Photo: Abba Richman

Looking Back, Being Here and Glimpsing at the Future: Eleven Years in the Life of a Group of Women Survivors, Under the Auspices of AMCHA

by Aviva Lion

Introduction

In March 2003, I arrived on the doorstep of Yoram Amit, director of Amcha in Rehovot. In a very unimposing office, here was the person who would introduce me to the fact that I was a Holocaust survivor. The facts about my life and the Holocaust I knew – but I never connected them to an identity as a survivor. I think it’s probably because, in my mind, Holocaust survivors were only people who had been in concentration camps.  And, in the 1950s, when Israel was a young country, being a survivor was not something you bragged about:  “G’vurah was added to Shoah – valor, courage!”

This meeting with Yoram was to be the beginning of a path of self-discovery and of deep personal and professional engagement that has now been going on for 11 years, on the eve of my reaching the respectable age of 85.

Would I be willing to lead a group of female Shoah survivors living in a religious community, Yoram asked me. Yes! There, Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) women would be invited to join a group led by Amcha  at the Center for the Elderly.

I was to be accompanied by Ronit, a local, younger social worker who had just received her B.A. from the University of Bar Ilan. Ronit, a sabra, was already known to the potential future members of the group. She had a similar religious orientation as they did; she was a mother of six and expecting another baby.

Amcha had conducted many groups of survivors over the years across the country, but as far as I knew, none with Haredi women. For me, the issue of the centrality religion held for these women was a problem. I was not observant; certainly not in my future clients’ ways of life and attitudes. At the same time, I was very familiar and comfortable with the rules of conduct and beliefs of the women. I shared with Ronit these facts, my background and family ties which would allow me to understand their ways of life and attitudes.

I stipulated two principles upon which I would conduct myself as the group facilitator:

  •  respect their way of life and dress in a way that would not be offensive, such as wearing skirts and long-sleeved tops;
  • not to mislead them by covering my hair or to murmur blessings at coffee break.

But I would certainly, and with a full heart, join the group in a prayer for a child recovering from an illness.

Ronit and I were aware of our differences. We were certainly different in age, family status, and in professional and personal life experiences. But we seemed to have a common ground: respect – and I can say now, after 11 years of working together – a deep caring for people and enthusiasm for the opportunity that was offered to us; that is, seeing that we could contribute to the well-being of people who have had so much suffering in their lives. By acknowledging our differences, a bridge was built that became a gift to our group as well as to us. I was very familiar with the fact that “acknowledgment of differences” was a positive attribute in building adoptive families’ life: facts that I learned personally from David Kirk’s well-conducted research in his book “Shared Fate.”

After getting to know each other, we agreed to have Ronit conduct an “intake,” in which she would offer each woman information about the group so they could make an informed decision as to whether to join. After Ronit met with all potential participants, 12 of them decided to join.

We assumed there were three factors that contributed to their decision to join the group, as these factors provided a sense of trust and safety:

  • The group was to work under the umbrella of Amcha, which was known to them as an organization dedicated to the welfare of Holocaust survivors;
  • They would meet at the familiar Center for the Elderly (to which they would get transportation). The Center, a place well-known to all for being religious and for its excellent and warm atmosphere and care;
  • They knew Ronit, who would be there with her direct and empathetic attitude.

A date was set for the first meeting.

The Scope

The purpose of this essay is to shed light upon a special group of Haredi, ultra-religious women. They did not request help from the agency, however it was the agency (us) that was offering them this experience. Nevertheless, it was our purpose to attempt to bring relief to conscious or unconscious pain and memories. These women did not ask for help. We came to them.

The purpose was not part of careful planning, but grew out of the meeting between the group and ourselves, in consultation with Amcha’s director in Rehovot. We decided to listen carefully and use our experience, in order to understand and let them teach us who they were, what they needed and expected. “Never assume,” as Virginia Satir, a well-known family therapist taught: Never assume; always check.

We discovered what we planned was in accordance with Amcha’s mission.  “Amcha was founded in 1987 by a group of devoted Holocaust survivors and mental health professionals, led by the late Manfred Klafter. Aware of the survivors’ distrust of clinical psychiatry, they decided to focus on non-material, psychosocial and largely preventative support, rather than on mental health treatment per se. The goal was to create a framework for mutual aid, memory processing and grief resolution, as well as a place where survivors and their families could feel at home and be understood. Amcha, the code word that helped survivors identify fellow Jews in war-ravaged Europe, now stands for another kind of support system: the opportunity for survivors and their families to unburden their hearts and share their life stories with another person.”

