Life Beyond Despair

Exploring Holocaust Survivors’ Successful Coping and Adaption

By Michelle Fishman

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

―Friedrich Nietzsche

On May 8, 1945, Germany faced its unconditional surrender to Allied forces. With that, the near annihilation of European Jewry, which future generations would come to know as the Holocaust, drew to an end. The remaining Jews were now free, but free in what sense?1 Their exposure to traumatic experiences left an indelible mark physically and psychologically on their being. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient, Elie Wiesel appeared to have been correct when stating, “Time does not heal all wounds; there are those that remain painfully open” (Kellerman, 2000). It has become a well-known contemporary phenomenon that for hundreds of thousands of individuals the Holocaust did not end in 1945 (Hass, 1995, p. xvii). For many, the horrors of their experiences, and the memories of those they loved and lost lingered throughout their lives.

Most survivors suffered unimaginable things too difficult for the unknowing human mind to grasp. In the words of a second-generation Holocaust survivor, “I don’t understand how you can really know, unless you were there, unless you have experienced something of a similar nature. How can you? You can be sympathetic, you can intellectualize it…but can you really imagine the trauma” (Roslyn Keri, Personal Interview, April 13, 2012). Realizing we cannot comprehend what they have been through, or empathize with their pain makes one wonder how, under these conditions, survivors of the Holocaust were able to cope, adapt and move forward after the war. The task seems almost impossible (Hass, 1995, p. 68)2Yet, the fact remains that today, worldwide, there are an estimated 500,000 Holocaust survivors (Alperin, 2012).

According to sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander, “Traumas occur when individuals and groups feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their consciousness, will mark their memories forever, and will change their future in fundamental and irrevocable ways”(Alexander, 2004, p.1). One can only imagine the toll the traumatic experiences of the Holocaust took on the postwar lives of survivors. Efraim Sicher describes the uniqueness of the trauma endured by these survivors in his article “The Future of the Past.” He writes (Sicher, 2000):     

What distinguishes narratives of the aftereffects of the Holocaust from narratives of rape victims, domestic or child abuse and war casualties, including witnesses of atrocities, is, first, the total uprooting from community and familiar landscapes and, second, the compulsive return to the past in order to recover both a personal and ethnic identity that has been wiped out together with the memory of the trauma. For many there are neither graves nor any family photographs of the dead. Children hidden in the Holocaust may have been too young to remember their original families and identities. Mourning work becomes well-nigh impossible… (p. 63)

Over 65 years have passed since what has been classified as one of the most unbelievable horrors of the modern age and the survivors are now nearing the end of their life cycles (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 67). Holocaust survivors are part of a special group of people whose entire life orientation was altered (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 73). The trauma associated with Nazi persecution had a severe impact not only on the psychological state of survivors, but also on their individual and collective identities. Loosely defined personal identity refers to the distinctiveness of the individual as a persisting entity. Collective identity, generally speaking, involves individuals’ sense of belonging to a group. Both forms of identity were severely ruptured by the Holocaust and its aftermath.

A great deal of literature illustrates the effects that Holocaust had on the lives of survivors (Halasz, 2002).The majority of early studies emphasized the inability of this group to deal with the trauma, thus creating psychological ramifications (Greenglass, 2002). Later, psychologists began to highlight the misconceptions among this population based on the early clinical studies and emphasize the more positive aspects of this particular survivorship. As Porter noted in 1981, “Psychologists tend to generalize from small clinical samples and emphasize only the pathological…research on the positive aspects of “survivorship” should be encouraged” (Hass, 1995, p. 70). Despite everything these survivors have been through, many of them managed to adapt successfully to their new lives and environments. Recently, we have seen an emergence of studies focusing on survivors who were able to grapple with their past, and move forward.

The following paper discusses how survivors of the Nazi-perpetrated genocide were able to go on to live successful and well-adapted lives. The work suggests that, although there has been an emphasis on those who were unable to positively progress after their traumatic wartime experiences, the majority of survivors were, in fact, able to move forward and create new lives for themselves despite their suffering. It addresses the profound impact the Holocaust has had on the individual and collective identity of Jewish survivors who left Europe after the war. It claims that, although these survivors faced unbelievable circumstances and many hardships, their individual and collective identities were not destroyed. Instead, this group found ways to use their past to positively restructure themselves. The first part of this paper focuses on the traumatic experiences the survivors faced in their war and post-wartime years. The subsequent half addresses the implication of those experiences on the individual psyche and suggests that not all those who faced persecution dealt negatively with their issues. 

