The Holocaust: Bereavement Takes a Different Course

By Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD- Guest Blogger

Jewish history has all too often been written in tears…

I am fascinated by people and groups with the capacity to recover,

Who, having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Are not defeated by them but fight back,

Strengthened and renewed.

                                                                      Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, PhD,

  From: To Heal a Fractured World

In some situations, the whole idea of complete recovery from bereavement makes no sense. Bereavement can be fully expected to last a lifetime. That must never be considered a mental disorder. Among the most obvious of these situations is Holocaust survivorship.

Very few Holocaust survivors are still living. The last prisoners of the European concentration camps were freed in 1945. Their suffering before release is virtually unimaginable and incomprehensible to the vast majority of us. We have absolutely no mental yardstick with which to measure such suffering. Imagination completely fails. We cannot do it. The children of survivors are perhaps the only ones who come slightly close to a true understanding. They sense the meaning of the emotional horror of the experience and the problems of survivorship.

Fern Schumer Chapman, the daughter of a survivor, said it this way in her book, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past: “The past is a presence between us. In all my mother does and says, the past continually discloses itself in the smallest ways. She sees it directly; I see its shadow. Still, it pulses in my fingertips, feeds on my consciousness. It is a backdrop for each act, each drama of our lives. I have absorbed a sense of what she has suffered, what she has lost, even what her mother endured and handed down. It is my emotional gene map.”

We have a habit of using certain old adages to comfort and humor others. We often use these sayings to dismiss from our own minds what otherwise makes us fearful and uncomfortable. One adage says God never gives us more than we can handle. Another says that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. In the case of the Holocaust survivors, so false. So weirdly irrelevant. So insulting. So empty. So absent in understanding of the Holocaust experience. Would we say that to someone who has survived starvation and certain annihilation in a Nazi death camp? The answer resounds with No. Then, too, why do we say it to each other? Life lessons; applied ethics. The wretched  Holocaust is still our teacher, so many years after. From the survivors, another exercise in living.

It must be noted that the survivors had been surrounded by death in the extermination camps. It was not just one death, but massive deaths. Most survivors lost many family members, not only one or two. They lost many friends and neighbors, not just one or two. The camp inmates bore witness to many deaths every day, not just on one or two days. The deaths occurred primarily by premeditated, deliberate and vicious murder, not by disease. Murder routinely took place after extreme torture. Intense humiliation before death was standard practice. Des Pres wrote that human dignity was treated with cynical contempt. The value of life had been reduced to zero. There was no escape except the grave. In many instances, physical survival was an accident of time and place, not an act of strong determination to live. It was a Holocaust, a great devastation, a systematic mass slaughter. That was genocide. That is the background of survivorship. That is monstrous, shockingly hideous.

This is a different kind of loss and a different course of bereavement. This is not ‘good death.’ It is brute force and mass killing. This is not fear. It is terror. It is panic. This is not anger. It is outrage and despair. This is not guilt. It is inner conviction of crimes committed or omitted. Judgment has been passed by the jury of the inner self. The verdict is pronounced. The finding is guilty on all counts. The question is not: is the verdict right? The question is: to what extent is that verdict right? No punishment fits the magnitude of the crimes. The sentence is lifetime-plus-time atonement. These thoughts form a survivor mindset.

In most instances, talking does not help. Only in groups with other survivors does discussion seem to bring some heartfelt relief. After all, in extreme situations, only experience knows experience. The rest of us remain mere outsiders peering in. Imagining carries us to the outer edge. The Holocaust was located very far beyond that point. All of us have an intuitive understanding of personal tragedy. We find comfort most of all in others whose experiences match our own. We find it also in those who have lived lovingly beside us as we suffered. Survival is a collective art. We need other people.

In notable instances, writing also helps to soothe. As an example, Dr. Elie Wiesel long ago became one of the most prominent survivor authors. From his book, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

He had vowed that, if he survived, he would devote the remainder of his life to telling the story of the Holocaust. It was his moral duty to tell it, he said. If the world knew the facts, another holocaust might be prevented. As the old Santayana adage goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Wiesel has turned his torture and lifetime of bereavement into one of the world’s most treasured and admired literary art forms. A thing of beauty. In so doing, he eases his pain. He brings us news not only of man’s evil but of his goodness as well. He is successfully saving himself and memorializing his dead family and others as he guides the rest of us. His writing is his public monument to the 6 million and so very many more.