So, our plan was clear: We were there for these Haredi women survivors to strengthen their self-respect, to help them build a sorority despite the differences between them, and to encourage sharing from the past and present in a way that would relieve pain and guilt. During the years of the group, we got to know the women’s potential to adapt and develop (despite their age) and we responded to the challenge by opening doors to new ideas and experiences, some of which were not always readily accepted by them.

It was a tall order – and it went on for 11 years. Over the years, memories sometimes took on new and different perspectives. Our tools were to listen and connect and, if possible, see what could help. Later on in this essay, some of these  women will be introduced, and their stories included with more detail.

The Structure

The first group meeting was scheduled. At this point, we decided that we needed a clear structure, at least in the beginning. The structure ended up serving us well for 11 years.

We decided to divide the two hours allotted to us into two parts. The first hour would be for sharing, in which every member would share at every meeting an event, a thought, a problem that arose in the last few days, a simcha, an encounter, a response. A member would never go home without having had the chair, feeling present and a part of the group. For a few moments, each woman would be the only one,a feeling that all children have. And the child in us, even the old ones, still exists.

The first hour could not be interactional because of the time limit of 50 minutes, in which 12 women had to speak. But it didn’t mean that short comments were not welcome. The second hour, after the coffee break, was devoted to a discussion of an issue that grew out of comments made in the first hour, or meaningful current issues of interest. Sometimes films were shown to highlight issues that were discussed, such as the film “A Chinese Family in America,” in an attempt to universalize feelings and conflict in family life. When childhood memories came up, we invited, at different times, two guest speakers who were child survivors who shared with the group their stories and insights.

In the first hour, comments such as, “I have nothing to say” were met with encouragement to speak, and it often ended with a very important message.

In the second hour, after the coffee break, discussions came from current issues, comments in the first hour, or issues raised by the group or Ronit and me.

Problems occurred when someone in the first hour spoke of an event or issue of importance that needed to be dealt with in depth, so we would bring it up again for further discussion in the second hour.  In order to help the participants follow this structure, we used a technique from the couples therapy method Imago to build an imaginary shelf where we would put issues aside for the second hour. The more in-depth issues were multi-faceted, such as current events, intergenerational memories and conflicts, health, anxieties regarding family members, the future, and the threat of going downhill in old age. The problem with the structure was that the shelf piled up and it was evident that we would never be able to clear it.

Two weeks after our first encounter, Ronit and I were ready for our first meeting with the group. Beyond the planning of the basic structure that has been said, and which has served us well for 11 years, were the seating arrangement and our approach. Sunday was the day that the Center was available for our meeting (from 10 a.m. to noon).

The First Meeting

Sunday came and we arranged the chairs in a circle so that everyone would be facing each other. The circle would be a new experience, we thought, as in other situations such as in the synagogue, the Center for the Elderly, workshops, and lectures, the attending people sit in a row. Ronit sat across from me and it was our agreement that we could intervene at any point and make comments when needed. Ronit welcomed the group and then I introduced myself.

I was brief: I told the group I was a widow and a grandmother. I came to Palestine from Europe in August 1944; a Youth Aliyah graduate; for more than 45 years I was a social worker working at the absorption department of the Jewish Agency and later at the Ministry of Social Affairs dealing with issues of children at risk and families; since 1986 until retirement I was the Director of Adoption Services. I volunteered for the Defense Ministry during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, dealing with wounded soldiers and bereaved families. Having said that, I was hoping it would offer a small basis for building a bridge, with some similarities in background and an indication of expertise.

No remarks or questions were made. Then I invited the group to introduce themselves. I looked up and in front of me were 12 elderly women with covered hair. But, in my imagination I saw 12 young girls with open faces and eager eyes. This image of young girls probably came, maybe as a result, of having thought so much about their beginnings and/or having worked with children that were hurt.

Then, there was utter silence! Finally, one participant volunteered![1] Gittel seemed younger than the others.  All smiling faces turned to her. She spoke with ease and a soft voice.  She was brief. (Later, I learned how loved and respected she was by the members of the group.)

Said Gittel: “I was 10 when the sounds of trouble started to shake our lives. I was born in a small town in Poland and had an older sister. Father was a working man studying Talmud in the evening. Mother was a housewife but occasionally worked outside the home. Father’s parents lived in the same town; Mother’s in another community.

