Issue 7, Winter 2017

A Measure of Faith:  Child Holocaust Survivors and their Spiritual Dilemma

By Robert Krell M.D.    July 27, 2016

I am a child Holocaust survivor and must, therefore, begin with my own origins, including my struggle to develop what can only be described as a rudimentary connection to Judaism.

Having been born in 1940 in German-occupied Holland, and already in hiding by mid-1942,   I entered the war belonging to the cohort of Jewish children without any conscious knowledge of being a Jew.  In contrast, there were Jewish children in Poland of various ages who had already absorbed a sense of tradition and Jewish knowledge by the time of the war, or, as in the case in Hungary, 1944, many had been deeply imbued with Jewish learning before the catastrophe struck. These children had an opportunity to reconstruct postwar Jewish life on prewar Jewish memories. My age group did not. So at the time of liberation, I did not know I was a Jew. And since my parents miraculously survived individually in their hiding places, I was returned by my Christian hiders to my Jewish parents.

Here one must ask whether my parents were the same parents and the same Jews postwar as they had been when I was born. Of course, they were not. Before the war, both had been raised in Orthodox families, and now those families had been destroyed. My mother’s parents, brothers and little sister were murdered in Poland by Poles who discovered their hiding place. My father’s parents and two sisters were deported from Holland and Belgium and were murdered in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The three of us were left, along with my first cousin, Aunt Mania’s son, who remained with his Christian rescuers. My parents lost their faith when they had to give up their baby to strangers, and lost whatever faith remained when every post war day brought the terrible news of the gruesome deaths of family and friends.

My Jewish parents enrolled me in a Catholic kindergarten at a convent down the block from our new home. I became a Catholic that year. My Christian parents were Protestant, but had not pressed religion upon me. I did have the privilege of annually helping to decorate their Christmas tree.

At the kindergarten, I was rewarded for obtaining high marks and became the darling of the Sisters and the Mother Superior. I may have been viewed as ripe for conversion. But while I came home with pictures of the Lord, the saviour, there were often survivors gathered in our living room telling stories of Auschwitz and what had happened to the Jews.

(Note the boy next to Mother Superior. Photo taken in 1945.)

It gradually occurred to me at age 5 or 6 that I was one of these Jews. My mother’s first cousin returned from the safety of Switzerland with his wife and child, Milly, who was 3 years older. She translated for me the accounts of the survivors that were usually told in Yiddish. Yiddish! I did not want to hear it.         I thought it was German.

My biological parents suddenly acquired for me a Hebrew teacher, Mr. Krakauer. I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old.  I could learn anything at school, but I could not learn what he tried to teach me: prayers in Hebrew. I have concluded that a depressed child could not study with a depressed concentration camp survivor.  And even today, although I go to shul (synagogue) almost every Shabbat (Sabbath), I read Hebrew slowly, hesitantly, and perhaps, reluctantly.

As I wrote over 20 years ago, “The personal identity of a child survivor is often confused and confusing. It is self-evident that a majority of children who survived were saved by Christians. Some children were abused and exploited. Those who experienced kindness and care would naturally tend toward Christianity. Some children were aware that their Jewishness was the cause for their persecution and that Christianity provided safety. How can you return to Judaism after suffering so much over it? The tension remains. What does it mean to be a Jew when it has brought so much grief?”[i]

I am, at age 76, hesitant to communicate with G-d. But I do not hesitate to praise Him for my survival and to berate Him for abandoning our people. My G-d! It is complicated. I attempt to reconcile my ambivalence in “Views in My Synagogue”[ii], a chapter found in my memoir Memoiries:  Sounds From Silence. It was clear to me upon reflection that my shul (synagogue) was so much more and so much less than prayer alone.

How did I re-engage with Judaism after leaving Europe? In brief, we emigrated to Canada in 1951 where my father took me to the Schara Tzedeck synagogue and said, “I take you like my father took me – but do not ever expect to see me pray.”

What did that mean to an 11 year old? It meant I was on my own with Judaism and/or G-d.

I joined Habonim (a Labor Zionist organization – whatever precisely that was) and there found my connection with Judaism, and a love for Israel developed. The experience was mostly about the many Jewish friends whom I cherished. From age 12 – 17, I was a camper, counsellor and life guard at Camp Miriam. I became a proud Jew. My Bar Mitzvah was not particularly meaningful, but the Schara Tzedeck synagogue had become a sort of home and I chose to join the choir. It brought me no closer to G-d but it brought me $15.00 a month.

I actually put on tefillin (phylacteries) for about 2 years. It did not help enhance religious feeling. With greater awareness of the Holocaust, my rage grew. Loss permeated my family’s lives. There was no Shabbat to speak of, but every Friday I had a kumsitz (literally “come and sit,” a gathering) with my Habonim friends. The rest of the week was devoted to a public school of 2,000 students that I loved. I moved comfortably in two worlds, one primarily Christian during the week, the other overwhelmingly Jewish on weekends.

It was later in life when I was in medical school when looking through a microscope at tissue, embryonic matter, bacteria and various cells, that I concluded there must be G-d. But I had not concluded that we were on friendly terms. In the meantime, my father continued his boycott of prayer and his refusal to set foot in a Jewish cemetery – any Jewish cemetery. Yet, one day he visited the rabbi and provided him with a substantial donation to purchase all the High Holy Day prayer books so that congregants would not have to carry their own. When my father died, Rabbi Mordechai Feuerstein, spiritual leader of Schara Tzedek, described him as “a man of faithful disbelief.”