Positioning the Past: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future

Pre-war Identities 

Prior to the rise of extreme anti-Semitism and Nazi ideals, Jewish people across Europe, to some extent, maintained a unique collective identity. In 1933, Eastern Europe – including Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungry and Romania – housed the largest Jewish populations. Many of these Jews lived in predominantly Jewish towns or villages, commonly referred to as shtetls. The majority of Jews in these regions spoke their native tongue, Yiddish, and participated in Yiddish-oriented culture. The Jews in Western Europe, who made up a much smaller amount of the population, were less pronounced in their Jewish ways. Often, they were more integrated into the culture of the surrounding non-Jewish society (Jewish Life in Europe Before the Holocaust, n.d.). 

Many aspects influenced the way an individual would deal with postwar adaption. In the past, psychologists have overlooked examining how early personality development, achievement and family interaction may have affected the capacity of victims to endure (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 71). More recently, psychologists have suggested that life before the war played a crucial role in individual coping and adaption. As they now understand, prewar personalities, predispositions and stressors were as disparate among this group as any and greatly influenced people’s ability to persevere through the horrible experiences during the war and the trauma afterwards (Hass, 1995, p. 2). For example, some of the literature suggests that those who lived in loving, supportive environments prior to the war fared relatively better during and after the Holocaust (Schwartz Lee, 1988).4

Wartime Experiences

In order to assess the position survivors were in after the Holocaust, one must address the conditions they overcame throughout war. Truly comprehending what survivors endured during Nazi occupation is virtually impossible (Eitinger, 1993, p. 5). Thus, attempts to summarize the “Holocaust experience” have at best had limited success. Scientific and personal efforts to understand the effects the Holocaust has had on its victims have produced a large quantity of research. The outcome depicts a vast amount of diversity in experiences. Differences in survivors’ wartime environments and experiences may also account for variation among their later adjustment (Hass, 1995, p. 9). The time scale of the Holocaust varied from country to country. Victims’ experiences included: 

Forced slave labor in mines, factories, farms and battle zones; pogroms in areas occupied by the Nazis and their collaborators; death camps in which degrading living conditions were coupled with technologically sophisticated, organized massacres; hiding in buildings, sewers and forests; fighting as partisans; passing as Christians, with false documents, hidden alone, with relatives, with Gentile families, or in institutions. (Suedfeld et al., 2005, p. 230)

The process of dehumanization inflicted on the Jewish people with the aim of annihilation can, to some degree, be described. This process of breaking individual moral integrity often began long before the transportation to concentration camps and time spent in the ghetto. By 1942, only a few organized Jewish communities were left with their genuine leaders. Once they were deprived of spiritual and political guidance, individuals began to feel isolated. Community solidarity waned and the spirit was undermined from within. For many, “every man for himself” became the motto, and striving for self-preservation became a must in order to survive. This dehumanization, which began in the ghettos, only increased in the concentration camps (Jaffe, 1970, p. 307). It was at this breaking point that not only the individual identity was compromised, but also the collective identity of those who faced these circumstances.

Postwar Problems 

The conclusion of the war did not signify an end for survivors’ problems. Academics alike have established general theories and mechanisms of postwar coping and adaption; however, the Holocaust appears to be somewhat of a unique case. One example of this uniqueness can be seen in the postwar legal measures lack of focus when it came to Jewish victims. Transitional justice measures directly associated with victims that have been applied to various other genocides throughout the twentieth century were not used in the aftermath of the Holocaust. For instance, the Nuremberg Trials, adopted as the transitional justice measures in postwar Germany, were deemed an exercise in international criminal law. Survivors played little to no role in these trials (Levy & Sznaider, 2006, p. 58).5

The aftermath of some major atrocities have been marked by governmental and societal efforts to assemble reconciliation agreements between victims and perpetrators. For survivors of the Holocaust, this aspect was overlooked. The majority of survivors would not reconcile even if given the opportunity, and, for the most part, many chose to emigrate from Europe after the war. Years later, reparation funds were established and made available to some survivors by the German government.  In many cases, it appears that even these efforts of acknowledgement and responsibility on the part of Germany made no difference in terms of individual coping for survivors. As one survivor notes, “Money could never make up for the lives they took from me” (Bess Fishman, Personal Interview, April 13, 2012). It is safe to assume this would be the reaction of the majority of survivors whether they accepted the compensation or not. These examples outline not only the extent of trauma, but also the lack of support survivors received in dealing with their pasts, severely hampering their ability to fully move on (Patterson & Roth, 2004).

