Shall I Forget That Night
|Within weeks of Hitler's
appointment as Chancellor of Germany, his master plan for world
domination by the Aryan Race was implemented. The Holocaust had begun.
The persecution of millions of Jews was undertaken in earnest, not for
anything they had done, but because of what they were. It began with
psychological warfare as Jews were ostracized, their businesses
boycotted, and then seized. Synagogues were destroyed. They lost their
citizenship and rights to attend school, own property, and to government
The Nazis utilized many avenues toward their Final Solution, the total annihilation of all European Jews. Ghettos, concentration, labor, and death camps added physical deprivation to the psychological abuse. By the end of Hitler's reign of terror, 90% of Europe's Jews, numbering over 6 million, had been murdered (Lace, 88).
The Holocaust survivors' testimonies bear witness not only to the atrocities of the most widespread religious persecution in history, but to their own perseverance in moving beyond the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by their Nazis persecutors. The survivors' difficulties did not end with liberation and their adjustment depended upon individual circumstances. Experiences in concentration, work, and extermination camps differed from those spent in hiding or in the ghettos. Holocaust survivors cannot be liberated from the memory of their experiences. They were burdened with, not only their survival, but with that of the entire Jewish people. As time silences their voices, it is imperative that we learn from their past, so that the world never shall forget that night.
Jews encountered great obstacles immediately following liberation. At the Allied advancement, Nazis abandoned their prisoners on death marches in hostile territory. The immediate threat to prisoners became hostile civilians, revenge by retreating soldiers, and often the liberators themselves. Yehunda Nir recalls Soviet hostility to the homeward-bound refugees. His family escaped Nazi persecution by assuming Catholic identities. After liberation, while returning home, a Russian soldier attempted to rape his sister. The family escaped with their lives, but all their possessions, including boots, were confiscated by the Russians (Nir; 255). Carla Granot's experience was similar. After liberation, she and three others were searching for clothes in the abandoned German homes. Russian soldiers found them and raped two of the women. Carla, fleeing naked, escaped unharmed (Haas, Aftermath 117).
Sara Tuvel and her sisters had survived three camps and were being evacuated prior to liberation. The Germans locked them in a rail car and fled when English planes began bombing. Sara escaped into the nearby fields; seconds later, the retreating Germans bombed the train (Bernstein, 272). Another evacuee from Dachau related that many were wounded or killed by machine-gun fire as American fighter planes strafed their boxcar ( Bitton-Jackson, 204).
The survivors' immediate needs were for medical attention for extreme malnutrition and disease. Typhoid fever, pneumonia, and TB ran rampant among the survivors. In Bergen-Belsen alone, almost half (28,000) of the sixty thousand prisoners died of typhus within the few weeks following liberation (Berenbaum, 184). Severe malnutrition caused complete immobility in many prisoners. Chill Igielman had been brought to Dachau to die. The SS abandoned the camp, leaving no provisions. When American liberators arrived they distributed biscuits and chocolate. Survivors were fed macaroni and pork which " . . . turned out to be a killer as almost everyone in the camp got dysentery [... ] we were sprayed with DDT to delouse us [ . . ]) and given black coal-dust tablets to stop diarrhoea [sic]"(Gilbert, 246). Many who had endured six years of atrocities succumbed from eating foods that their bodies could not absorb.
Severe frostbite and gangrene often resulted in amputation. Gerda Weissmann, weighing 68 pounds at liberation, was a frostbite victim. Her legs, scheduled for amputation, were saved when the hospital's nuns took pity on her. A treatment of hot and cold therapy and injections was used (Klein, 228).
Amnesia has also been documented in post-liberation studies of survivors. One man went mad in the hospital, breaking furniture, swinging from the rafters, and eluding the nurses until he was subdued in a straightjacket. He experienced amnesia for several months following the episode (Durlacher, 178). One woman lost consciousness at liberation and experienced a period of amnesia. She had to relearn even the simplest of tasks (Rabinovici, 226).
As the immediate needs of the liberated prisoners were met, they were sent to Displaced Persons Camps, released to find their way back home, or sent home by transport. Often the trip home was dangerous and futile. Survivors were humiliated, robbed, and denied safe transportation, factors that forced them to travel at night. Upon returning to her hometown of Chrzanow, Poland, Helen Sendyk found most of it destroyed, her home occupied by hostile strangers, and all her families' possessions stolen by a neighbor (Sendyk, 230).