“After a few days of watching my worried parents’ faces and listening to their voices, we heard soldiers’ feet pounding the ground on the street under our windows. There were noises, shouts – fear! And then, after a few days of upheaval, Jewish men were taken to the Umshlakplatz. Father didn’t come back: We waited,” she said.

“Then without much explanation, Mother took me and my sister to a neighboring farmer. She left me there with an older cousin, taking my sister with her. She promised to come back. I waited… she never came back.

“My cousin and I lived in a tiny room in the farmer’s attic for three years; we had no idea what was happening or went on. From time to time we were harshly reprimanded to be quiet, especially when commotion was heard from the outside. Now and again, the farmer threatened to throw us out. Probably when the money my mother paid him ran out. Food was scarce; we were hungry, frightened and worried.

“After three years, when the atrocities stopped, I went to what I remembered was home. Nobody was there! I asked neighbors and did not get an answer. Then I tried looking for relatives and found an aunt in a different community. After spending a few days with her, without receiving any new information, I was sent to a camp and joined a children’s group. Life changed; we talked, we danced, we sang with Jewish Brigade soldiers who taught us Hebrew songs. Strangely enough we were happy and felt safe.

“Then the idea coming to ‘Eretz’ started becoming a reality. Exodus!” Saying “Exodus” her voice changed, with a tremor of excitement. (Later in the life of the group we learned from her and three other women what the experience of Exodus meant to them.) Being a passenger on the SS Exodus was being part of; belonging; an existence of meaning. “To build and to be built,”- a land called Eretz Israel, a place her parents dreamt of finally becoming a reality. Then very briefly Gittel discussed the process of being sent back to Germany and waiting there to come “home” again.

Gittel joined a kibbutz belonging to Poalei Agudat Yisrael with friends she met on the road to Eretz Israel and on the SS Exodus. On the kibbutz, she met her future husband, a survivor from Hungary, already serving in the Israeli army. The kibbutz is the community where she lives and some of her neighbors were her companions in Germany and on the Exodus.

The couple had four children, one of whom is now a widow; only one son and his family live in the same neighborhood. Her husband, a very learned man in Judaism and quite knowledgeable in other topics, was a hardworking man and rode a motorcycle an hour to work every day. Now he is retired and not very healthy. Gittel is a practical nurse now working part-time at the Center for the Elderly as a volunteer.

What I gradually came to learn was that the members of the center would wait at her door to have their blood pressure taken, to ask a question, to have a word with her or to get a soft reprimand, although next door there was a medical clinic.

The group at Gittel’s door were made up of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews alike and attended different activities together, except for the survivors’ group.

Eight minutes for a lifetime. The little forsaken child of10 – now a woman of more than 70, a loved authority and respected by all for her wise, kind and knowledgeable attitude.

So, 11 women followed in her footsteps and spoke about where they came from, what their path of despair and suffering was and where they are today. It was a brief story of the past, interwoven from time to time with a statement revealing the wealth of a disappeared world and some facts about the present.

Fathers and Daughters

I had a faulty conception of the relationship of Haredi fathers with their daughters; that they kept their distance and were not closely involved in the girls’ upbringing. From the stories of the women in the group I was proven to be very wrong. Here are some of the stories.

Lilly, a twin, remembers how much she enjoyed sitting on her father’s lap, and at the same time how she looked up to him. Her father was a respected rabbi in two communities he had served. She recalled that upon arriving in Aushwitz her father commanded his daughters, “DO EVERYTHING, BUT EVERYTHING, TO STAY ALIVE! This is the biggest mitzvah!” Lilly and her sister understood well what their father was telling them and guiltlessly followed his command.

It is my impression that Lilly developed an attitude over the years of self-preservation in her embracement of life; i.e. she makes full use of the library reading books with the freedom of mind without excluding books that would have been perhaps otherwise prohibited. It seemed that she has built a certain distance from problematic issues and is successful in her optimistic outlook.

Somehow, her father’s words were there for her to let her enjoy life and at the same time remain faithful to the basic principles she was taught at home.

The second story is somehow different: a child’s memory of her father’s voice. The voice came from the kitchen before sunrise; Faiga was still in bed so were her siblings. The voice of her father had a low melody, a niggun; he was studying Talmud! Faiga listened carefully and heard her father moving about, heating the (ice-cold) water, so he could wash his young children’s hands before saying the morning prayers. The father was a farmer and they lived in a poor community in Slovakia.