Immediately after the liberation, many sought refuge in the DP camps that had been established by the Allied forces across West Germany, Austria and various other places throughout Europe. Often the long period spent by liberated prisoners in the aimless refuge of DP camps continued the debilitating influence (Chodoff, 1997, p. 153). Some attempted to return to their prewar homes, but found many obstacles in place. Many people’s homes had been completely destroyed. Some were taken over by neighbors or strangers who refused to give them back. Their things had been looted, anti-Semitism was still lingering and, for the most part, their families and friends were no longer alive (Eitinger, 1993, p. 6). As one survivor vividly recounts;

Well, when I came to my home town in Slonim, I stayed there for only a few hours. Because immediately I found out that nobody is alive and I couldn’t find anybody. Only thing, I met up with one Jewish fellow…and he was telling me that nobody – no Jews are here in the whole town. And we had a city or town of maybe 20-22,000 Jews. And here you come in and nobody is there, It’s indescribable. You’re coming to…I don’t know, you’re coming to a cemetery. You’re not coming to any place. And it’s very, very painful. It was one of my worst days coming in. And that’s why I never went back, ‘cause the memories of what’s left over is unbearable. So, you’re better off your don’t touch that ground (Life After the Holocaust, Interview with Thomas Buergenthal, p. 11)…And, you know, at the same time all of this I thought was going to lead to my being reunited with my parents. And I never even thought that this wasn’t going to happen (Ibid. p. 4).  

With postwar fantasies of reuniting with family crushed for most, a large majority decided to immigrate to places where they could attempt to start fresh.Palestine, North America, Great Britain and Australia were some of the most sought after countries. However, moving for most meant adjusting to a new environment, customs and a different language (Chodoff, 1997, p. 153). Consequently, immigration experiences and difficulties assimilating into new societies and cultures were interwoven with their long-term recovery process (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 81). 

Starting over in the New World

After the war survivors more than anything else wanted a stable life, a steady job and a nice family (Levy & Sznaider, 2006, p. 57). As many survivors point out in their personal testimonies, starting over in their new lives was not easy. As the literature suggests, the move away from Europe was dramatic: “For many it represented a sudden and permanent severing from their European homelands” (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 85). Historian Franklin Bialystok in his book, Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community (2000) and sociologist and Judaic Professor William B. Helmreich author of Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they Made in America (1992) discuss, in their separate works, the integration of Holocaust survivors into North American society. From their writings, we see a pattern of similar circumstances that can easily be applied to Holocaust survivors integrating into other countries throughout the world. Bialystok notes how, for survivors, the first decade or so after their arrival was dedicated to starting a new life. Their most pressing demands included finding work, learning the language and customs and establishing new networks via landsmanshaften (2000, p. 8).They had little time to dwell on the past. Survivor Thomas Buergenthal exemplifies this notion when he discusses how he was “too busy getting on with his life, college on a full scholarship – New York University Law School. Citizenship in 1957 – marriage two years later” (Life After the Holocaust, Interview with Thomas Buergenthal, p. 7).

Continuing Connections & Revitalizing Relationships

Along with new environments, survivors also had to face the prospect of building new families. Family was a crucial step in moving forward for survivors. After the war there was no greater act that survivors engaged themselves in than marrying and having children (Helmreich, 1992, p. 120). Statistics indicate that approximately 80 percent of Holocaust survivors married another survivor. In the years immediately following World War II, the highest birthrate of any Jewish community in the world was experienced in the DP camps. For survivors having children meant starting over with a clean slate (Ibid.). An American Jewish social worker noted in 1946 that “every third woman among the survivors in the DP camps was either pregnant or pushing a baby carriage” (Silberklang, 2008). These families would soon play a crucial role for survivors establishing new identities. 

Professor Eitinger notes, “The complete breakdown of former family and community ties inevitably caused radical changes in their conception of themselves and this was not easy” (Eitinger, 1993, p. 7). For various reasons, many felt an urgency to marry and bear children. Some were in need of companionship, others wanted to compensate for the losses, but, overall, survivors wanted to combat the plans Hitler had to destroy Jewry by assuring its continuation. Sarah Binder, a survivor, remarked, “People paired themselves, because if you had nobody, out of loneliness, we got together”(Hass 1995, p. 120). The act of starting a family means genuinely opening up and giving yourself to others. Doing so requires certain qualities such as mutual caring, trust and love that one would think a survivor would no longer possess. In wartime, victims became accustomed to knowing only qualities of betrayal, suspicion and hatred (Helmreich, 1992, p. 121). Nonetheless, many were able to overcome these negative perceptions. The fact that so many survivors were able to build new families to any degree of normalcy is quite remarkable in itself. 

