Issue 2, Winter 2012

What’s in a Name?

Eight Variations on a Theme

By Natan PF Kellermann Ph.D

 [DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal views of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of the Claims Conference. The content of this article has not in any way been approved or endorsed by the Claims Conference.]

They were ordinary men, women and children who rose to extraordinary heights to save their own and others’ lives while millions of their peers perished in the nightmare of the Holocaust. For several years, they endured Hitler’s hellish reign in constant danger of being captured and sent to a certain death because of their Jewish ancestry. They were the few who triumphed against monstrous odds; the few who remained alive. After the war, as if being born again, they were given a second chance at life. But most had lost their families, their homes and parts of themselves, and as a group, they were searching for a collective identity, with an agreed-upon name. What should they be called? What was the base of the survivors’ commonality and how should they be collectively identified? Professionals who work with this population today are confronted with these questions on a daily basis.

The language used in the collective identification of formerly persecuted Jews turned out to become a source for great controversy and much disagreement over the entire post-war period. Common designations, such as remnants, refugees, ghetto fighters, former camp inmates, Nazi victims, Holocaust survivors, and witnesses of World War II, were used interchangeably. But naming individuals who were previously persecuted because of their collective belonging to the Jewish people remains problematic, because of the unavoidable (re-) generalization, (re-) classification, or selection involved in such a categorization and the possible de-individualization, objectification and stigmatization that may be implied. Different meanings of the words “Holocaust” and “Shoah” also made definitions muddy. In addition, names are clearly used in different settings and for various purposes. For example, they are designated as “victims of Nazi persecution” for reparation purposes, triumphant “survivors”’ during memorial events, and “witnesses” when sharing their lives with school children.

As a result, different names of this group of people have evolved during the post-war years through a gradual categorization and differentiation. During this process, there seems to have been a kind of maturation, which may be compared to the sound of the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a by Johannes Brahms, a musical theme in B-flat major with eight variations and a finale. The piece starts with the general theme of persecuted Jews during the war, develops through eight stages, and ends with a finale of celebrated “Holocaust survivors” in the present time. The table below lists these variations and movements with tempo marking, with some commonly used names within their approximate time periods. With some imagination, the theme of Jewish persecution can be heard repeatedly throughout the notes, with oboes and bassoons, supported by strings and horns. The first variation involves various sections of the orchestra playing pulsing notes in the chords of the theme, while two contrapuntal moving parts play against them. This is a taste of the continuation of the piece, as Brahms systematically changes everything but the essential structure of the theme in each variation, just like the transformations of the lives of the survivors changed ever since the war. In the long Finale, a series of harmonic and rhythmic enhancements ends in a triumphant coda and we can feel the completion of their journey.

When reading the text, it might help to listen to the beautiful melody, harmony and rhythms, while at the same time trying to envision this post-war struggle to achieve a more balanced social identity and status over the years.

 Variations  Movements  Designations   Time Periods
Theme Chorale St. Antoni. Andante Persecuted Jews From 1945
Variation I Poco più animato (Andante con moto) Displaced Persons From 1945
Variation II Più vivace (Vivace) War Refugees 1950
Variation III Con moto Former Camp Inmates 1960
Variation IV Andante con moto (Andante) Victims of Nazi Persecution 1970
Variation V Vivace (Poco presto) Survivors of the Holocaust (or Shoah) 1980
Variation VI Vivace Witnesses of WW2 1990
Variation VII Grazioso Eligible survivors (First Circle) 2000
Variation VIII Presto non troppo (Poco presto) Hardship survivors (2nd/3rd Circle) 2005
Finale Andante Recognition Now

Theme. Persecuted Jews

During the war, they had been “Persecuted Jews” without rights and destined for death. With or without tattooed numbers on their forearms, they tried to survive one day at a time and to save themselves and their families. They identified themselves simply with the Hebrew Amcha עמך – “your people.” They were, indeed, one people: the Jewish people. All other names are included in this term; all those who remained alive in 1945, as well as everybody affected by the war, could be included in the group of Persecuted Jews, regardless of their disability, wartime experiences, or any other criteria. Any Jewish person who was displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945 would be included in this term. As echoed in the general theme – or Leitmotif – in the music of Brahms, this name can be heard more or less clearly throughout the post-war years, in all private and public Holocaust narratives. Then, they were all persecuted (German: Verfolgte), and as such, they are continually mourning, suffering, and remembering the past.