When talking to the group Faiga spoke with pride that although she was one of the youngest siblings, she always volunteered and rushed to take on tasks for the family. In the group she is sometimes addressed as “Queen Elizabeth” for her majestic behavior.

Faiga always speaks rationally and not emotionally. First there was Auschwitz, and her later life experiences were hard. She told the group that one of the reasons she chose her husband was that he, not being a survivor, had two parents. All her married life she enjoyed living with them. She and her husband have several children, including three sons; all three men have dedicated their lives to Torah learning. Faiga does not have a close relationship with her sons and she sometimes feels guilty for not being as stringent in her ways as her three sons are. One of her daughters is very close to her and in many ways takes care of her. This daughter and her family built a house where Faiga has a small unit of her own.

Another tale is that of Shaina and her father. Shaina, who grew up in Transylvania, passed the corridor in her home and heard her father’s voice singing a niggun to his lastborn while rocking his crib. Her father was a melamed and also had rabbinic credentials. Opening the door, Shaina’s father invited her to come in and asked her to continue humming the niggun and told her to never forget it. She never forgot.

Shaina was 13 when she was sent from Transylvania to an aunt in Budapest out of fear that her Hungarian neighbors would harm her. Not long after, her father, feeling threatened, also fled to Budapest and joined her. One day as they were walking together, Shaina felt wet, saw blood and broke into tears. Her Haredi father hugged her, holding her close and trying to soothe her. Don’t cry, he said, we will soon get to nenny, (aunt in Hungarian) she will know what to do. None of Shaina’s family survived.

Shaina was loved and respected by everyone in the group for her warmth and positive approach to life. She always had high spirits, was optimistic and was trusting. She had health problems and had to leave the group after three years. On a visit to her home, after she was missing for a few weeks from the group, I told her husband how much we missed her and how beloved she was. Her husband, with all his rabbinical status, said to me, a strange woman: “No one can love her more than me!”

Now, seven years after moving away, she is often mentioned and contact is kept with her. As for the niggun, Shaina told us that she taught all her children and grandchildren the melody and at all family gatherings – and there were many – it was sung.

We spoke of fathers relating to their daughters; now we bring a saga of daughters and a father, a dialogue reflecting the warm and respectful interaction as well as a tragic Jewish story. It was one of the daughters, Basha, who told it to the group.

We were used to Basha’s sharp humor and sometimes she made us laugh wholeheartedly. For example, as she had five sons and no daughters, we asked her whether she ever wished for a daughter. Basha, known for her close relationship with her five daughters-in-law, three of them of Iraqi Jewish origin, responded almost whispering; yeah I would like that, so as to be able to gossip about the daughters-in-law.

It was a day before Shavuot. The group was discussing how to make blintzes and those who were born in Hungary piped up, “palatzenta.” Then Basha suddenly said, “Oh, it is before Shavuot! On Shavuot we were put on the train to Aushwitz! Our father suddenly exclaimed “it is yom tov and we are on a train”; they knew where they were going. He was very upset. One of his four daughters, trying to console him, said, ”Tatte, today is the second day of yom tov. In Israel it is no longer yom tov, and you always wanted to revisit grandmother’s grave in Tzfat. So, it is okay to be on a train.” Father calmed down a bit and exclaimed,” then I have to put on my tefillin.” That same daughter rushed to the bag which was packed in a hurry, where the tefillin were supposed to be and she could only find the hand tefillin. Father said, “Where is the rosh, the head?” The daughter answered her father, ”YOU ARE THE ROSH.” Basha told the story with her usual humor but with a sad face. From a family of eight, only she and a sister survived.

Sadly, Basha passed away a few years ago and her daughters-in-law asked me to come to the last day of the shivah where they prepared, according to their customs, a rich meal. The family invited me to share with them their mother’s journey through the Holocaust.

 Who Are These Women?

The process of writing this paper clarified for me that there was another purpose of the group, that of  to introduce these women to a society in which they are a minority; they are Holocaust survivors; they are women; they are here in Israel; and are part of the builders of a new society, which knows very little about them. We did let them speak about themselves and followed the process of changes, adjustments and opening new vistas without being in conflict with their basic beliefs and principles.