Survivors attribute a great deal of their ability to survive to their family and community. In turn, the survivors’ new families and communities became a crucial aspect of their identities. Qualitative interviews conducted by Roberta Greene with 13 Holocaust survivors suggest how people mastered their memories and successfully overcame the trauma of the Holocaust:  

When asked to what they attributed their persistence, respondents gave multiple answers. The interviews disclosed that one of the most important factors related to endurance was family. Lou described how he made it to the end of the war because, “I was going to save my sister. You have a family. You have to go on with life. Today, I live for my grandchildren.” The importance of community and collective responsibility was also noted in the analysis. According to Esther, even in the ghetto, government was created. You know like forming an agency. You’re alive and have to live. You set up a society. You settle down. You find a job. (Greene, 2002, p. 8)

In another study, Schwartz Lee analyzed Holocaust survivors and their internal strengths. The participants were almost all in total agreement that the happiness and rewards they experience now primarily come from their achievements as members of a family or a group of significant others, as well as from the achievements of their children and grandchildren (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 85). According to her findings, “Survivors are especially proud of their children’s achievements as well, which are in various professions, like medicine, law, engineering, television production, geography, library science, accounting, computer science, business management, and manufacturing” (Ibid.). One can postulate from these findings that, for many, individual identity after the war became tied to the idea of family. 

A great loss for survivors was the sense of community they once felt. However, the new communities they established would play a key role in their ability to persist and overcome the trauma. In the DP camps, survivors began to form social groups with others who were from the same town or regions. These groups appeared in larger form once survivors resettled in new places, such as North America. The social connections provided a continuing sense of community with their destroyed lives (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 8). They became sources of identity, where those who had gone through similar experiences – sometimes in terms of war, but mostly in terms of immigration – could come together and support one another.

It was so beautiful to see the camaraderie, how people tried to help one another.  And – and how people cried when they found somebody that the knew – not only relatives but friends, remote friends, people that lived in the same town in the same shtetl and such. Now some of the people that were with us in the underground, were in Bialystok, too… So, everybody drifted, and your friends became your family. It was your extended family. You were like brothers and sisters. Whatever they had to eat they shared with you. You did the same with them, in clothes or in anything. (Life After the Holocaust, Interview with Aron and Lisa Derman, p. 12) 

Reactions to Survivors in their New Environments

The reception awaiting survivors after their successful emigration differed greatly. Survivors were shunned in many countries because people did not want to hear about their past (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 84).As Danieli notes, these experiences further compounded survivors’ sense of isolation and loneliness(Ibid.). The horrors of Fascism and the experiences of the Holocaust seem too difficult for those who were not there to conceive of the cruelties endured. Psychotherapist Helen Schwartz Lee states:

There is a tendency in the normal adult, to ignore facts too painful to integrate into consciousness, and thus implicitly deny them a reality. The Holocaust is too atrocious and inconceivable to entertain in conscious thought for many otherwise clear headed, mature individuals. (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 70)

Alternatively, Danieli suggests that people did not ask survivors about their experiences out of fear of bringing up painful memories for them (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 84). For many, this in turn led to what academics have deemed a postwar “conspiracy of silence.” In essence, this was a fear survivors had of being treated differently or not being believed if they told their stories, so they silenced themselves. Apart from the need of the survivors to forget, the world also had a need not to know. Elie Wiesel has written: 

Had we started to speak, we would have found it impossible to stop. Having shed one tear, we would have drowned the human heart. So invincible in the face of death and the enemy, we now felt helpless. We were mad with disbelief. People refused to listen, to understand, to share. There was a division between us and them, between those who endured and those who read about it. … We thought people would remember our experience, our testimony, and manage to suppress their violent impulses to kill or to hate (Jucovy, 1985, p. 35-36).

Referring once again to the Canadian case, Bialystok notes how the presence of these survivors was a challenge to the community. They had to establish a dialogue that recognized the survivors’ experiences, while at the same time sympathizing with their pain. He explains how “most of the Canadian Jews did not want to know what happened and few survivors had the courage to tell them.” For both groups the main obstacle was the inability to comprehend the events (Bialystok, 2000, p.7). According to many survivors, people were not interested in listening: “Nobody really wanted to know in those days about the past. Nobody asked” (Life After the Holocaust, Interview with Thomas Buergenthal, p. 6). 

