Issue 10, Spring 2020

8 Transcending Victimization through Empowerment

By Myra Giberovitch

The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others.

J.L. Herman (1992)


Long-term victimization under a systematic and comprehensive program of genocide adversely affected the mental and emotional well-being of many survivors. ‘People who have endured horrible events suffer predictable psychological harm’ (Herman, 1992:3). Although survivors differ from each other in many ways, as noted in chapter 3, they share a common wartime experience that may have affected their self-concept. All were subjected to massive human-rights abuses by racist policies that labelled them as different, turned them into outcasts, brutally uprooted them, and targeted them for extinction through mass murder. Consequently, many internalized a negative self-image and a loss of self-esteem as they began to identify with labels ascribed to them (inferior, vermin, parasites, undesirable, and so on).

This intentional annihilation plan also destroyed everything that defined them – family, homes, and community; cultural and religious traditions and practices; vocations; and social, educational and religious institutions. The process left many individuals feeling powerless, inferior, helpless, and insecure. Survivors’ self-images were damaged further after the Holocaust when they were viewed as victims and greeted with negative attitudes where they settled. In many instances, these attitudes represented social judgments that continued to label survivors as different and inferior. In addition, some older survivors experienced loss of social status when they were uprooted and moved to different environments. For example, Mr. B. said, ‘Who am I in this country? In Europe I was a lawyer, respected by colleagues and the community.’

Although survivors reinvented themselves after the Holocaust and recreated families, community, culture and institutions, their emotional and psychological wounds went unrecognized and were misunderstood. Recovery plans overlooked their psychological needs and mental-health professionals avoided asking questions about their war experiences. Consequently, many survivors were left to struggle on their own with invisible psychic wounds. The lack of resources to address survivors’ psychological needs made it difficult for many to heal. This scarcity of mental-health services, both public and private, continued until aging and associated challenges forced survivors to approach communities for help in the 1980s. In response, communities around the world began to explore survivors’ unique needs and develop specialized programs for them. Eventually, in 1992, the first North American conference on the treatment and care of ageing Holocaust survivors took place in Miami, Florida (Kenigsberg & Lieblish, 1992), forty-seven years after liberation. Since then, many improvements have been made in treating survivors’ psychological wounds.

Changing Self-Concept and Enhancing Self-Esteem

The psychological healing and recovery process, then, must include helping survivors redefine their self-concept and enhance their self-esteem. Appreciating and acknowledging survivors’ abilities, and developing programs from a strengths perspective, helps survivors change their self-perception. It encourages them to talk openly about their wounds, gain insight into how these wounds affect their present lives, and make a decision to heal them. This approach uses the resiliency of the human spirit to recover and heal from the most severe forms of dehumanization and degradation.

Service providers can help survivors transcend victimization in different ways. The process must begin by acknowledging that surviving a mass atrocity is a significant accomplishment. This helps us to recognize and believe in survivors’ strengths, capabilities, and resources. For example, many survivors are not aware of the determination, strength and courage it took to reconstruct their lives in the post-war years and regain control over their lives. When I focus their attention on these achievements, they feel a sense of accomplishment, self-respect, and pride.

Another way to help survivors transcend their victimization is to create therapeutic environments where they feel safe to work through their grief and losses, thus reducing their emotional pain. This can be done with individuals (discussed in chapter 13) and groups (discussed in chapters 10 and 11).

Focusing on the survivor part of their psyche, rather than the helpless victim, is another important technique that helps them recognize their personal coping mechanisms. It serves two purposes. First, it helps the survivor regain confidence by acknowledging the strengths of their coping mechanisms. Survivors, under extraordinary conditions, developed skills and resources that can be mobilized to help them deal with recovery as well as present-day challenges. Second, this focus helps workers view a survivor as someone who has dealt with and will continue to adjust to changes in their life. In other words, it reinforces a perception of survivors as self- sufficient and strong rather than as dependent and fragile victims.

Helping survivors transcend victimization also involves being aware of the terminology we use to describe them. When we refer to them positively as Holocaust ‘survivors,’ rather than negatively as Holocaust ‘victims,’ we help them to see themselves differently in the world. Today I witness many survivors disclosing their survivor identity with great pride and confidence as they say, ‘I am a Holocaust survivor.’ By accepting this identity, they assert they have overcome oppression and are no longer victims.