Variation I. Displaced Persons

Immediately following their liberation in 1945, when realizing that they had indeed remained alive despite all odds, they were designated as “remnants” of the war (Hebrew: שארית הפליטה – She’erit Haplaitah). The name was taken from the First Chronicles 4:43 – “the rest of the escaped” – to refer to the improvised new communities they formed in European Displaced Persons camps and elsewhere after the war. This name implied that they were the few who were still alive while most other Jews had been murdered. They were the fragmented remaining leftovers of their various Jewish communities. During their long stay in these temporary dwellings, they re-organized new social structures which advocated for their rights and planned for their immigration to other countries. Though many left for the US, South America, Australia, Scandinavia, the UK, or stayed in the FSU behind the Iron Curtain, most came to the newly founded Jewish state of Israel.

Variation II. War Refugees

Having arrived at their new countries around the 1950s, they were first vaguely referred to as “the people from there,” implying that they had come from another planet. At that time, the Israeli author Yehiel Dinur coined the term “KZ-niks” or “Ka-Tzetnik” to convey the alien role these people held in society after the war. As newcomers from distant and strange countries, they were still seen mostly as refugees (Hebrew: Plitim פליטים) or as new immigrants from one or the other specific country; for example as the Hungarians, the Polish, the Romanians, the Dutch, the Austrians, the French, etc. Often, they formed local groups – Landsmannschaften – that maintained original languages, cultures, and customs from the old country, and developed mutual aid and welfare institutions for themselves. These self-help groups supported individual immigrants from communities destroyed by the Nazis and cultivated their own collective memories. The number of these organizations, however, has constantly decreased and their memberships are dwindling with the aging population.

Variation III. Former Camp Inmates

Around the 1960s, however, their identities became more differentiated and they were seen also as individuals with separate war experiences. Differentiation was based on specific persecution events, such as former inmates of Nazi concentration camps, former ghetto-fighters, former slave laborers, former Mengele twins, former war veterans, etc., and these groups also established their own institutions. Many years later, the hitherto voiceless child survivors, with their diverse war experiences, evolved as a unique but undefined group. They also demanded that their suffering should be recognized, and established the Hidden Child Foundation/ADL. Such a view was also maintained during the Eichmann trial, where witnesses with diverse Holocaust experiences were invited to the witness stand. In addition to giving voice to individual narratives, this trial also helped form a more common picture of the survivors’ collective experience. As a result, a more centralized representation and a more universal name were required, regardless of dissimilar persecution backgrounds. National and international umbrella organizations were established for such a purpose and many adopted the general name: Victims of Nazi Persecution.

Variation IV. Victims of Nazi Persecution

By the 1970s, when the immediacy of the war and its consequences had somewhat passed, and many had been recognized for some kind of reparations, there was a beginning sense of a newfound collective identity within the name “victims of Nazi persecution.” For the purpose of demanding reparations, the designation “Nazi Victims” was suitable. This term implies that there is an injured, wounded and/or suffering victim party and a guilty perpetrator party who should try to “make good” (German: Wiedergutmachung) what was done. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany was established in 1951 to provide a measure of justice for such Jewish victims of Nazism.

Being victims after a long period of incubation and repression re-actualized their emotional suffering and their need for additional treatment. This also encouraged them to reconstruct their victimization narrative, to re-examine their mechanisms of survival, work through their resistance to mourning, and encouraged them to let go of the trauma.

The designation of “victim,” however, is very ambiguous, since it also refers to the ultimate victims: those killed by the Nazis. As a result, there is a need for further clarification, for example during memorial events and when searching for relatives in Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Museum, or Bad Arolsen. While those detrimentally influenced by the war were obviously victimized, the word “victims” should be used in such settings specifically when referring to the martyrs in order to distinguish them clearly from living survivors of the Holocaust.