Survivors had diverse opinions about retelling the details of their experiences. Some wanted to talk but felt no one could comprehend, while for others, the entire process was just too painful. In separate interviews with two Holocaust survivors the question was posed, “How did you cope with your wartime experiences in your new life?” One discussed the pain behind his silence by saying, “Basically, you didn’t think much about it. I tried to…okay you can’t help but think that you haven’t got your parents; your whole family is wiped out. But you didn’t want to talk about it. It was painful” (Jack Steinmetz, Personal Interview, April 15, 2012). The other responded, “Terrible! Terrible…but I kept everything inside. I didn’t tell anybody because they wouldn’t believe that I survived” (Bess Fishman, Personal Interview, April 13, 2012).  

Most survivors would not speak about their experiences outside their families or landsmenshaften circles, and some were even unable to find the courage to do so in those settings (Bialystok, 2000, p.8). As the previously quoted survivor describes, “I talked with friends, in the same situation. Whenever we got together, that’s all what we talked about. And with the family who brought me here…I didn’t say nothing, because nobody believed. They thought that I’m fabricating” (Bess Fishman, Personal Interview, April 13, 2012). The inability to share their traumatic experiences with the rest of the world caused feelings of isolation and contributed to the formation of survivor-based postwar communities. In their new countries, survivors often settled in close proximity to one another. As a result of their mutual understanding, they often kept to themselves and mainly socialized with other survivors (Lurie-Beck, 2007, p. 84). One can postulate that an almost collective silence helped shape the post-Holocaust identity of survivors. Only they knew what they had endured and this knowing became a common thread between them.

The Aftermath of Trauma

Psychological Scars

Most of what we know of Holocaust survivors is based on case studies of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which drew heavily from Freudian and neo-Freudian theory (Greene, 2002, p.10). Almost immediately after the liberation there was a large interest in uncovering the psychological manifestations of trauma among these survivors. The literature greatly acknowledges the negative psychological effects that surfaced in survivors postwar. Most early clinical studies presented a skewed representation of survivors (Hass, 1995, p. 5).These views became stereotypical, with survivors being categorized as neurotic, which in turn led to feelings of stigmatization (Sigal, 1995). Although these negative psychological characteristics described only the individual psyche of segments of the survivor population, people started to associate these descriptions with the identities of all survivors.

Perhaps the most well known research pertaining to the negative psychological state of Holocaust survivors was conducted in 1964 by William Niederland, a psychiatrist and refugee from Nazi Germany (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 71-72). He described symptoms present in concentration camp survivors and used the term “survivor syndrome” to present his findings. His conclusions included the following attributes manifested in individuals who survived Nazi persecution: 

Chronic anxiety, fear of renewed persecution, depression, reoccurring nightmares, psychosomatic disorders, anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure), social withdrawal, fatigue, hypochondria, an inability to concentrate, irritability, a hostile and mistrustful attitude toward the world, a profound alteration of personal identity, and in many cases, hallucinations and depersonalization (an alteration in the perception of self so that the feelings of one’s own reality is temporarily lost). (Hass, 1995, p. 2)

Leo Eitinger, also a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, observed a similar survivor syndrome. The research of both Niederland and Eitinger changed the course of most psychiatric pronouncements regarding survivors. Studies that followed reported a variety of other symptoms and similar theories (Hass, 1995, p. 2-3). These findings implied that survivors would forever have difficulty establishing close relationships. A basic trust was lost in people because of their own persecution and what they had witnessed. Unconsciously, they were filled with anger because of their parents’ inability to protect them from such devastation. Hypotheses arose which claimed survivors had difficulty “reinvesting in life and were deeply ambivalent about finding new families” (Hass, 1995, p. 3).10

Another negative aspect of survivorship was the way survivors conceptualized the world around them. Some had lost faith in mankind, while others lost faith in rationality. Many survivors had lost a feeling of security in individual identity. The Holocaust greatly affected survivors’ way of thinking, as well as their conception of life and the world. The “Just World Hypothesis,” which psychologists say the average human being believes in, claims, “bad things happen to bad people and because I am a good person misfortune will not befall me.” This way of thinking allows people to make sense of the environment and avoid the anxiety-producing perceptions that the world operates on a random basis. However, because Holocaust survivors generally attribute their survival mostly to luck and not to individual characteristics, they are denied this comforting hypothetical illusion. They realize that “anything can happen to anyone” and this way of thinking has apparently hampered their ability to rebuild trust in the workings of the world or their fellow human beings (Hass, 1995, p.5; Tedeschi, 1999, p. 320).