Judith Herman (1992) states, ‘the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others’ (p.133). Recovery is based on empowerment and creation of trusting relationships and group structures that encourage survivors to assume personal control of their environment. Survivor initiatives as they rebuilt their lives in the post-war years helped me to recognize this phenomenon and integrate it into my practice. The Holocaust disempowered individuals socially, psychologically and culturally by severing their connections with family and community. Consequently, immediately after liberation, they felt an urgent need to recreate their destroyed world. They made new ties, re-established old ones, and rebuilt their communities. In so doing, they reclaimed their power as they found ways to create new identifies, roles and purpose. Their journey exemplifies the definition of empowerment put forth by Torre and cited in Cox and Parsons (1994): ‘a process through which people become strong enough to participate within, share in the control of, and influence events and institutions which affect their lives. [This, in part,] necessitates that people gain particular skills, knowledge, and sufficient power to influence their lives’ (18).

I take these facts into account when I design group programs and activities that support empowerment. My work with Holocaust survivors is also influenced by the empowerment principles discussed by Gutiérrez, Parsons, Cox (1998). In their model, social-service workers should recognize that:

  • the relationship with their clients is a collaborative one whereby all involved share power and leadership;
  • the helping process gives clients a voice and provides opportunities for them to make their own decisions, gain knowledge and skills, educate staff and each other, and participate in collective action toward social change;
  • a safe and supportive environment is essential for workers and clients to work together and build trust, which fosters a sense of community;
  • clients need to be understand within the context of their personal and cultural background, with respect for their unique qualities, values and experiences, and acceptance of their definition of the problem to be worked on; and
  • multiple roles on the part of workers, and involvement in organizational development on the part of clients, are twin pillars of institutional success.

Empowerment is a central tenet of strengths-based practice. Individual strengths provide the fuel and energy for empowerment (Cowger & Snively, cited in Rankin, 2006/2007). Indeed, the two are interrelated and cannot be separated. I begin with the attitude that every individual I come across has knowledge, assets, and wisdom. My mindset is that individuals are knowledgeable about their needs and capable of making their own choices and decisions. In other words, if service providers believe that individuals are the resilient authors of their lives, then we use interventions that support this vision. We view them as elders and historians, not clients, who have lived a unique life, and we are open to learning from them. Such an approach respects the dignity and uniqueness of each individual and creates a working relationship that is characterized by respect, trust, collaboration, and partnership. This approach also minimizes the power differential.

This philosophy, however, is not realized by giving lip service to it. It must be incorporated into practice. For example, when developing an individualized service plan, we engage survivors in the process by listening to their concerns, answering their questions, involving them in problem-solving solutions, and accepting their decisions, even if we may not agree with them. We should not lose sight that their goals are the focus of the assessment process. As long as they are cognitively competent and are not putting themselves at risk, we do not have the last word on what they need.

Empowerment practice is also congruent with the basic values of the social work profession which include respecting the dignity and uniqueness of each individual; maintaining a professional commitment to the individual’s right to self-determination; focusing on strengths without losing sight of limitations; and involving individuals in problem-solving and decision- making.

Incorporating Empowerment into Clinical Practice

Empowerment Practice Components

Practice components of empowerment consist of listening to individuals to gain an understanding of their view of the presenting problem; trusting and respecting that they are the authors of their lives; solving problems collaboratively with them; educating them about post-traumatic reactions and teaching coping skills; and, if they are open to it, helping work through traumatic memories (discussed in chapter 13). Empowering survivors also means giving them choices about which interventions to use, and permission to disagree or refuse. In the words of McInnis-Dittrich (2009): ‘A sense of control over life and the ability to continue to make decisions, both long and short-term plans, are the best predictors of emotional well-being among older adults’ (145).


Helping survivors to see themselves as capable and empowered individuals begins by integrating questions that assess their strengths into an existing standardized assessment process. Ideally, the assessment is conducted in the individual’s home where they are in control of their environment. Here the worker may observe photos and objects that reveal the person’s interests, talents, and skills and lead to a conversation about them. Nelson-Becker et al. (2006) suggest some themes and questions that support the strengths-evaluation process during a formal assessment. I have added some questions of my own:

  • Explore common values, experiences, interests: What makes life worth living for you? What activities give you a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and fulfillment? What do you look forward to when you wake up in the morning? Who is important to you?
  • Learn how the person has successfully coped with past difficulties: What has helped you cope with life’s challenges? What has worked well for you in the past?
  • Focus on the individual’s internal strengths and those of their environment: What is going well for you right now? What are your strengths?
  • Create a vision of the kind of life the person wants: If things could be different, what would you wish for?
  • Explore the individual’s achievements: What accomplishments are you most proud of?