Variation V. Survivors of the Holocaust

In the 1980s, the designation “Holocaust Survivor” became the single most accepted name for this group. It was translated into many languages: the Spanish Sobreviviente, the German Űberlebende, the Russian Оставшийся в живых Холокоста, and the Hebrew שורדי השואה. The term “survivor” was so well received because it emphasized the fact that the person had actually experienced a life-threatening ordeal but had survived. Surviving an ordeal indicates persistence, strength, and resilience, as well as a great deal of empowerment. As a result, the term later became popular also with other severely traumatized populations, such as war trauma survivors, genocide survivors, and tsunami survivors. However, if the term was used too broadly, to include all kinds of traumatic events that were not life threatening, it would in effect water down the significance of the original usage.

Some Shoah survivors in Israel often state that they prefer to be called Sordey HaShoah (Hebrew: שורדי השואה) instead of Nitsoley Shoah (Hebrew: ניצולי שואה). In Hebrew, the active word Sordey emphasizes that they were fighting for their existence, while the passive Nitsoley Shoah literally means “saved from the Holocaust.” As far as I know, there is no literal difference between the active or passive form of “survivor” in the English language. But for Israelis in general, and for this population in particular, it seems to be important to differentiate between these active and passive ways of surviving the Holocaust. The title Sored conveys strength, adaptability, adjustability, and perseverance, as well as an almost heroic struggle. These are admirable attributes for the Israeli Sabra (צבר) mentality which tends to shy away from admitting any feelings of powerlessness, humiliation, and vulnerability. Thus, in order to make this designation more respectful and to fit into the Zionist narrative of Jews who took their destiny into their own hands, they prefer to use a word that conveys a fighting mentality, rather than a position of victimhood.

In the majority of official institutions in Israel, however, as well in most international political, educational, medical, social, and historical settings, the designation “Holocaust Survivor” has become the consensus title.

Variation VI. Witnesses of World War II

Around the 1990s, as the need for personalized Holocaust documentation increased, and various educational programs were established, a new phrase started to appear to introduce the survivors who shared their life stories in public settings: “Eyewitnesses of World War II” (German: Zeitzeugen). For example, when Steven Spielberg founded the Visual History Foundation in 1994, to record testimonies in video format of survivors, they became personal witnesses of the Holocaust. This neutral term is similarly employed in many educational programs within Holocaust memorial museums who invite speakers to share their own personal experiences with youth and the public.

Variation VII. Eligible Survivors (“First Circle”)

During the last decade, there was a further need for differentiation of this group, even though they were generally called Holocaust survivors. Those recognized for some kind of monthly pension (the “First Circle”), versus all the others (the “Second Circle” or “Third Circle”). The “First Circle” referred all those survivors who were receiving a monthly pension from BEG (German government Wiedergutmachung payment under German Federal Indemnification Laws), Claims Conference Article 2 Fund, or Claims Conference Central & Eastern European Fund (CEEF), as well as those in Israel who received a pension from the Ministry Of Finance. All these individuals had been formally recognized by some authority according to specific eligibility criteria, and could prove their persecution with necessary papers.

There were many other individuals, however, who had also survived the war, but who did not fulfill all the criteria to receive these pensions.

Variation VIII. Hardship Fund Eligible Recipients (“Second Circle” & “Third Circle”)

In 1975, when Jews began emigrating from the Soviet Union during Détente, the Claims Conference began negotiations for payments to certain Jewish victims of Nazi persecution who had been unable to apply for BEG due to being behind the Iron Curtain. These negotiations resulted in the establishment of the Hardship Fund in 1980, which gave a one-time payment to Jewish persecutees who suffered considerable damage to health as a result of Nazi persecution, were in special need, and had not applied for compensation for their suffering under the German Federal Indemnification Laws (BEG). This “Second Circle” survivors included all those who could not show that they were disabled by their war experiences (as had been required by the BEG for a damage to health pension), nor could they show that they had spent sufficient time in confinement to be eligible for a pension (as was required by the Claims Conference Article 2 and CEEF Funds). Others had suffered persecution that was not recognized by existing pension programs – such as wearing the yellow star and there were those had simply missed the deadline for one or the other compensation agreement. The greatest number of the individuals eligible for the Hardship Fund were those from the Former Soviet Union that had fled the “killing groups” (German: Einsatzgruppen) who followed the advance of the German Army on the Eastern Front. These Nazi victims had fled in order to survive almost certain death. Only those who reside in Western countries are able to receive a one-time payment from the Hardship Fund; Nazi flight cases who still reside in some former Communist countries may be entitled to the comparable Holocaust Victims Compenstion Fund (HVCF).