Overcoming Adversity and Moving Forward 

As previously mentioned, although clinical studies found that trauma hampered survivors’ perseverance, this was, in fact, not the case for the majority of them. The long-range effects of Holocaust experiences on survivors had not been studied in detail until well after the war (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 70). Many of the people being assessed in these clinical settings were those who deemed themselves psychologically disabled and required intervention. However, the majority of Holocaust survivors never sought psychiatric assistance (Ibid.). Much of the existing literature supports the notion that Holocaust survivors remained non-functioning individuals in their new lives. Few have attempted to exploit this myth. Hass reasons that perhaps our failure to focus on the positive adjustment of survivors may be “the fear of permitting the denial of the trauma’s severity.” One feels a pressure to emphasize the subsequent pain of the survivors so that we do not minimize the reality of the previous losses, the horrors and the brutality to which they were subjected (Hass, 1995, p. xv). 

Porter has stated how, in spite of the trauma they have faced, most survivors have adapted relatively well and live fairly normal lives (Hass, 1995, p.70). Aaron Hass describes psychologists’ tendency to focus on the irreparably damaged psyche of the survivors to a point that they were no longer able to function as the rest of us do. He speaks of the survivors he has come across in his lifetime and notes that many of them are not accurately described by this picture of immobilization. Hass describes these observations as “the elasticity of the limits of endurance” (Hass, 1995, p. xi). Subsequently, as a result of these and other similar findings, academics and psychiatrists began to focus on the resilience found in many survivors.

Resiliency among survivor populations then becomes a key aspect in understanding their ability to move forward. Resilience can be defined as a “universal capacity which allows a person, group, or community to prevent, minimize, or overcome damaging effects of adversities…Resilience may transform or make stronger the lives of those who are resilient” (Greene, 2002, p. 3). In a non-clinical study conducted to uncover the late effects of Nazi persecution on elderly survivors, Robinson et al. concluded that, despite the mental suffering, Holocaust survivors succeeded to cope and adjust. Their findings show that these survivors are successful at work and in society; they have also managed to raise warm families (Robinson et al., 1990, p. 311). 

Barbara Schwartz Lee, a Los Angeles based psychoanalyst, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, has argued that survivors have indeed managed to transcend the tragedy they experienced and turn into well-functioning individuals (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 67). She suggests that survivors were not only able to endure the horrors they faced during their persecution, but that they were able to fare considerably well in their new, postwar environments. In her study, she explores how these survivors also had the capacity to view the world around them in a positive and nurturing light, despite their suffering and negative experiences (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 67-68). Schwartz Lee finds that these accommodating techniques included “the creative use of fantasy, recollecting experiences of warmth and love, and identifying the self with a group” (Schwartz Lee 1988, p. 92). She hypothesizes that because these individuals had known love at some point in their lives, they were able to cope with the trauma (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 73). Her study concludes that these survivors had a strong will to persevere and to make something of themselves after their liberation, in spite of considerable difficulties of adjustment to new languages, cultures and environmental requirements (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 78). 

Several theories have been suggested to analyze and understand how survivors of major atrocities were able to live on after trauma. Christopher Lasch describes “coping mechanisms” developed by the individual ego in order to deal with extreme trauma and stress. He points out how, irrelevant of such extremities, a productive life is possible in the case of Holocaust survivors (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 72). Hogman describes how a strengthening of character occurred in surviving victims: “It is this positive character shift, so significant in its empowerment, that challenges us to investigate the factors that enabled some individuals to survive the Holocaust with dignity and then go on to lead successful lives” (Ibid.). Hogman also suggests that the process of coping during the war actually acted as a propelling force in dealing with difficulties they experienced postwar (Ibid.). Hass provides a relatively simple, but, nonetheless, illuminating explanation for the phenomenon of resiliency. Those who were spared in the Holocaust were relatively young. They had the great majority of their lives ahead of them. They wanted to make up for the time and the loved ones they had lost. Hass theorizes, “Perhaps if so much of life was not still there to be relished, perhaps survivors would have given up or been less driven to succeed. Fortunately, their relative youthfulness provided the vigor and desire to do so” (Hass, 1995, p.105).

One theory dealing with the concept of posttraumatic growth suggests that violence may act as a catalyst for positive personal and social transformation (Tedeschi, 1999, p. 320).11 Posttraumatic growth is “the tendency on the part of some individuals to report important changes in perception of self, philosophy of life, and relationships with others in the aftermath of events that are considered traumatic in the extreme” (Tedeschi, 1999, p. 321). According to Tedeschi, part of successful adaption appears to be dependent on developing a personal way to understand the trauma and its aftermath. In the case of Holocaust survivors, one aspect of successful adaption would be the understanding as to why they survived while millions of others did not (Tedeschi, 1999, p. 320).