Looking back – they are not only survivors, but child survivors, as almost all of them had not reached the ripe age of 17. They came from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Karpathian mountains, Romania, and the majority from Hungary. Most of them were sent to Aushwitz, and two were sent to Transnistria (a story not yet told enough).

One woman came from Germany via Palestine to which she immigrated with her parents in 1933. Newlywed and pregnant, Miriam and her new husband landed in Holland to lead a camp for young men and women waiting for certificates from the British to make aliyah. Two years later the young husband, a rabbi, who insisted on being called by his first name on their kibbutz (as he saw himself as a laborer like all the others) was sent to a concentration camp. Miriam stayed on to lead the camp, often courageously facing German authorities passing as a German. After five years in Holland, she and her three little boys were exchanged for the German Templars from Tel Aviv-Sharona. She told her amazing story in a book which Yad Vashem helped to be published. Her children recently celebrated her 100th birthday.  She was with the group for almost five years.

Miriam told her story with humor and high spirits. The group will never forget how she emphasized not following the German officers’ instruction to stop behind the line and come closer to their table. Her dramatic stories were successful and therapeutically reinforced the women’s own self-respect by inviting them to share their small but dangerous acts of courage.

Basha, who spoke about palatzenta for Shavuot and being on a train to Aushwitz also talk about another story: One night she heard crying from the hole in the ground used as a toilet. Following the sound of crying, she crawled out of the barrack. A young woman was giving birth, and Basha remembered that she held her hand trying to soothe her until the inevitable end. Then Basha said to the group, “so how did I help?” I said, “Basha, do you know what it meant for the young woman in her loneliness and despair to have someone hold her hand?”

When Basha turned 95 years old, she began to decline mentally. The Center asked us whether she should continue coming to the group. We consulted with the rest of the women. The group’s response was that she should stay as long as it is her wish and as long as we could preserve her dignity.

So again, who were these women?

  • Young girls – growing older and still in many ways young.
  • Almost all had their stories published recently with the help of the community and ghostwriters. Writing the books opened an avenue for dialogue with their children and grandchildren, a dialogue they had not had in the past. (It is a well known fact that survivors were hesitant in opening up and telling their children about their Holocaust experience in order not to hurt them and perhaps as a way to avoid self-inflicting pain. Beyond the important technical assistance, we might assume that telling the group about themselves – a fact that began at the first meeting and continued for 11 years- allowed this to happen.)

In our discussion with the group an attempt was made not to stay with the Holocaust experience only, but to go beyond and help bring back prior childhood memories and when needed, new meaning. At a certain point we introduced another road to positive ways to look back at the past.

Introducing the idea of a psychodrama scene in words only.

We bring two small dramas.

A woman who had been recently widowed (now 88 years old), told the following story: “When we got off the train in Auschwitz, my very venerated rabbi father was barefoot! I quickly returned to the wagon, found his shoes, came down and put them on his feet. Someone passing by exclaimed, “who is this girl?” My father raised his eyes to me and said, ”she is my mezinikle– my youngest.” These were the last words I heard my father say.”

Another small drama: Magda from Hungary was 2 years old when her mother was sent to a concentration camp. Her father was also absent, as he was taken to the Munka Tabor (forced labor) work regiment. Magda was left in the care of non-Jewish employees of her father’s business for two years. She felt abandoned and angry. This anger was to remain as a wound for her entire life. She never forgave her mother for what she perceived as abandonment, something her mother never understood, but her mother reciprocated by distancing herself from Magda. Her mother returned when Magda was 4 years old and later remarried.

Magda volunteered to talk about her story (she is an Adlerian Seminar graduate) and often her remarks are very much to the point. “I was 11 and came to visit my grandmother. She was sitting at the table. On the table there was a night-lamp and a TzeinaReina book in Yiddish, a prayer book helping women to understand the prayers. I loved her and she loved me very much. After sitting there and talking, Grandmother said, “it is late now, you must go home.” She put her hand in a box and took out a candy saying,”take it, this is a bonbonale for you!” Looking at Magda as she told her story, it seemed as if the light of Grandma’s lamp was shining on her face.

This essay has so far focused on the women’s own words, and their own individual stories. Now the focus will be on the shared history of the group members, all but two (Miriam and Magda) who were concentration camp graduates. In some ways their history was different from Miriam, who came from Palestine to Holland, and Magda, who came with her mother when she was 8 years old. Like most survivors, they went looking for relatives. Most, not finding anyone, found their way to UNRWA camps in Germany.

