Issue 7, Winter 2017

How A Holocaust Survivor Incorporates Spirituality Into Her Life: A Case Study

By Lois Griff

Lillian was born in a small town in Germany on August 8, 1923.  She describes her youth as wealthy and privileged.  She had a nanny who accompanied her and her sister to Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night) services.  Her parents did not go to the synagogue with them.  She remembers the services very fondly, with a beautiful cantor and choir, which encouraged her weekly attendance.  She did not feel a connected to Judaism even back then; it was her love of the music that engaged her in the services.

In 1939, she fled with her sister and mother to Belgium where her father was already living. He had moved there 2 years before so that he could be near his partners in their hops and beer business, and had to travel back and forth to Germany to see his family.  When the Nazis invaded Belgium, he was deported and later killed in a concentration camp while Lillian, her sister and mother fled and went into hiding in a small village in Southern France.  The local priest knew they were Jewish and was very kind to them.  In order to integrate themselves into the community, they attended church services every Sunday.  Here too, she enjoyed the church choir and felt that this weekly ritual was a positive force that helped her through this difficult time.  (In fact, this is one of the few wartime stories she easily shares.) Her memories of this period of her life are mainly about the priest, Sunday mass and the kindness of the villagers.

After the war, Lillian and her mother moved to New York where Lillian worked as a trilingual executive secretary.  She joined the local Reform synagogue, which always had a stellar cantor and choir.  In addition to religious music, she travelled the USA throughout her adult life attending classical and folk music concerts.  She lived with and took care of her mother until she died in her nineties.  Lillian became a client of Nazi Victim Services at Selfhelp Community Services after her mother died.  As her social worker, I visit her every 2 weeks.  She values the relationship, especially since she is blind and feels lonely.  In fact, she is tenacious about the regularity of the visits.  Besides her social worker, she has a niece who lives upstate who calls weekly and comes to visit a few times a year.

Because Lillian considered herself a German first and then Jewish, she found it truly inconceivable that she could be so betrayed by her country when the Nazis came into power.  Whatever Jewish identity she felt had failed her and she associated this failure with religion and spirituality her whole life. Like many survivors I work with, she does not like talking about the war and begs me to change the subject if I bring it up.

Lillian presents herself as a very practical woman who eschews religious rituals and scoffs at believers in G-d.  She refuses to entertain any acceptance of how religion may be comforting. To her religion equals G-d and since she does not believe in G-d she does not believe in religion.  I believe that her intense love of music and literature is her way of embracing spirituality and gives her relief from a lonely, sad life.

Lillian is mostly homebound today.  She has outlived most of her friends and relatives. She does speak to all of them by phone, but these conversations are not enough to satiate her intense love of debating politics and current events. Her radio is always tuned to New York City’s classical music station.  She can readily identify most composers and pieces of music. To Lillian, her spirituality is her music.  To her it is her religion, although I know she would not frame it as such.

The Selfhelp office was fortunate to have a Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) rabbinical student, and because I felt that she needed some spiritual nourishment to ease her sadness, I referred her to him.  Lillian was able to open herself up somewhat to accept his visits, during which time they discussed religion, politics and music. Because of her vision impairment, Lillian uses a tape recorder to record salient pieces of information that she needs to remember.  The rabbinical intern’s parting gift was a recorded German Shabbat song that he sang for her.  She was happy to have this tangible reminder of her youth, intertwined with her spirituality and love of music. She often plays this tune to herself and has had me listen to it on more than one occasion.  I asked Lillian what feelings were evoked when she listened to the German Jewish liturgy. She shared that when she lived in Washington Heights in the 1950s, it was affectionately referred to as “the Fourth Reich.  While living in the Heights, everyone in her building was German Jewish and they all went to Hebrew Tabernacle every Friday night, only one block away.  She smiles softly to herself as she transports me back to that time, surrounded by the memories of a community that provided her family with comfort. With all of the instability of her war-time years, Lillian could rely on the music of her youth to ease her spiritual pain.

Because of her strong connection with music, and my own identification with Jewish tradition and its positive influence on me, I try to encourage Lillian to see her music appreciation as an alternate perspective to approach religion and the comfort it can offer. However, she is so practical, and has such distrust of Judaism, that she finds it difficult to make this leap.  Since I know she loves music so dearly, I try and support her active listening as much as I can. Although I do not use the word spirituality with her, when she is feeling especially sad and desperate, I encourage her to focus on how her love of music soothes and comforts her.  I try to help her to redirect her sadness and anxiety and allow her music to spiritually nourish her.  I remind her that music helps to ease her daily challenges.  She will ponder this philosophy, acknowledge it briefly, and perhaps for a short time she feels some joy in her life.


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