The following case example illustrates the benefits of the strengths approach:

Mr. G., a sixty-five-year-old survivor of seven concentration camps was referred to me by a storefront community organization where he was often found because he had nowhere else to go. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was socially isolated and overmedicated. During my assessment I learned that, during his internment in the camps, he suffered severe beatings which resulted in neurological problems and a psychiatric condition manifested by paranoid ideation. My social-work interventions included referrals to the psychogeriatric clinic at a local hospital where his medication was adjusted; the psycho-geriatric day centre which he attended two days a week; and low- cost supervised housing.

During my initial home visit, I noticed some handwritten poems on the kitchen table. When I asked Mr. G. about them, he told me that he wrote poetry and brought out a pile of other poems to show me. His poems described his war experiences, his pain in being the sole survivor of a large pre-war family and his gratitude to Quebec and Canada for having provided him with a safe haven in the post-war years. I shifted my focus to his strengths and creativity, and began to view him as a poet rather than a fragile victim.

Mr. G. had enough material for a book of poetry. When I asked him if he had considered compiling such a book, he said he never did but was excited by the idea. He asked if I would help edit it and so we began our work together. During the two sessions in which I helped him, I learned about his life in pre-war Poland and his experiences during the war. He read his poetry to me and sometimes cried. For the most part, I listened and said little because my calming presence was helping to contain his emotions. From this process, I learned that since the war he had moved many times and was unable to sustain ongoing relationships. He had been seen by a number of psychiatrists but no one had asked him about his Holocaust experiences. During our participatory and collaborative process, I viewed Mr. G. as an accomplished poet rather than as a person with a psychiatric condition. This approach satisfied his emotional needs, increased his self-esteem, and gave him a sense of importance. After the poems were edited to his satisfaction, I typed them and had them bound into a manuscript. We mailed copies to the Holocaust Remembrance Committee, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Yad Vashem Museum and Archives in Israel. In return, these organizations sent Mr. G. letters acknowledging his work. This process created a positive experience that infused meaning and purpose into his life. Mr. G. felt satisfied that his experiences were now preserved for future generations to read. Subsequently, I periodically contacted his psychiatrist who informed me that Mr. G. was admitted into subsidized housing and continued to attend the hospital day program. He continued to write poetry until his death.


Empowerment through Education

Having basic information about one’s self and one’s immediate situation is also an important component of empowerment (Cox & Parsons, 1994). The aging process, and the accompanying losses that may trigger past vulnerabilities, can be quite frightening and may cause some people to feel helpless and powerless. These feelings can be mitigated through education. My work with survivors consists of a mutual exchange process whereby I teach them coping skills and wellness strategies and provide information about post-traumatic stress reactions. They, in turn, teach me about their traumatic past history and the internal resources that help them to cope with present-day challenges.

During individual counseling sessions, I provide survivors with articles and handouts compiled from the extensive literature on Holocaust survivors and post-traumatic stress. Sometimes we review them together and other times they take them home to read and come back with questions.

In groups, I educate members regularly about the effects of war trauma. For example, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York created a need for such education. For weeks after the incident, many members in our Drop-in Centre underwent a wide range of reactions, including panic, fear, irritability, nervousness, nightmares, and a sense of insecurity and hopelessness. When I explained that these reactions are a normal response to traumatic events, many felt relieved. This type of approach breaks down any self-perceived notion of being ‘crazy’ because they react this way. Many survivors feel embarrassed to discuss their reactions with family members or friends. Consequently, they often tend to suffer in silence.

During such discussions, I use a collaborative approach to help participants gain relief from their symptoms. I encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings with each other and to identify support systems they can rely on, apart from the group. In this situation, members were also advised to limit the information they took in through the media. Survivors were invited to share their own coping strategies which included: praying for the victims and their families; turning to their friends and family for support; and distraction techniques such as going for a walk, doing some type of exercise, meeting friends, reading a magazine or book, and going to a movie. This discussion and collaborative approach created an opportunity for members to help each other, which left them feeling empowered.