Back then, life had new messages for the young survivors. They gradually recovered, friendships became tighter, others joined and a sorority was developed. They themselves felt bewildered by their excitement and joy and perhaps somehow guilty. They were young people looking into the future and Eretz Israel, the dream in dark nights of despair, took on a reality. Young soldiers from the Jewish Brigade taught them songs, made them dance and introduced them to ways to realize the dream.

The story of the SS Exodus was mentioned by our members in the first meeting. Before getting on boats they met a leader of Poalei Agudat Yisrael – Benjamin Mintz. He was a father-figure who welcomed them to a new life and brought the message that allowed them not to let go of their fathers’ teachings and beliefs, but at the same time join in building what was, in short, called “Eretz”. They realized that they can hold onto the old and shape a new and different future. Agudat Yisrael was a familiar name for a movement that they heard from almost all their parents; a movement with a messianic message that once the Messiah would come, he would lead them to the homeland. The Jewish Brigade Soldiers, in conjunction with Mintz, bore the message that they were going to become part of the big venture of the birth of today’s Israel.

So with peace of mind they got off the boats and joined preparatory groups and then the kibbutzim of Poalei Agudat Yisrael. One word was added to the old name Agudah – Poalei. Little did they know that the words Agudah and Poalei (labor) would soon be split apart. But, as said previously, they were not involved at the time with political issues. They just wanted to be part of those building this old new home. The survivors chose to be laborers, farmers, and as such they were part of Poalei Agudat Yisrael’s kibbutzim. The kibbutz now, as we said, is an agricultural settlement. Most young men joined the army and were proud to become laborers. Young men met young women with the same background. There was an eagerness to build families and soon weddings were planned; friends took the place of shadchanim (matchmakers); not everything was in accordance with the old customs but the basis was respected. What would Father have said about the choice of a husband who did not have a serious yeshiva education? What would Mother have said to know that before the wedding the young couple traveled together to the big city to purchase goods for their new homes (not very elegant barracks)?

Lonely weddings, and later, motherless births. There was joy mixed with sadness. They were busy with their lives and challenging tasks, so that the rupture between Agudah and Poalei Agudah passed almost unnoticed. We assume this because the group never mentioned it until we brought it up on a day when the story of Benjamin Mintz was told in Agudah’s newspaper, Hamodiah. When we brought it up, they responded with warm feelings and memories of the first day they met him in Europe.

Many of them are still neighbors today. The husbands, already retired, are dedicating more time for Torah learning. Most of their sons served in the Israeli army and chose the path of working, like their fathers. In the third generation there is a change, more are yeshivah students and choose not to join the army, which has become a central issue in Israel today. Almost all relate to their parents with respect and many keep close contact.

Growing old: A process of being part of the group that meant seeing part of the past somehow differently. Their memories were not linear and sometimes it took years in the group to connect one issue. This happened as a result of the opening vistas we introduced and the group’s reactions and responses to one another. The following are some illustrations.

Gittel had told us in the first meeting that she was left by her mother for three years with a neighboring farmer. Two years later, she said, “all these years I felt anger at my mother for taking my sister with her and leaving me behind. I knew that this kept me alive but I still feel anger.” Lilly, a close friend of hers, turned to her and said, “all my life I felt guilty for being angry when remembering that my mother, who had pulled me into the line of working potential despite my young age, suddenly did let go of my hand and ran to take back the baby, my little sister, from the arms of a well-meaning woman who tried to rescue my mother from death.” So there it was; the group spoke of guilt feelings – of having survived and parents having perished. From then on the subject of guilt was brought up from time to time and shared.

Two years later, Gittel turned to the group and asked, “I wonder, do you think I can ask my son (a truck driver) to take me with him when he plans to drive to the city where my widowed daughter lives? I have no way of knowing what an old parent can ask of a grown-up child, as I have no memory from my childhood about such issues.” The question opened up a vivid discussion of intergenerational relationships among parents, grandparents, and siblings. These issues come up time and again and take on different colors and responses.

This year, after Yom Kippur in 2013, I brought up a question. I invited the group to look at the issue of tikkun – repair. I suggested not to look at tikkun as it is brought up in the prayers (i.e., to better ourselves) but tikkun that will make us feel better about ourselves.

