Photo: Sardaka/Wikimedia

DO WE HAVE FOCUS? – Supporting Holocaust Survivor Guides and Volunteers at The Sydney Jewish Museum

By Renee Symonds BA Dip. Ed., MA Psych. and Rony Bognar

Abstract

This paper discusses the creation and development of the Survivor Focus Group at the Sydney Jewish Museum (Sydney, Australia). It lists the reasons for its initiation, as well as its development over an eight year period (See Appendix B). The words and feelings of the participants (in bold type and quotation marks) are a special and meaningful inclusion. Note that this paper is not, and never was, a formal research study. Rather, it is a narrative of the group’s evolution and development. The ideas of Irving Yalom (1975 & 1980) and Dr Judith Herman (1983) were incorporated into the group’s nurturing environment over the years. Organizations considering the formation of such a group will be able to extract ideas of “do’s and don’ts” as they read this paper.

Background information

 “I will have the Holocaust in my heart forever. However, the group has changed something in my thinking.”

The Sydney Jewish Museum’s Survivor Focus Group, a group of our Survivor Volunteers who meet every second month at the Museum, is unique in the world. We are fortunate to currently have 32 active Holocaust Survivors Guides who tell their stories. They share their histories with school students of all ages, tertiary students, home-schooled students, Jewish and non-Jewish hospital staff, trainee staff of health agencies, teachers, university lecturers and high-ranking police officers.

Initiation of the Group

By 2006, our Survivor Guides had been telling their “story” for 10-15 years on a regular basis.  At that  time, Renee Symonds (Clinical Psychologist) and Rony Bognar (Sydney Jewish Museum’s Volunteer Manager) realized that they had the following concerns:

  1. How did ongoing “guiding” affect the Survivor Guides in the museum and in their private lives?
  2. How could the museum protect and encourage the guides to age well, given their traumatic pasts, while remaining active participants in the museum?
  3. Would it be beneficial for them to belong to a safe ongoing group?
  4. What role would the facilitators have in such a group?
  5. What would be the most thoughtful and empathic exit from museum “guiding”, should the survivors choose to or be required to do so?

In order to address these concerns, it was decided to conduct two initial meetings with small groups of Holocaust Survivor Volunteer Guides to:

  1. determine whether there was a need to provide more support to the survivors
  2. explore the long-term effects of “guiding” on the guides themselves.

Formation of the Survivor Focus Group

As a result of these meetings, Renee Symonds and Rony Bognar saw that a Survivor Focus Group would greatly benefit these very special volunteers of The Sydney Jewish Museum. Its formation was seen as a provision of responsibility and duty of care to their volunteer Survivor Guides. With seed funding from the JCA (Jewish Communal Appeal – a State-wide partnership with 22 organizations for fundraising and support purposes), the Survivor Focus Group was established.

Many of the survivor volunteers were reluctant to join the group initially and assumed that this group was going to “counsel” them about their traumatic experiences.  In fact, the group members still call it the “focus-pocus group,” implying some unconscious and magical impact. This was not the intention, nor was it the result of the group. It is interesting to note that during the group,  members only ask “Have we got Focus today?” They never identify the purpose of their  meetings as being anything else, as if there is a regular need to have a focus on themselves and their history.

The Nature of the Group

This volunteer group was, and still remains, committed to the “duty” they feel about “telling” their story while respecting and confronting their memories. The group’s participants share many aspects of their personal lives with each other, which are not only Holocaust related. The group is a “safe place” in which to open up and share their feelings and experiences. Within the group, there is a complex mirroring process of cohesion and intimacy between the members. Our group is characterized by each participant extending themselves to others, being able to accept what others offer with compassion and tolerance.

Each two hour meeting, held in the museum’s classroom space, also acts as a protective boundary. It acts as a filter to reassess the survivors’ resilience and ability to keep volunteering, thereby assisting in extending their longevity as guides by ensuring that they are not alone in this highly emotional process of telling their story. The museum and the community continue to derive great benefit from receiving their first-hand testimonies.

The Role of the Facilitators

Renee Symonds and Rony Bognar continue to facilitate the group and 12 participants attend regularly.  Both facilitators acknowledge that:

  1. Their role is to explore the issues and concerns of the participants in a confidential and empathic environment.
  2. Differences of opinion within the group are accepted and tolerated in a protective and welcoming environment. This might include ensuring that each survivor knows that their personal story is unique.
  3. Their role includes allowing survivors to talk about their stories and suffering while ensuring that discussion then moves on to their survival and life achievements.
  4. The most significant development has been a shift away from a directed group to a self-directed group (c. 2010).

