Soviet Jewish Child Survivors

Identity and Resilience After Long Silence

By Svetlana Shklarov MD, Ph.D, RSW

Russian Jews have learned to overcome their fear, know how to make their silence heard as a means of action; theirs is a courage of defiance. … Desperate, you? Your capacity for hope does not date from today. Feeble, you? You have more strength and it is more stubborn than ours. You proved it to us in Leningrad, in Riga, in Kishinev, and you continue to prove it to us every day.

Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence, 1987, p. 94

In 2003, the number of surviving Jewish victims of Nazi persecution was estimated as 1,092,000 persons, 174,000 of them residing in the United States and 511,000 in Israel (DellaPergola). In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), according to the Claims Conference, there remain over 114,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust (Tighe, Saxe, & Chertok, 2008), and at least one third of these survivors were children during the war.

Jewish child survivors who still live in the countries of the FSU have attracted little attention or research. These survivors were deprived of the opportunity of cultural and communal protection and denied Holocaust-related monetary restitution until the late 1990s. They were never granted recognition of their early life trauma. In their home country, psychotherapeutic treatment was not available to them, because the history of the Holocaust and the psychology of trauma were ignored by Soviet regime for many decades (Altman, 2005; Tarabrina, 2001; Tzygankov & Bylim, 1998). They spent the most formative years of their lives under a totalitarian regime and encountered significant additional stresses. Many of these children experienced severe losses and fears associated with political oppression and totalitarian abuse (Nikolsky, 1996; Shklarov, 2008).

Aging child survivors from the FSU who recently moved to North America also represent a relatively large population with high needs. According to the UJA-Federation of New York (1990), among the New York-area Nazi victims, half are members of émigré families from the FSU, and 70% of these Russian-speaking survivors live below the poverty level. Their stories remain unknown in this part of the world, as in their home country.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the high needs of aging Soviet child survivors[i] living in North America and across the Atlantic. However, we know little about their lifelong resilience, ability to overcome trauma, rich history, and strong identity.

In order to reach out to Russian-speaking child survivors and explore their life experiences and sense of identity, I initiated a cross-language narrative study. The study included nine participants who told me their life stories in Russian, our shared native language. Some of my research participants live in Canada, and others reside in Moscow, Russia, where I traveled to interview them. I analyzed the participants’ narratives using grounded theory procedures. In this article, I report a portion of my findings in which I address child survivors’ sense of identity in the face of forced silence. I also briefly focus on triggers and the nature of traumatic memories in Soviet child survivors now, as they age. A few quotes from the interviews that appear in the second section of the article are given in translation from Russian, with references to the participants’ names.

The issues of developing identity and overcoming trauma are interconnected, and oppression could impact both processes in surviving Jewish children. I argue that despite the apparent differences between the Soviet child survivors and those who settled and grew up in the West, there are many parallels in their history and perception of trauma. Perhaps recognizing these similarities can help us bridge the gap of isolation that has resulted from the long history of silence and separation.

Group Identity: Coming out of Hiding in the West and in the FSU

The distinct group identity of Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust is a Western concept. In the West, child survivors stand out as a group due to the recognition of their specific experiences during the war, and because of Western acknowledgement of the particular impact of childhood trauma. They consider themselves a separate group also because of the peculiar history of their post-war self-identification and the societal attitudes towards them. In the Soviet Union, none of these contextual factors developed in the same way as in the West. Therefore, the self-identification of surviving Jewish children who grew up in the Soviet Union is represented differently.

Child Survivors in the West: “We are Special” (Krell, 1999, p. ix)

Historically, Jewish child survivors who immigrated to the West were not recognized as Holocaust survivors for a long time. They were excluded from groups, formal gatherings, and events involving older Holocaust survivors in North America, Australia, England, and Israel (Cohen, 2005; Fogelman & Bass-Wichelhaus, 2002; Krell, 1999; Valent, 1993). Because of their young age at the time of their persecution, there was an assumption that they could not have clear memories about their experiences, and thus, their trauma was not as great as that of older survivors. The German reparations system initially did not consider child survivors’ legal claims, because they could not present specific factual memories or validated evidence of their persecution. This was especially difficult for orphaned children who did not have adults to advocate on their behalf.