Gittel, always the volunteer, immediately took the lead and said, “How can I not get into conflict with my daughter and ask her to call us after getting home from visiting.” There was no one in the group, including myself, who did not share in having experienced this problem. Yes, we have all felt anxious, and we need to feel reassured. We tried first to understand the process that was happening, the commotion around it, and what motivates us and sets us apparently apart from many Israelis who, as we know, live a not very secure life. The group tried to look for formulas on how we could change our attitudes, but then the only workable formula we found was to try and help our children understand and accept it. That is, to accept the fact that we are not perfect.

Closing remarks

Shoah was ever-present in our group discussions, but gradually arose less and less. But it must be said that it could come up when least expected. In April 2014, after having watched excerpts from a movie telling the story of a man who did not know about his Jewish identity and became the leader of the Hungarian neo-Nazi party, the group got into a very heated discussion. They were skeptical and not trustful of his decision to embrace Judaism. The discussion went on for two weeks about his grandmother’s decision not to share with her grandson his origins and of her being an Auschwitz survivor. His grandmother wore long sleeves throughout his childhood in order to cover up the number on her arm.

Suddenly Ilona became quite upset and said she had had enough talking of Shoah.

Ilona was a child survivor, whose mother was sent to a concentration camp when she was 4, left her with strangers, and returned two years later. Ilona could not forgive her mother for what she understood as having been deserted, and developed a very difficult mother-daughter relationship. We knew Ilona for her high intelligence, mood swings, and sometimes, aggression.

We were able to finish the discussion in a relatively calm atmosphere. Ronit turned to the group and asked how everyone felt about being in a group in which Shoah will come up time and again. The following are some direct verbatim quotes:

  • “It makes pain easier to know that everybody in the room knows what I am talking about.”
  • “To remind and remember.”
  • “The knowledge that everybody here identifies with the hardships and suffering.”
  • “The understanding that the tragedy is reflected in every one of us.”
  • “And sometimes the feeling that my personal tragedy is perhaps smaller than the others. Sometimes a feeling of peace and tranquility.”

Rivkah’s voice brings a wonderful end to this essay. She sang this song, in a special unknown melody, three years after being part of the group.

We are like free birds
We are like flowers on a field
We are good friends to one another
We are old women
And to Amcha we belong

And we are telling each other beautiful things from the past
And what went on in our lives
In the time of the Germans as slaves

Now we are thank G-d in our country Israel
And nobody will send us away
Here we raised our children
In Jerusalem with the blue-and-white flag and nothing more
We are willingly serving the Creator of the world
And keeping the Torah
And to serve the Creator of the world
That He is the only one in the world

 

אנחנו כמו ציפורים חופשיות

אנחנו כמו פרחים בשדות

אנחנו חברות, אחת לשניה מסורות

אנחנו נשים יותר מבוגרות

ל”עמך” אנחנו שייכות

 

ומספרים מה שהיה פעם, דברים יפים

ומה שעברנו בחיים

בזמנים של הגרמנים, בתור אבדים

 

עכשיו אנחנו ברוך ה’ במדינה שלנו, ישראל

ואף אחד לא יגרש אותנו יותר

כאן גידלנו את הילדים שלנו

בירושלים עם דגל כחול לבן ולא יותר

אנחנו משרתים ברצון את בורא עולם

ושומרים את התורה

ולשרת את ריבונו של עולם

שרק הוא אחד בעולם!

 

Addendum: The Group Process

We started from the perception of social workers. That is to say, you start where your client is. Thus, the first task was to listen and let the members of the group tell us what they needed and who they were. The first meeting was our introduction to their world and for them to meet us. We knew that they were a minority in Israeli society – a minority as they were women, they were Holocaust survivors, and they were Haredi (ultra-religious). Inner and outer barriers were there to keep them apart. So, one of our important tasks was to break the barriers between them and us; that is, between helpers and clients. First, we let their reactions and points of view come out and, only if needed, gave them additional meaning. The group’s interaction was to become the primary part of the process, i.e., their interactions and their input created the moving force. For them, hunger for interaction was evident; for us, from the beginning there was warmth and respect. For me personally, coming from a long stressful career as Director of Adoption Services, with a focus on children, it’s difficult to hear about children who desperately needed to be parented. The focus of working withchildren constantly demanded decision-making, was fraught with struggles with the legal system, the media, and even with fellow professionals who had different attitudes. In contrast, here with the women’s group, all that was demanded was to be allowed to be caring and put all acquired knowledge at their disposal. Knowledge, yes; opening doors to the outside world, yes; but always by strictly respecting their principles.