In 1975, my wife and I, with our infant daughter, spent six months in Jerusalem. There, one can feel spiritual without effort. Shabbat was indeed heavenly. We began to keep Shabbat at home– unusual in that my wife reacted negatively to her father’s insistence on his rigid interpretation of Jewish traditions while breaking many of them. She got it right. She invited our children’s friends and our parents who gathered happily with their grandchildren. The service was minimal but its essence was meaningful.

We found our comfort zone, a free-wheeling but intimate gathering to which our children looked forward. And to me, that tradition was spiritual, and gradually, I added my weekly visits to Shabbat services. But why? Something inside me would not let go.  In addition, I felt compelled to teach about the Holocaust and to record the testimony of its survivors.

With two like-minded (Christian) colleagues, we founded in 1976 the “Holocaust Symposium for High School Students.” This program has taught 1,000 students annually for over forty years. I then began the acquisition of audio-visual testimony from Holocaust survivors in 1978 – 79, founded the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Remembrance and Education and built a Memorial in 1987.  Its unveiling brought my father into the cemetery, because his son had spearheaded the project and because the names of our lost families were inscribed at its base. I then founded the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre which opened in 1994. We were soon teaching 25,000 students annually with the objective of combatting racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism through Holocaust education.

My colleague and co-chair of the annual symposium reminded me that early on in our efforts he had asked me why he was feeling so emotional about our teaching. My response was, “We are doing holy work.” He agreed. He claims to be an atheist, so I have decided he must be a “spiritual atheist.”

In my psychiatry practice, Holocaust survivors brought me their children and then remained in therapy themselves. With them I experienced every shade of spirituality for and against religion.  One of the most powerful experiences of all was my involvement in leading workshops and being a frequent keynote speaker at the Annual Gathering of the World Federation of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.[iii]  There, I heard astonishing stories of struggles with identity, spirituality and tradition. One child survivor observed Yom Kippur, but on the way to shul always stopped at a Catholic church to participate in Mass. Another carried rosary beads to compliment her Magen David (Star of David). There were accounts of extraordinary loyalty to the Jewish G-d resulting in profound religious observance combined with a raging defiance against certain principles and biblical passages that no longer made sense to even observant survivors. They rebelled against G-d while acknowledging Him.

I remained impartial in those discussions except to indicate that I also struggled like them. And an outsized component of that struggle centers on issues of life and death. ”Over There”, death reigned and became ordinary, expected, inevitable. For the few who survived, life resumed tainted with the experience of death all around.  It is a theme in Elie Wiesel’s thoughts that relate to recapturing the ability to live life. He comments that it was not so much about learning to live again (that was easy) as about recapturing respect for death, ordinary death. It is that loss of fear (respect) that led to survivors taking extraordinary risks in postwar life.

At this stage of my life, I remain a committed Jew and my children have married Jewish. We have 9 grandchildren of whom 6 attend a Jewish day school, and 3 are preschool age.

In an article commenting on a roundtable discussion amongst child Holocaust survivors[iv], I wrote, “Whatever the details of survival, the themes were similar. They talked of lost childhoods, as Clem (Loew) did so poignantly in the discussion. He made sure to play with his own children to catch up on the missed playtime. They talked of confused identities and the appeal of Catholicism that had provided safety, whereas being a Jew had spelled only danger. Having hidden in a convent where he prayed to Jesus, Clem still attends Christmas Mass once a year. Sophia’s (Richman) awareness of being a Jew was triggered strongly at age nine in Paris when everyone else was receiving communion and she was excluded. She now describes herself as a “Godless Jew.” Eva (Metzger-Brown), who always felt Jewish wanted to give her children the Jewish education she could not have. She now states that she is a Jew and a Buddhist. Dori (Laub) strengthened his Jewish identity fighting for Israel. And I, who struggle not with my identity as a Jew but with my faith, wish to G-d that I could learn to believe in G-d; it is likely that I shall die trying.” *

I have been to Israel a dozen times or more and follow its news as if I was there. With all its flaws and wild politics, I recognize the meaning of its existence. In the end, it’s all we have no matter where we reside.

And as to my belief in G-d, after all is said and done, how can I believe? But how can I not?

[i] Krell, R. (1996). Hiding During and After the War: The Fate of Children Who Survived the Holocaust. In H. Locke & M. Sachs Littell (Eds.), Holocaust and Church Struggle: Religion, Power and the Politics of Resistance (p. 282). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.

[ii] Krell, R. (2016). Views From My Synagogue. Memoiries: Sounds From Silence. (pp.. 318-324) Vancouver, BC: Behind the Book. (Available at

[iii] Krell, R. (2007). Child Holocaust Survivors. Memories and Reflections. Vancouver, BC: Trafford Publishing. (Available at

[iv] Krell, R. (2007). Elderly Children As Grown Ups: Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Psychoanalytic Perspectives.  Vol. 5(1), pp. 13-21, Winter 2007

*(Remarks published in “Psychoanalytic Perspectives” in a “Roundtable Discussion” entitled “Last Witnesses: Child Survivors of the Holocaust” with panelists Clemens Loew, Sophia Richman, Eva Metzger Brown and Dori Laub. Volume 4, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2007)



One reply on “A Measure of Faith:  Child Holocaust Survivors and their Spiritual Dilemma”

My mother was a child survivor from Antwerp. For her it was not a religious identity that she carried forward. It was her sense of belonging to the people and all their ancestors who led up to her life.

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