In addition, the alienation of children from older survivors was implied by the common hierarchy of suffering. Children who survived in hiding, under false identities, or by fleeing, were not considered to have experienced the “real” suffering in comparison with that of concentration camp prisoners (Krell, 1999). Most children with such histories had experiences that Krell described as being “a survivor but on the margin of survivorhood” (p. 5). Child survivors, many of whom were saved in hiding during the war, continued to keep silent, as if in hiding, for almost forty years after liberation. In Krell’s words,

We are the experts on silence. It did not matter where – whether in forests, or camps, or hiding but perhaps especially in hiding. We became the silent ones. We are so comfortable with silence. … No wonder we were not noticed. No wonder we were so late to speak out. (p. 92)

The children’s suffering was invalidated for a long time. As they grew up and became adults, their silence did not end. They felt alienated from groups of older survivors. In the late 1970s, with the beginning of a new movement of the second generation (Epstein, 1979), child survivors also felt excluded from these groups of “heirs of the Holocaust” (Fogelman & Bass-Wichelhaus, 2002, p. 34). As the second generation became vocal and gained visibility as a distinct group, child survivors remained unrecognized, disunited, and isolated, which led them to feel their lack of belonging more acutely.

Child survivors’ group identity, visibility, and mutual support action were formed through the development of a social movement. They began to speak out in the 1980s, after the American psychologist Sarah Moskovitz published her pioneering work about them in 1983, and in 1987 organized the first reunion of a small number of former children whose experiences she had studied. Moskovitz and other professionals published academic studies about child survivors’ experiences. New grassroots conferences and formal support groups were organized, first locally, and then internationally. Child survivors began to meet each other, recount their stories, and share mutual validation and support. They gained recognition and a sense of belonging. According to the Australian psychiatrist and child survivor Paul Valent (1998), “Child survivors came out of hiding, literally, symbolically, and internally. They were no longer isolated, secret abnormal people. They developed pride in their survivorship” (p. 528).

Soviet Child Survivors: Silence and Isolation

Soviet child survivors missed the formation of the Western social movement towards recognition. They were not aware of these developments in the West. At the time the Holocaust was prohibited from memory in the Soviet Union, they remained isolated from their Western counterparts and silenced by their government.

Under the oppressive regime and in isolation from the Western Jewish communities, neither older Jewish survivors nor the second generation had an opportunity to voice their pain or gain identities as distinct groups. The pressure of silence affected everyone equally. Therefore, Soviet child survivors did not feel different or oppressed in any special way; they were unaware of the international movements, and did not compare themselves to other groups.

It was only within the last ten or fifteen years that the voices of Holocaust survivors still living in FSU started to be openly recognized, as their countries changed. Child survivors gained acknowledgement, together with the older survivors’ groups, after the lifting of the official prohibition attached to the historical memory of the Holocaust, roughly by the late 1990s. The Claims Conference pressed the German government to provide restitution to survivors living in the FSU. These survivors became known as former minor prisoners of concentration camps and ghettos, and were finally granted restitution from Germany via the Claims Conference’s Central and Eastern European Fund, as well as some Russian governmental benefits. For example, the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Labour, in its legislation of 1999, announced former minor prisoners eligible for some domestic benefits.

Against all Odds: The Voice Soviet Child Survivors

Child survivors who now live in the countries of the post-Soviet space are united through a great number of local organizations of former minor prisoners of concentration camps and ghettos. Many of these organizations have websites and publications to promote Holocaust awareness, and all of them provide their members with support and protection of their rights and interests. Such groups now exist in many cities across the countries of the FSU. For example, the Moscow Association of Former Jewish Minor Prisoners now formally involves over 250 members (V. G. Geht, a member of the organization, personal communication, October 13, 2008).

The group of Soviet child survivors is remarkably culturally rich. Not unlike child survivors in the West, this group includes disproportional numbers of highly educated people, doctors, teachers, and helping professionals, as well as renowned scientists, writers, artists, and political activists. The powerful voice of Jewish child survivors can be heard among most vocal advocates not only in the area of Holocaust remembrance, but also in the most challenging areas of Russian public life, such as the war in Chechnya, freedom of speech, and political injustices (e.g., Alla Gerber and Leonid Roshal).

Soviet child survivors’ confrontation with silence and marginalization affected them to a great extent, but they have maintained their Jewish survivors’ identities and kept their memories alive. Despite the ideological taboo that had been imposed on them for almost five decades, they are now ready and willing to speak out. Today, they have won an opportunity to tell their stories publicly.

Recognizing the Impact of Trauma

Having explored some historical factors that impacted the formation of child survivors’ group identity in the FSU, I proceed to explain how the same factors of their social environment affected the way they perceive and describe consequences of past trauma that they experience now. In this article, the reference to the nature and triggers of traumatic memories is very brief, but sufficient to demonstrate some features of Soviet children’s experiences that are stunningly similar to the experiences of other survivors (e.g., see Danieli, 1994), yet different in their social context and history.

Soviet survivors rarely say the word trauma. They are not used to discussing this theme, in particular to being asked about it; their voices were silenced for a long time. The signs of pain that they experience and describe in their narratives have never been interpreted or clinically explained as the consequences of trauma. One of my research participants, Lydia, responded to my inquiry with a clear statement, “I don’t believe in trauma.” However, she also mentioned that “something does remain” from the traumatic impact of the past, even if never shared with others or named explicitly.