While many survivors successfully created a functional life after liberation, their intense desires to move forward and not look back did not mean they wished to forget (Hass, 1995, p. xiv). Many survivors had made promises to those who were murdered that they would live on and tell the story of what they had witnessed (Ibid.). Des Pres suggests that many were motivated to survive out of a moral duty to bear witness. In this regard, the survival went beyond individual will and was connected to the need to survive and prosper in the memory of those they had lost (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 73). She notes how a major enabling force to live on after the war was their will to bear witness, and being able to do so was a major accomplishment. For those survivors who spoke out about their experiences and for the ones who continue to do so, their purpose is “to let the world know” (Des Pres, 1973, p. 671).

Identification with their Jewish faith was another definitive way that enabled survivors to give meaning to their suffering (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p.73). The rationality behind religious affiliation postwar varied among survivors. Many immersed themselves in Jewish beliefs, while others chose to renounce themselves from their faith. As Professor Yehuda Bauer notes,   

The Holocaust has had a tremendous impact on this [Jewish identity], but the impact varies in different parts of the Jewish community. For some people, it is a call to return to Orthodox religious observance. For others, it is a call to integrate into the non-Jewish world to avoid such things from happening in the future (Jewish Identity after the Holocaust, n.d.).

Memoirs written by Holocaust survivors and their children also suggest the strong role yiddishkeit played in the postwar lives of survivors.12 For many, yiddishkeit became a defining part of their individual and collective identities. It helped many survivors connect with their past and positively progress.

There were major differences between the self-perceived identity of the survivors and the outsider perspective. Part of the difficulty survivors faced in terms of distancing themselves from feelings of victimization was due to the perception the world had of them after the war. Immediately after liberation, survivors as a whole were victimized by society and their strength in surviving was completely disregarded. Under German domination the Jews were often depicted as “faceless extras in the drama of their own destruction.” This belief of Jews “going like sheep to the slaughter” went beyond German thinking and influenced the minds of many on a global scale. This perception insinuated that Jews themselves were blamed for being victims (Engel et al., 2007, p. 18). As Primo Levi observed,

Among the questions that are put to us [survivors] there is one that is never absent: Indeed, as the years go by, it is formulated with ever increasing persistence, and with an ever less hidden accent of accusation. More than a single question, it is a family of questions. ‘Why did you not escape? Why did you not rebel? Why did you not avoid capture beforehand?’” These queries imply that the victims could have acted differently, and that by not doing so, they were somehow “wrong,” or even worse, might be somehow responsible for their own demise (Engel et al., 2007, p. 18).

Beyond victimization, in worse scenarios, survivors were regarded as inhuman; some people believed that in order to survive, a person must have done unspeakable horrors (Jewish Identity after the Holocaust, n.d.).

The resiliency of many survivors allowed them to overcome this classification of victims and create new, positive self-perceived individual and collective identities. In his research, Des Pres concentrates the purview of the survivors own perspectives based on their inner resilience (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 73). According to Des Pres, any survivor who was able to choose life beyond despair and hopelessness required a special spirit that constituted moving away from the association of being merely a victim (Ibid.). Schwartz Lee agrees with Des Pres findings that these survivors’ faith was rooted in the knowledge that maintaining one’s humanity was the key to survival (Ibid.).

Helmreich notes how survivors of the Holocaust have forged a unique identity for themselves which has influenced their outlook on life and their behavior. For this reason they can be classified as special (Helmreich, 1992, p. 14). As described in the literature, a positive aspect of many survivors’ personalities is their optimistic outlook on humanity and life. Eitinger states that, although survivors may exhibit increased vulnerability to stress situations, “They may also show a greater sensitivity toward fellow humans, a greater capacity for empathy, and a greater appreciation for the higher values in life” (Eitinger, 1993, p. 8).13 Schwartz Lee’s study provides an example of Eitinger’s hypothesis, as he states, “Furthermore, the subjects in this study placed primary emphasis on the importance of making a contribution, of reaching out a hand to a neighbor in need, or of helping a favorite cause or community group” (Schwartz Lee, 1988, p. 85). Professor Bauer addresses this phenomenon by discussing the ability of survivors to reach out to those who face similar circumstances. He comments, “And for yet others, it is a combination of insisting on particularity and extending a hand outside to the general concern of humanity to oppose mass murder and genocide” (Jewish Identity after the Holocaust, n.d.).

