For the past 25 years, I have had the honor to work with Holocaust survivors through the Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families of Jewish Senior Life. I have had the privilege of getting to know them and learning from them. As we mark Yom HaShoah today, April 12, I would like to share some of the life lessons I’ve gained as I have gotten to know survivors.
Let me add the qualification that survivors are unique individuals and it is always important not to generalize. That said, I’d like to share some of my observations about survivors and the gifts they have given me.
As I make my observations, please know these lessons are from my own experiences.
1) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly appreciate life itself and to have gratitude for all that we have. Survivors know how precious life is. For years, they lived under unbelievable circumstances, losing their families, enduring starvation, beatings and the constant threat of death. Survivors created new life after the war.
One survivor reflecting on his own resilience stated, “What is it about us that we never give up, that we keep going? I always say to myself, ‘Never give up; there is always hope.’ I count my blessings everyday. I appreciate life because of what I went through.”
Another survivor, the only survivor of 10 children, says that “every day I thank God for everything that I have. Boruch Hashem, (thank God), I’m alive.”
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2) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly appreciate the importance of family. After the war, survivors came to the United States, Canada, Israel and other countries and built new lives. They married, had children and worked hard. Their children were named after their deceased relatives so that their names and memories would live on. In my own case, I was named after my mother’s father and my father’s father.
Also, raising children helped give survivors a sense of purpose and joy. Seeing grandchildren gives them a greater sense of gratification knowing their families and the Jewish people have continued. One survivor commented, “It never goes away. Hitler left quite an impact on all of us, some more, some less. What makes me happy now is to see the grandchildren and know that they are OK.”
3) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly appreciate my Jewish heritage and religion. As the survivors converse, joke and sing with one another in Yiddish, I have gained a sense of how lively and energetic the Jewish world of Europe had been. It’s very impressive to see how some are very learned in the Chumash and Talmud and are easily able to quote from Torah. Survivors love and cherish the State of Israel. They say that had Israel existed then, the Jewish people would have had a refuge from the Nazis. They are proud of Israel and proud to be Jewish.
4) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly appreciate the importance of the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. For the most part, survivors grew up with anti-Semitism in their home European countries. After the Holocaust, most left Europe to seek a refuge from anti-Semitism and the possibilities of a better life. Survivors are very patriotic and cherish their freedom in America, in particular freedom of religion, to be able to practice Judaism without fear and with the protection of the law.
5) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly appreciate the importance of doing good for others. Survivors know how people can be intolerant and brutal to one another. Six million innocent Jews were murdered simply because they were Jewish. When survivors see present-day images of refugees or victims of disaster, they understand the pain. Because of their pain, they understand the pain of all.
At the Portraits of Honor: Our Michigan Holocaust Survivors exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center and online at portraitsofhonor.org, more than 550 Holocaust survivors have been interviewed. They are asked what message they would like to leave for future generations. Invariably, they answer that no one, no people should ever experience such a horrible tragedy, that we must all love and respect one another and try to live in peace.
6) From the survivors, I have learned to more greatly know that we must try to enjoy life and take care of ourselves. One of the things that has always surprised me is that despite the tragedies survivors have endured, many are able to enjoy life. I remember going to Shaarit HaPlaytah (Holocaust survivors organization) dinner dances and being pleasantly surprised to see survivors’ love of living expressed in dancing, shmoozing and enjoying each other’s company.
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When survivors came to America, they formed social organizations and smaller groups of friends who would socialize with one another. One group of four couples would regularly play cards, Bingo and go on cruises together. In a sense, they were re-creating extended families and new communities for themselves.
7) From the survivors, I have learned to have a greater overall perspective about life. I remember the story Manny Mittelman told in Portraits of Honor about when he was traveling in the U.S. “I was in an airport and they canceled our flight. A lot of people were upset, angry and yelling at the people behind the counter. I had my books and my food with me; I found a little corner and was waiting for the commotion to settle down.
Someone came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me; I’ve been noticing you; everyone’s upset and you seem so calm. How do you do it?’ I said I’m a Holocaust survivor. I close my eyes and think, ‘I’m in Auschwitz!’ Then I open my eyes and say to myself, ‘I’m not in Auschwitz! I’m a free man. I’m in America. I’m alive, thank God. I’m in an airport. I have a roof over my head. I have food. There will be another flight.’ Auschwitz taught me it’s not the end of the world; there is a tomorrow.”
Charles Silow, Ph.D., is director of the Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families of Jewish Senior Life.