It is important that conflicts within the group do not become traumatic events and that there is no enacting of the roles of perpetrator, accomplice, bystander, victim or rescuer. The group’s structure must protect all against any traumatic re-enactments.

The participants often express their gratitude to the facilitators for creating and upholding this environment. They feel cared for by responsible facilitators, engaged in shared leadership, providing a haven of safety in a trusting climate. The greatest privilege for each survivor and for the facilitators is that they share a part of themselves.

“Listen to our survivors and listen well, they have more to teach us than us them.” (Krystal, 1978).

The participants of the group determine the issues they wish to share and discuss.  This has helped the survivors “override” the daily pain of their memories, by taking ownership of the group.

The Effects of the Meetings on the Survivor Volunteer Guides

  1. Developing friendships and bonds within the group

 “What this group means to me? A journey into myself, this helps me to be less vulnerable.”

“….it felt good to hear that everyone has similar issues.”

“You are my brothers and sisters, my family.”

The sustained engagement in the group and the developed friendships have helped bond the group tightly. In 2010, the group expanded by welcoming the participation of all current volunteer survivors at the museum. Previously, this group had been restricted to volunteer guides only.

  1. Opportunities for individual and group expression

“I love to come to the group – it cleanses the soul.”

To mark the 20th anniversary of the museum in 2012, the group expressed a need to “send a message” to future generations. This project was enthusiastically developed and embraced, resulting in a pamphlet containing individual messages from the survivors. This gave them the opportunity to express their inspirational thoughts, as well as to find comfort in the knowledge that they were not alone.

  1. Initiating special programs

“I want and need to teach others of my history, for them to remember me!”

“I tell the young and old about survival, of friendship, tolerance and understanding.  Our stories will stay in their hearts…”

The Survivor Focus Group also initiated the “Remember Me” program in 2012. The idea for the program came from one of the group’s participants and its purpose was to give the Jewish and non-Jewish communities the opportunity to hear a story of survival. Once a month, a survivor would address an audience of up to 200 people at the museum. Advertising for this program reaches the general public as well as the Jewish community. The audience is asked to commit to remembering the speaker. A pocket-sized card with the individual survivor’s photo and signature is given to everyone who attends. The audience, in turn, is asked to sign the card and keep it to remember the survivor. Today, this is one of the museum’s most successful programs.

  1. Providing a safe space for survivors to tell their story – when they are ready

I wanted to show that evil can be overcome…..”

This year, a 96 year old participant of the group wanted and needed to tell her story publicly for the first time through the “Remember Me” program. This was another truly amazing and rewarding achievement for this survivor to speak out to a capacity audience of 200 people.

  1. A step towards reconnection

It was impossible to go past the theoretical underpinnings of Dr. Judith Herman’s seminal work, “Trauma and Recovery, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” when considering the Survivor Focus Group and its achievements.  In her chapter, “Reconciling with Oneself (p. 202),” Dr. Herman names three essential stages in the survivor’s celebration of themselves:

1) A sense of reconnection with others

2) Reconciling with oneself and a reconciling with others

3) An ability to feel trust in the other person and withdraw trust when not feeling that trust.

This process was a huge task for survivors that incorporated creating a new identity by having life initiatives and allowing for deepening relationships. When the survivors had children, they had to consider how best to share their traumatic story, or to remain silent. What was also critical for some later on was to find a way of making use of their experiences and horrific memories to educate the public so that such atrocities would never occur again.

Survivors gained strength from early participation in meaningful Holocaust remembrance events before the Sydney Jewish Museum opened its doors in 1992. To be able to stand up in public and speak their truth without fear of consequences was another achievement.

  1. Assisting survivors to fulfil what they considered to be their “duty:”

I told my story to a group of students – their reaction and the gratitude of their teacher made me realise that I have a duty to talk.”

For our Survivor Focus Group there was and is a “joy” in the knowledge that evil has not prevailed and that they have survived, produced families and new generations. The resolution of their trauma can never be final and their recovery can never be complete (Herman, p211), as there will always be a “resurgence of traumatic memories (Herman, p212).” We know that traumatic memories never vanish.

In considering the uniqueness of each survivor and their survival experience, the facilitators had to ensure that no participant was isolated or alienated by the formation of the group.

Irving Yalom wrote widely about groups, indicating the adaptive spiral most powerfully occurring in a group setting (Irving Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, 1975, p 216), explaining that group acceptance increases each member’s self-esteem and that survivors do better in groups than in individual therapy.