Once again he found meaning in life and regained the will to live. Eventually, he was even able to say, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to Him for that reason.” As we read his works, we fervently wish him to be right: no more war and injustice! Horror transformed into beauty and the embodiment of moral righteousness. That is quite an achievement of chronic bereavement. It is not a disorder. It is a rare and wondrous gift. The Nobel committee recognized and honored this life of achievement with an award for Peace in 1986.

An elderly lady of my acquaintance lived with her family in Eastern Europe during the War. As the German army advanced, she sent her only child, a teenage son, to live in hiding and safety in the countryside. Her son was discovered by the German army, tortured, and then shot before her eyes. All the remainder of her family died in the concentration camps. She herself became a subject of the infamous Nazi medical experiments. She was never able to talk about her son and her experiences without dissolving into tears of guilt and despair. The wound never healed, nor could that be expected.

Late in her life, she was hospitalized. Due to a medication error, she became delusional. One auditory hallucination brought her to a state of panic. We found her behind the door of her room, frightened and shaking. Over the intercom, this hearing-impaired lady had clearly heard the voice and commands of the Gestapo. They were taking a lineup of concentration camp inmates to the showers. She saw a camp guard pass her door. She beckoned us to quickly hide with her behind the door. The Holocaust trauma survived and burned in her vivid memory. Through her vision, we could sense the smoke and feel the flames. That was 50 years after liberation. She had seen the face of evil. Like Dr. Wiesel, she would never forget. Why would she? Why should she? How could she?  Who would?

She managed to make her peace with life by giving to others. It was her own personal Kindness Project. It brought her purposeful life. It commemorated her dead. She was an expert, avid needle point artist. She was passionate about her skill. Everyone in her surroundings received, with great pleasure, something she had created. She lived to be well over 90. Her bereavement remained raw, but it never brought her down. She was never defeated. She found meaning and healing in her life by giving the fruits of her talent.  Her son lived once more in her generosity. Bereavement’s achievement.

Given the depth and breadth of the trauma, it seems an act of heroism just to return to so-called normal life. From Dr. Wiesel again: “I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and to live my life – that is what is abnormal.” The feeling tone is obvious. After such trauma, a life of normal routines seems at first crazy, surreal, disorienting. It seems almost disrespectful of the dead. At best, the reentry is a struggle. It happens nevertheless. At the center of the healing are other people. Connection is the core principle. Hope can be given only by others. Also in Jewish folk wisdom, a Yiddish proverb states: even in Paradise, it is not good to be alone.

Needed: people of warmth and compassion. A shared knowledge that the Holocaust situation was evil and extreme. A firm flow of support and reassurance that guilt for past and guilt of survivorship are misplaced. A conviction from others that the survivor has always been worthy of dignity and respect. Acknowledgement that bereavement is forever and is sane. An understanding that the dead are kept alive inside the grief. Therefore grief is necessary and has a purpose. There is no incentive to finish grieving. On the contrary, there is every incentive to urge grief to remain fresh. Needed: people for whom death is no stranger. People willing to lift the veil of fear and find the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

So much is said about the devastation of World War II, fascism, and Nazi Germany. Atrocity and abject misery seem to be an endless source of fascination. The reasons are many but the fact remains. Much less is said about reintegration. It is the human will and ability to rise above past contempt. The survivor had to regain entry into a sensible, open society and sane living. Lost through radical suffering. Found, as Des Pres tells us, through social interaction and keeping dignity and moral sense active.

Those of us who did not experience the full horror of the Holocaust will never fully understand its emotional power. But we can help those who did. Never become discouraged by the scale of the problem. Just keep inching forward. This bereavement is a victory for connection, the value of relationships. Accepting, respecting, and appreciating are fundamental qualities of relationship. Attentive listening is also basic. For the survivor, learning to trust again is demanding. It takes great mental effort to accomplish. We can help to point the way, again and again. Repetition is part of the answer. Telling the Holocaust story is that part of the answer. Dr. Wiesel: “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that, having survived, I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” To forget the Holocaust, he said, would be to kill twice. Bearing witness gives voice to the dead. That voice is indispensable. Silence speaks.