Interpretation was minimized, we abstained from using professional jargon, and, if used, only after sharing with the group extensively its meaning and how it could serve them. To illustrate, we introduced the concept of psychodrama and two members chose instantly to act out their experiences. We also used the term sibling rivalry, universalized from the scriptures of B’reisheit and also introduced in a film of an American-Chinese family. Sibling rivalry is a painful, difficult interaction but at the same time growth-producing. We wrote our own syllabus that grew and developed among the members of the group and us. There was a place for negative responses and criticism of ideas and distrust.

One thing remained constant – emuna (faith), which seems never to have been shaken. I often wondered whether faith was more than an internalized value from childhood, but took on a role of partial parenting in loco parentis. Faith has a protective role, which was there for them during the painful Shoah days and is here today as grandmothers. Another important factor that needs to be pointed out was the time element. Time played an important role in the process and the ability to touch and share sometimes painful and sometimes embarrassing memories.

We will end our reflection by looking back and stating our mission again: to listen, let the women in the group show the way, and to provide a clear and safe structure in which they will feel not only accepted but also allowed to be embraced.

We were not alone in our struggle.  Yoram Amit, the director of Amcha in Rehovot, was there for us to listen and share our feelings and doubts, clarifying and reassuring.  Miraculously, in the last days of writing these reflections, a paper came my way written in 1994 by Dr. Nathan Durst and Sima Weiss, MSW (both professional leaders of Amcha)- “Treatment of Elderly Holocaust Survivors : How Do Therapists Cope?” An article which appeared in “Clinical Gerontologist”, volume 14, Number 3 1994 “…..In an atmosphere of acceptance and empathy, understanding and tolerance, the client can release some of his pent-up emotions as well as repressed bereavement within him. On the other hand, the therapist must thus become personally involved in the treatment process and thus minimize the distance usually placed between himself and the client.”

Reading these lines, we felt a link in the chain. But, we cannot end here and forsake our promise from the title glimpsing at the future. However, the future has a way of becoming the present – thus the last development of this amazing group will be told from the present, the summer of 2014 when the decision was made to say goodbye. The group accepted it with understanding and sadness. A few days later, they expressed their wish to go on meeting in a group, not under the auspices of Amcha and the Shoah Center but still centered on friendship and closeness. Yehudit Klein, director of Yad Binyamin Elderly Day Care Center, an amazing woman, responded to their wish and even now provides the benefit of the center’s social worker.  The women stipulated that: A. new members could join, while stressing the point that only one at a time, so that there would not be a group within a group; B. the request to share with them, as it was done during the 11 years of the former group, the identity of the new member, and letting them be part of the decision-making of accepting her; C. the structure of the first hour of sharing should be strictly kept. As Yehudit H. stressed the point by saying, when one says I have nothing to tell, this is the moment when something important will come up.

When we recently met, the only comment the women had was, “why are we anonymous?”  So, we can state these following facts, with their permission:

My colleague Ronit’s full name is Ronit Shaish. The center is Yad Binyamin Elderly Day Care Center. The Regional Council Nahal Soreq is headed by Eli Espozido, who has aided all Holocaust survivors in his county to put their stories into print for their children and future generations. The community names are Yisodot, Hefetz Haim, Yad Binyamin, and Beit Hilkiya.

 References

 

  1. Amcha, “The National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation: Raisons d’Etre”, Haim Dasberg.
  2. Amcha, “A Global Perspective on Working with Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation”, Haim Dasberg.
  3. Hendrix, Harville, “Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for couples,” 1988, Henry Holt & Co., N.Y.
  4. Kirk, H. David, “Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health,” 1964, Free Press of Glencoe, N.Y.
  5. Quinodoz, Danielle, “Growing Old: A Journey of Self-Discovery,” 2008, Routledge, N.Y.
  6. Satir, Virginia, “Peoplemaking,” 1972, Souvenir Press LTD.
  7. Sharkey, Lee, “Daughters Without Mothers,” 1981, Dog Ear Press.
  8. Szurke, Udi Sara, Poems written in Hungarian in labor camps from December 1944-May 1946 and translated into Hebrew by Yaacov Gat, Or Press, Tel-Aviv.

[1] In order to protect the privacy of the women all names of people and places have been changed.

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