Unintended Consequences of the Survivor Volunteer Group

All participants in the group are leading constructive, more meaningful lives through their museum volunteering.  Renee Symonds calls this “purposeful living” and says, “Imagine we here today would like to be living purposefully into our 80’s, let alone 90’s!”

The idea of telling one’s story within the group has the public testimony aspect of one’s history being witnessed.  A group can help the individual to enlarge his/her story from isolation into the fullness of the larger world. Many are able to take emotional risks, perhaps beyond what they believed they were capable of. We do not aim at uncovering trauma, yet if it happens to surface there is trust and space to address all issues. The group is supportive, not trauma focused. We address the common aspects of life; we provide a place for each member to be known by their name and not by a number.

The strength of the group dynamic produced the following unintended beneficial results:

  • A brochure: A collection of individual contributions to future generations in the form of messages to honour remembrance. The brochures are distributed widely, and are also sent to all school groups that visit the museum and that attend museum functions.
  • A book of poetry and verse: It is entitled “What the Group Means to Me.” Heartfelt comments were expressed with humour and charm.
  • The Remember Me Program: See Appendix A.
  • Several articles: These were written about the Survivor Focus Group in Jewish publications.
  • An article written in the Good Weekend Magazine: This article appeared in an Australia-wide newspaper (Harari, 2013). It detailed two of the group participants’ Holocaust experiences as well as defining the group’s purpose.
  • Several participants were invited to speak in the wider community: Most recently, a Survivor was asked to be the key note speaker at the Shoah Commemorations 2013 in Hong Kong.
  • Several of the participants of the group have received prestigious awards: Some awards were presented by the Australian Government for their services to Holocaust education.

Conclusion

Within the group, we have travelled through the trauma to a place of recovery in Dr. Judith Herman’s terms. Answering the title of our paper “Do we have Focus?” we must say a resounding YES!

From their knowledge, wisdom and diversity of experience, the survivors have been able to use their creativity and resilience in constructing their post-Holocaust lives. Much physical, mental and emotional scaffolding had to be erected. Survivors have answered as much as they are able to about their past and now it is about their future. This requires refocusing their lives on the external, their social connections and daily satisfaction. Our Survivor Focus Group supports them in this desire at this stage of their lives.

Where to next? We must go where the group leads us!  Humour, camaraderie, sadness, pain and reflection accompany our journey. The duty expressed is not to be silent, but to be courageous and pass on what was lived and witnessed.

“’Focus’ is a small group and a little name, But, for us, it is a meeting place to put the world to shame.”

References

Bukiet, Melvin Jules (2002). Nothing makes you free: Writings by descendants of Jewish Holocaust survivors. W.W. Norton, New York

Davidson, Shamai & Charny, Israel W & Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide (Jerusalem) (1992). Holding on to humanity–The message of Holocaust survivors: The Shamai Davidson papers. New York University Press, New York

Epstein, Helen (1979). Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with sons and daughters of survivors. Putnam, New York

Harari, Fiona (2013). The Last Survivors. The Good Weekend, in The Sydney Morning Herald,  April 6.

Hass, Aaron (1995). The aftermath: Living with the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York

Herman, Judith Lewis (1993). Trauma and recovery. The Aftermath of violence–From domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books

Hoffman, Eva (2004). After such knowledge: memory, history, and the legacy of the Holocaust. Public Affairs, New York

Krystal, H. (1978). Trauma and effects. The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child, 81-116.

Valent, Paul (1999). Trauma and fulfillment therapy: A wholist framework. Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, PA

Wardi, Dina (1992). Memorial candles: Children of the Holocaust. Tavistock/Routledge, London ; New York

Yalom, Irvin D (1975). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (2nd ed). Basic Books, New York

Yalom, Irvin D (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books, New York

Appendix A

 

1992
Sydney Jewish Museum opens – From this time, Survivor Volunteer Guides (in varying numbers) started telling their stories

 

2006
Initial meetings to determine if a Survivor Focus Group would be beneficial to the Survivor Volunteer Guides

 

First monthly meetings of the group are held

 

2010
The Group is widened to include all Survivor Volunteers (no matter what department or area of volunteering)

Meetings continue but are held every two months (a decision of the group members)

 

2012
20th Anniversary of the Sydney Jewish Museum

Initiation of the Remember Me project (the idea of a participant of the group)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix B

This is a double-sided card.

 

 

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