Connection is a gift we can freely give. It does not require full understanding. It requires only empathy, honesty, and compassion. Maybe a little altruism as well. Each connection provides links to the wider community and further connections and friendship. The support system expands this way. Self-respect and dignity are reinforced this way. Life finds meaning again this way. Life is reaffirmed this way. Once more an achievement of bereavement. Survivors fight back, strengthened and renewed.

Our task is to make music with what remains.

                                                                                                 Yitzhak Perlman, violinist

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:

The last of the human freedoms –

To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,

To choose one’s own way.

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

                                                            Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD,
Psychiatrist, Author, Holocaust Survivor

Selected Readings:

Anne Elizabeth Applebaum, Gulag: A History

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving & Other Essays

Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age

Fern Schumer Chapman, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past

Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps

Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Viktor Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

Bernard Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto

John Hersey, Hiroshima

Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, Children of the Flames

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima

Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression

Daniel A. Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility

Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Jean Francois-Steiner, Treblinka

The Black Book: The Nazi Crime and the Jewish people  (out of print)

Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned

Leon Uris, Exodus

Elie Wiesel, Night

Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem

Elie Wiesel, One Generation After

Elie Wiesel, The Oath

Rea Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD, is a  retired Director of Social Work Services, Hospice Coordinator, and adjunct  professor of clinical social work.  She can be reached on LinkedIn and on  Twitter @rginsberg2

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Stunning words and work by Rea Ginsberg. Her depth and ability to bring others into resonance with a topic never cease to amaze me! She should author a book of her insights. I await the first release, it may transform the world of academic and clinical social work.
    -Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

    1. I could not agree more. She is an amazing writer and I always enjoy her articles. I look forward to her next- Vikki

  2. Rea Ginsberg says:

    Thank you, Monica and Vikki! Your willingness to read is my motivation to keep writing…and talking.

  3. Felix says:

    This is a great write-up. Very informative and a master piece to read. I enjoyed every bit of it. Keep the faith.

    1. Rea says:

      Thank you, Felix. I very much appreciate your comment!

  4. Marie Butson says:

    I had the honor to be in a pilot program for seminarians, sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. where we viewed ethics through the lens of the holocaust. The testimony of one Auschwitz survivor broke my heart, sharing her experience and in long pauses, watch her eyes go up to the ceiling as though she was watching her life and then sharing it with us. We went to Berlin, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Krakow, learning the history and experiences of those who suffered in the death camps. After this trip, and the reading preparation opened my eyes to the terror and something much deeper and darker than grief. Thank you for this beautiful piece. I will print this and keep it with my materials on the Holocaust and grief studies not only as a resource but a sincere and insightful expression of the human heart’s response to sheer terror and malice. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Rea says:

      Thank you, Marie, for your heartfelt and generous comments. Your experiences in the pilot program sound excellent for learning about the Holocaust. Eye-opening, as you say. So important. — How sad that we are losing so many of our survivors now. They have been, and continue to be, by far our best teachers. — Thank you!

  5. elainemansfield says:

    Dear Rea,

    I’m so grateful to have read this piece. My heart pounded as you drove in the horror with your words and gave me a distant taste of what “survivors” faced after impossible suffering. I’m grateful for the huge souls of those who could turn the horror to compassion, keep faith and love, and offer kindness as a balm. I love the quote and image from Fern Schumer Chapman: “She sees it directly; I see its shadow.” It’s so important to remember that we only witness from afar. We do not see directly so don’t completely understand.

    I know such horrors continue on in various ways throughout the world, and it’s so easy to avert our eyes and pretend all is well.

    Finally, my husband and I met and spent time with Terrence Des Pres because he and my husband taught at Colgate University. He was a powerful and interesting man and a beloved teacher.

    1. Rea says:

      Thank you for your comments, Elaine! They mean a lot to me! Yes, for many of us, it is so easy not to see! But the backfire from that attitude affects all of us, all over the world. — Thank you!

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