As child survivors age, they often experience a painful reawakening of their traumatic memories:

I will tell you: in the past, we worked; we were busy, always running … we did not have time to think. But now, when, as they say, you are already reviewing your life, you return to what happened then. (excerpt from an interview with Fira)

Many participants mentioned that now they perceived their life events in a way that was different from their earlier perceptions. Their returning memories demanded their deeper reflection. One of my participants, Hanna, commented, “I saw it all when I was young, but only now can I really understand it.” The seniors’ narratives revealed intense mental work, in which they were revising their past and making sense of its connection with the present. Other triggers mentioned by the participants included being increasingly exposed to historical information in the media and being asked to retell their stories. The latter was mentioned as a positive factor. According to the survivors, their need to retell was greater than the need to avoid the returning pain.

Some of the survivors reported that as they age, their symptoms have returned after a long absence or worsened, so coping with them was more difficult than before. In some cases, new symptoms appeared, such as intrusive feelings of grief and guilt, increased tearfulness, anxiety, insomnia, or depression. Intrusive, vivid memories and lifelike dreams are among the most frequent experiences. It is noteworthy that many survivors presented the same metaphor as they referred to their intrusive memories. The images from the past were “replayed” in front of them, as if by some internal mechanism that suddenly had turned on in their minds, beyond their control. These images came back, like a film or a series of “snapshots,” which looked graphic and intense, for example, in the following descriptions:

Sometimes the details that come to your mind are such that you get scared, as if it were right here – it is happening right now – you can see it all. Perhaps, the child’s memory photographed it, and the image had been there all that time, stored in some place, but now it is coming back to the surface – at times, at times. Well, I can’t sleep and I am seeing everything, just as if it were all happening today, I see this marching column – all this, you know, it is horrible! This is … well, it is not easy. (excerpt from an interview with Fira)

Well, many things are simply forgotten, or, rather, not forgotten but stored somewhere in the depth of one’s mind, and don’t surface. But sometimes you suddenly recall such things that you are surprised – you’ve thought it was all gone, and some of these things even seem like they’ve happened not to you but to someone else. But it keeps replaying in your mind, again and again, like some fragments of someone else’s [memories], but you know for sure that it was all yours, that it was yours. (excerpt from an interview with Abram)

When the survivors were young, they used to interpret their feelings as a natural emotional component of their lives. Now that they have grown older, they continue to manage on their own. In the context of Soviet history, the questions about the survivors’ awareness or denial of their mental health issues, or about their seeking treatment, are irrelevant. It is unclear why Soviet survivors never sought treatment, or why psychiatric labels were never attached to their experiences. Perhaps, the survivors possessed a strong ability to cope and did not complain. Conceivably, they had no support because of the absence of professional help or recognition in the Soviet Union. Both clinical and social concepts of trauma, as they are seen in the Western discourse, were simply outside of the survivors’ social reality. They speak about their posttraumatic suffering as a painful but ordinary part of their life stories.

Conclusion: Bridging the Gap of Isolation

In the West, child survivors “came out of hiding” (Valent, 1993) and became united in formal, visible groups when they were in their 50s or 60s. For those Soviet child survivors who have begun to openly share their stories, their coming out of hiding did not occur until a much later age. The youngest of these people are now in their 70s.

In the introduction to his book Child Survivors, Paul Valent (1993) described a moment when he clearly realized his identity as a child survivor, after being explicitly recognized as such by Sarah Moskovitz in one of the first conferences of this group. Before that moment, he did not think about himself as a “real” Holocaust survivor.  The author described this experience of being finally able to share his story with the others as follows: “We must have been like two Martians meeting our own kind for the first time” (p. 3). The experiences of Soviet child survivors are distinctive, because this “Martian” discovery did not occur for some of them until very recently, and for many others it never happened at all. Unlike Valent, they have never been told, “You are a survivor.” For many of them the silence has never been lifted.

Many Soviet child survivors are now active and vocal in their home countries and native languages. Many of them, as they age, experience universal signs of reawakening traumatic memories. However, they are still isolated from the West. Because of historical differences, they never acquired the international visibility that their Western counterparts have established for themselves. Furthermore, Russian-speaking survivors who have recently immigrated rarely join local support groups or attend international reunions. Nonetheless, child survivors in the West and in the FSU tell astonishingly similar stories of trauma and resilience, have parallel priorities, and struggle with similar challenges. In addition to apparent differences between Soviet survivors and survivors who settled in North America, there are also many commonalities. Perhaps, there is a need for more efforts to overcome the barriers of language and bridge the gap of isolation.



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[i] Soviet child survivors: I refer to Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust who grew up and lived all their adult lives in the Soviet Union as Soviet survivors (including those aging Russian-speaking survivors who emigrated recently), as opposed to those who settled in the West shortly after the liberation.


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