Survivors were often forced to remain in the country where their annihilation had been plotted. The physical abuse of their captors was replaced by the civilians' hostility. Sara Tuvel's experience was common. Food was scarce and after waiting hours in lines with her ration card, the German merchants told her they had just run out. She found that when Jews entered a train, the German civilians would get off (Bernstein, 303). Violent anti-Semitism also abounded as evidenced by an incident in Kielce, Poland in July 1946 where 42 Jews were stoned, bludgeoned, or shot to death (Brechler, xxii).
These incidents weighed heavily on the survivors as they were forced into a world where nothing was as they had left it. The war's end, liberation, and resettlement did not bring an end to the trauma. A `survivor's syndrome' has been identified which includes the characteristics of "chronic fear of renewed persecution, depression, psychosomatic disorders, anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), social withdrawal, hypochondria, inability to concentrate, irritability, hostile and mistrustful attitude toward the world" (Haas, Shadow 8).
Studies have found the psychological adjustment of survivors to be influenced by their personal Holocaust experiences, place and length of incarceration, the proximity of family members and friends, and age. Individual tolerance for suffering is also a factor. Dr. William Helmreich, has found ten qualities present in well-adjusted survivors. They are "flexibility, assertiveness, tenacity, optimism, intelligence, distancing ability, group consciousness, assimilating the knowledge that they survived, finding meaning in one's life, and courage" (Helmreich, 267-268). These traits may have enabled them to survive in the first place.
Survivors often express feelings of guilt. Survivor guilt led Jack Diamond to help build the state of Israel. The harsh conditions, physical danger and sparse food helped him atone for failing to save his brother's life in Auschwitz (Haas, Aftermath 57). Ethel Janov reports that, although she appears to lead a normal life, she cannot overcome the guilt of enjoying things. In the same study, Rose Feingold discusses her inability to enjoy herself fully, "at a simcha (joyous event) I visualize these people as they were in a concentration camp . . ." (Haas, Aftermath 76-77).
Some survivors became excessively overprotective parents. One survivor called her daughter everyday at 3:30 p.m. to check if her grandchildren were home, becoming hysterical if they were late. This was the exact time that her parents had been taken from the ghetto in Poland (Helmreich, 233). Ethel Janov expressed an utter sense of helplessness when her children were away. She feared they would die at sleepovers (Haas, Aftermath 56).
Another survival mechanism important in coping with day to day existence is the assurance that the food supply is adequate. Most survivors talk of the importance of bread and seeing that food is not wasted. Gerda Weissmann made trips to the grocery store, under the pretense of practicing her English by reading labels, when she was really seeking the assurance that food was plentiful (Klein, 249). One survivor's daughter recalls being forced to eat excessively as a child. Schoolmates called her "balloon," but her mother felt it was necessary to "gather strength for the coming days" (Wardi, 121).
Harmless events provoked anxiety in 72 percent of the survivors responding to one questionnaire (Helmreich, 233). The sight of a uniform, a barking dog, the sound of German being spoken, or a sudden knock at the door could produce stress. One survivor could not use the word 'furnace' (Klein, 251) while another became ill from the smell of bleach because "they used to pour it on the bodies they stacked" (Helmreich, 234). The sight of industrial smokestacks on the walk to school with her children, caused one survivor extreme anxiety. She would forcibly hold them so as not to lose sight of them. She had skipped ahead of her own parents during her childhood and was forever separated (Haas, Aftermath 64).
Reactions to stimuli in everyday life were not necessarily debilitating. Survivors triumphed over their Nazi persecutors and have lived fulfilling lives. They rebuilt their lives, raised families, and accumulated significant wealth and political success (Miller, 224). They have become socially successful. Their greatest legacy lies in their testament to the Holocaust.
Gerda Weissman, who was spared leg amputations, walked out of the hospital four months later. She was the only surviving member of her family. She married her Jewish-American liberator, immigrated to America and raised a family. She's a Jewish Federation activist, has lectured extensively, and written five books on the Holocaust (Klein, 265).
Helen Sendyk lost her parents and five of her seven siblings. After discovering the destruction in her hometown she emigrated to the U. S. where she became a bookkeeper, raised a family, and became involved in Jewish organizations. She also wrote a book on her Holocaust experiences. She now lives in New York with her family (234).
There is an urgency for the survivors' testimonies to be heard now, as their lives are drawing to a close. They alone who can bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust and force our understanding of how such a thing could occur. Only when the world can collectively say, "we shall never forget that night " can we assure ourselves that no race can perish at the hands of their fellow man.
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