even though many felt they had nothing more to expect from life, life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was awaiting. It must have been extremely difficult to maintain a positive attitude in the atmosphere of death and torture, but those who saw a purpose in life were encouraged to forge ahead. As the central theme of existentialism states, "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find a meaning in the suffering" (Frankl 7).

Those who remained optimistic and kept themselves alive were not prepared for what lay ahead. Their constant dream of freedom stood in stark contrast to the reality of their liberation. Following their emancipation, it was difficult for them to grasp the full meaning of liberation or to understand the world's insensitive reaction. The survivors were not prepared for the reality that even though they were liberated, their nightmares, vivid memories, and emotional anguish would never be set free from their minds and hearts. The sight of the liberators brought joy and relief to some. Elie Wiesel recalls, "I felt that love, that gratitude, that admiration" toward the liberators (Anger 39). The majority, however, were unable to comprehend what was occurring. Since many had lost the ability to feel happiness and their emotions had become numbed, their liberation appeared as a dream. Many were too sick or unconscious to realize what was happening and felt utterly empty and alone. Guilt overtook them as they questioned why they were the ones who survived. As they endured the reawakening of their emotions and the freedom from their captivity, hope was once again restored. Anticipation of reunions with family and friends became the focus of their thoughts, but for many it was quickly crushed. As the survivors returned to their neighborhoods, they were often greeted with rubble where their homes had once stood. Awaiting them as well was the heartbreaking news that other family members and friends were no longer alive. Depression and loneliness overwhelmed them, and many secluded and separated themselves from the rest of the world. These emotions, however, did not compare to the intense feelings of betrayal and hurt felt by the survivors. Not only was hatred burning in their hearts for their captors, but also bitterness that much of the free world took no direct action for so long to save their lives. How dehumanizing to know that the world was aware of the barbaric cruelties but were unable to prevent the continuing atrocities until the Nazis were finally defeated. The survivors, today, continue to experience the agony a nd pain of their past, but more and more are focusing on how to prevent the recurrence of another Holocaust. Instead of holding a vengeful grudge that would destroy their entire being, they hold up the memories to maintain the public's awareness.

The liberators were neither physically nor emotionally prepared for what they would experience upon entering the death camps. Most were young, strong willed, and battle hardened men who believed they were able to liberate without personal or emotional involvement. Little did they know that what they were about to encounter would change their lives and remain with them forever. Before approaching the electrical fences and stone walls enclosing the Jews, the nauseating odor of burnt skin and decaying bodies permeated the air. As Michal Chilczuk remembers "I could smell the stench of the charred remnants of human flesh" (Lusseyran 93). Their souls were shocked by the inexpressible horrors and savagery they encountered. The liberator's observed the filthy camps and the gruesome conditions in which the starving prisoners were existing. They could scarcely comprehend that the emaciated bodies still housed human beings. The Jews appeared as skeletons of skin and bone seeing more dead than alive. Douglas Kellingg states, "I can never forger their eyes looking down. That's all I saw were haunted and crippled eyes paralyzed with fear" (Friedman 51). Not only were the Jews a shocking sight, but the surroundings were loathsome and grotesque. As Douglas Kelling remembers, "There were hundreds of dead bodies strewn about. They were just scattered to be shoveled into the furnaces" (Frankl 33). Corpses covered the roads; bodies hung from barbed wire fences. The liberators saw blazing flames in the sky and a giant cloud of smoke hovered over their heads. Overcome with emotion, their first response was to offer food to the starving victims. They instinctively supplied emotional support and comfort, but because the Jews were so desensitized from the years of torture, this was not received. Many liberators felt guilt for their countries' procrastination in rescuing the Jews, but after observing the world's lack of sympathy and concern following liberation, they realized that their ministrations may have been the most meaningful and beneficial to the Jews. When both the liberators and survivors tried to return to their prewar lives, much of the rest of the world pretended the Holocaust had not taken place. Many simply ignored the survivors and gave little or no support physically or emotionally. Initially, the survivors were welcomed by some with tears of sorrow and mourning for the agony they were forced to endure. Soon their interests waned as they turned away, and treated the Jews as misfits who deserved nothing more than charity. The people of the world treated the survivors as beggars, and the donors contended themselves with contributing their leftovers. Nobody felt it was his responsibility to be a part of the healing process nor to take the time to share in his joys and sorrows. The freed survivors worldwide were treated without affection and without what they needed most, love. Even now, the Holocaust does not arouse fear, trembling, nor compassion within much of the world. For many, it has just become one calamity among many others and just other fashionable subject with which to impress or shock.

The Jews as well as the liberators are determined more than ever before to be fearless and tell their stories, to reveal the horrors, and to assure that another Holocaust will never recur. No longer will they remain silent prisoners of their sorrow and grief. Both survivors and liberators are decreasing in numbers and before long no one will be left to tell firsthand of the past. They refuse to feel inferior, misunderstood, and ignored any longer. They are rising up to testify against the abominations performed upon them. No more will they allow doubt and remorse to haunt them day and night. Their time has come to bear witness with autobiographical documents and individual stories to change the world's attitude about this subject from apathy to remorseful acknowledgement. Survivors and liberators together agree that the reality of the Holocaust must be kept vividly in the world's consciousness as a continuing tribute to those who suffered and died and as a deterrent to it ever happening again.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Anger, Per. With Raul Wallenberg in Budapest. New York: Holocaust Library, 1981.

Eichengreen, Lucille. From Ashes to Life. California: Mercury House, 1994.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1969.

Friedman, Ina R. The Other Victims. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990.

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of 
Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.


MENU