Hope for the Future 

While many survivors continued to face difficult times after the war, some fared reasonably well and others remarkably well in their new lives. Their individual and collective identities were greatly influenced by their prewar, wartime and postwar experiences. The outside world had one conception of the survivors, while the survivors’ self-perceived identities were built on strength and resiliency. Although there were many survivors who were able to positively progress, literature surrounding the subject tends to focus on those whose massive trauma had negative impacts on their personality and lives (Hass, 1995, p. 70). In recent decades, studies have shifted and researchers have begun to focus on how and why survivors have subsequently been able to reconstruct their lives (Hass 1995, p. 71). The literature now indicates that “although they understandably report hypochondriacal fears or depressive reactions, there are those among them who have much to teach us about survival and successful coping under unbelievable circumstances” (Hass 1995, p. 73).

As suggested more recently by sociologists and psychotherapists, the success stories of survivors, their triumphs and resilience in overcoming trauma, adversity and change, also need to be held in high regard. In the direct aftermath of the Holocaust, studies analyzing the impact of the survivor experience during the war reflected negative outcomes on the personality and outlook of this group.  Now, over 65 years later, researchers are able to study the complete life cycle of survivors and, as a result, more positive perspectives are surfacing. 

Research conducted since the late 1950s on the impact of trauma on survivors of the Holocaust is not only groundbreaking, but serves as a framework for helping survivors of current and future genocides with successful coping, adaptation and adjustment. As Goldenberg suggests, “Their [Holocaust survivors] interviews can teach us how to help our current clients more effectively as they try to re-establish themselves in the West, rebuild family and community, mourn their losses, and cope with their traumatic memories” (Goldenberg, 2009, p. 18). Clinicians and researchers should continue to focus on the positive aspects of survivorship after massive trauma. The unbelievable resiliency found in many survivors should not be overlooked. 


1The following work discusses only those experiences, characteristics and feelings relating to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. For the purpose of this writing a ‘Holocaust Survivor’ is defined as anyone who resided in a country occupied by the Nazis or faced some form of Nazi persecution between 1938-1945. It also specifically discusses the lives of those who chose to leave Europe after the war.

2At the end of his chapter on “vulnerability,” Hass states that while survivors inordinate vulnerability, ongoing fears of losing people or of dying, what is truly remarkable is that they are not completely paralyzed by their apprehensions. After knowing about what these people were subjected to some may say it’s amazing that survivors are able to function at all.

3Kellermann observed how “during the last four decades, the literature on transgenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma has grown into a rich body of unique psychological knowledge with some four hundred publications.”

4For example, in a 1993 interview commissioned by the Canadian Jewish Congress, Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor, Chaim Fishman, originally from Czestochowa recounts his life in Poland before the war. “Our home was a very loving home.” As is made apparent throughout the remainder of the interview, Chaim was able to adapt and cope reasonably well postwar. He immigrated to Canada with his wife, whom he married in 1946, had children and became finically stable. (Chaim Fishman, April 20, 1993)

5The evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 was unequivocal, however the murder of the Jews played only a secondary role. Levy and Sznaider note how “the verdicts total 226 pages, of which only three deal with the annihilation of the Jews.”

6In a personal interview with Birkenau survivor, Jack Steinmetz, he discusses how he had no desire to go back to his prewar home in Hungary, like so many others he wanted to go to Palestine.

7Loosely defined ‘landsmanshaften’ were institutional responses to immigration. They are organizations designed to aid in the process of integration of immigrant Jews who originated from the same town. They provided a social support network for Jews in their new countries, as well as various forms of financial aid, such as bereavement benefits.

8Experiencing alienation based on their survivor status was more likely for those living in the Diaspora (outside of Israel). For that reason many chose to remain silent to avoiding antagonizing people and harm their successful integration.

9The first systematic reports discussing the long-term negative effects of the Holocaust on survivors were published in the early sixties. Throughout the following fifteen years a flood of publications confirming this view appeared and made its way through the popular press. “In many instances, the discrepancies are due to the observers and the populations they observe. Clinicians look for clinically explicable phenomena and use a clinical-based vocabulary to explain their findings. Reporters and other writers rarely report the good news (Sigal, 1995).”

10Some survivors did not want to become emotionally attached after the war and chose not to have children. Those who maintained this stance feared another precipitous separation.

11Posttraumatic growth is a relatively new area of study in the field of psycho-traumatology.

12Literally translated Yiddishkeit means “Jewishness,” or Jewish way of life.

13An example of this can be seen in a personal conversation with one survivor who described how he would give his reparation payments from the German government for his wartime years in a labor camp to various Jewish and non-Jewish charities. Although he felt a strong tie to Jewish causes, he never put one cause above the other. To him, all human beings were equal and deserved the same degree of support. What is probably most notable about his resiliency was his ability to never lose faith in humanity.

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