There is no doubt that such “Hardship Survivors” were severely traumatized by their wartime experiences and that they should be recognized as Holocaust survivors and also be compensated for their suffering and loss. Since many of them are destitute and in great need of material help, this has become a more urgent issue both in Israel and elsewhere. Substantially increased homecare funds from the German government have been negotiated by the Claims Conference, which are now being distributed through social service agencies around the world to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, and many additional survivors have also been recognized to receive pensions through Claims Conference negotiations.

In addition, an almost anonymous “Third Circle” of affected people have also existed, namely those who fled before the war. These “non-survivors” never lived under Nazi occupation, even though several had experienced anti-Semitism and persecution before leaving Europe. Most had lost close relatives in the war and they suffered tremendously as a result. This largely undefined and diverse group of people is very old today, if they are still alive at all. While not eligible for financial compensation, they should be recognized for their suffering and be provided psychosocial support for their emotional trauma.

Service providers are increasingly called upon to prove that their clients are authentic Holocaust survivors, which practically means that they suffered persecution as described above. However, while there are clear regulations and adequate documentation for those who are eligible for compensation, there are no recognized clear boundaries for who is a “Holocaust Survivor.” During the last decade, this issue has been debated extensively all over the world. As a result of these discussions, the production of some kind of “Holocaust Survivor” certificate or official identity card was suggested in Israel, similar to the ID card issued for disabled war veterans. The card would be issued by the Authority for the Rights of Holocaust Survivors in Israel and would facilitate bureaucratic procedures, automatically making them eligibile for certain services. There has been no such ID card issued yet. Part of the reason for this may be the ambiguities that still exist on the exact definition of this group, and the continually changing rules and regulations regarding social service agencies’ allocations. I also doubt if the survivors themselves would like to have such an ID.

Finale. Recognition

After these eight variations of the theme, survivors have now reached the final stage of recognition. As we have seen, the different labels used refer to diverse groups of people with different histories, characteristics and demographics. They also emphasize the unique needs of the survivors to be recognized and compensated, as well as their changing social identity and status. Identifying this group of people is not only necessary for various reparation, documentation, and service purposes. It is also a way in which the survivors themselves may derive at least a part of their social identity. Depending on their own identification and their sense of belonging to one or the other specific group, this process may profoundly determine their own self-image and their self-esteem. As a result of such an identification, they tend to compare themselves, not only with other groups, but also with one another, creating the familiar hierarchy of suffering clearly visible in most groups of trauma survivors.

In addition, each name conveys a certain social status attached to the survivors’ position in society. Such a position may evoke feelings of either sympathy or antagonism; pity or envy; pride or shame; heroism or cowardice; respect or concern. For example, the standing they hold in Israel today as passing on an important legacy has changed greatly from the contempt and criticism with which they were often met in the past. As a result of this gradual change, which started during the 1970s and 1980s, the public image of Holocaust survivors has improved tremendously and the increased recognition has made their lives more gratifying and meaningful. Earlier regarded simply as either powerless victims or heroic resistance fighters, they are now viewed in a more differentiated manner, as both vulnerable and resilient. The social identity of Holocaust survivors has been transformed from the different variations on the theme of “Persecuted Jews” to empowered and multi-faceted “Survivors.” Let’s finally embrace them as such.

 [DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the personal views of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of the Claims Conference. The content of this article has not in any way been approved or endorsed by the Claims Conference.]


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