Other forms of group education include teaching survivors leadership and public speaking skills. For example, we help members overcome their fear of public speaking by teaching them to pay attention to their body language and projecting their voices into a microphone. Whenever a group member speaks, the staff and volunteers either sit down or move aside to encourage the group to focus its undivided attention on the person holding the floor. This validates and reinforces the member’s importance to the group.

We also teach coping skills that enhance the quality of their lives. Our programs focus on managing stress, building healthy self-esteem, teaching assertiveness techniques, reframing negative thought patterns, fostering communication skills, controlling worry, managing anger, resolving conflict, and dealing with depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

As our members’ physical and cognitive health deteriorates, we also empower them to improve their situations by providing educational programs and articles that address their current health status and teach prevention and protection strategies. For example, we explain to them how to improve memory and balance, prevent falls, and protect themselves against crime; we advise them on the value of visual and hearing aids to improve sensory losses; we educate them about the health benefits of organic foods; and we share information about nutrition and diseases. Our members tell us they attend the Drop-to Centre to learn new ways to enhance their well- being and many integrate this information into their everyday life.

Another key strategy that empowers survivors consists of informing them about available community resources such as restitution payments and other related funds. We educate them about social-service and health care resources, and ways to access them. During an interview, I sometimes learn that survivors’ health and psychological functioning has deteriorated. If these survivors are receiving a monthly BEG pension from the German government, I inform them they may be eligible for an increase in their pension. For example, they may be eligible for an increase if they experience deterioration in the physical and/or psychiatric conditions that were originally assessed for their restitution eligibility. To apply for this increase they must fill out an application form and be examined by a medical practitioner approved by the German government. It is important that we are knowledgeable about the different resources available so we can refer survivors to them.

When I attend conferences and describe this education process to my colleagues, some service providers are surprised that survivors are capable of learning new skills. This is an example of an ageist perception that is based on myth rather than reality. Many older adults are highly motivated well into their nineties to enhance their well-being and to work on personal growth and development. They welcome new strategies and interventions. Survivors are no different. When we believe in them and encourage their capabilities and competencies, they reflect these strengths back to us. Mrs. B. is a case in point. At age eighty-five she learned to use the Internet so she could send emails to her friends and grandchildren. Mr. S., at age ninety-five, continues to attend community lectures and shares his vast historical knowledge with peers, staff and volunteers.

Mutual-Exchange Educational Processes

Ochberg (1993) explains that the educational process is one of mutual exchange. I have always believed survivors should be provided with opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise with staff, each other and the community. For example, survivors sit on Holocaust Advisory Committees at CJCS where they advise staff on issues relevant to the survivor community. They review and approve requests from survivors who meet eligibility criteria for emergency- assistance funds. Members of the Drop-in Centre function as resource persons for artists in the community. One author turned to members for insight into a survivor character for his fictional work. A stimulating group discussion helped him develop a better understanding of the character he was writing about. Artists solicit volunteers for their visual-arts projects, and documentary filmmakers consult with our members as part of their research for their projects. In return, these opportunities imbue survivors with confidence and self-respect when they realize they have an important contribution to make.

Survivors share their creative interests within the group and lead discussions on such topics as life in pre-war Europe, the experiences of survivors who fled to Russia, their lives after liberation, the attitudes that greeted survivors when they immigrated to Montreal, their post-war lives and professions, current events, and stories about their trips to Israel and countries of origin. Sometimes survivors read inspirational poetry and prose, provide an overview of Jewish holidays, or lead discussions about the political situation in Israel.

Survivors also share special mementos with the group. They bring in articles about their European hometowns, certificates acknowledging their volunteer work in the community, information about organizations they support, and European identity cards. Many bring in pictures of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which they share with great pride. The members express joy every time a member shares news about a new great-grandchild.

Incorporating Empowerment Strategies in Programs and Services

My underlying objective in designing programs and services is creating structures that support survivors’ empowerment and help them see themselves in a positive light. The following discussion illustrates some ways in which empowerment practices are incorporated into the programs and services I develop.

Examples of Outreach

Expecting all survivors-in-need to initiate contact for services is not realistic. Some must be contacted directly by actively reaching out to them and informing them about available resources. Outreach to them is an effective modality to link these individuals with community services. As a frontline worker, I started a community-outreach program to unaffiliated and socially isolated survivors in the early 1990s. I began by identifying residential areas of the over- sixty-five Jewish population using census data. I discovered that some survivors in Montreal, mainly singles, did not migrate westward to these areas during the 1960s and 1970s when the rest of the survivor community did. They chose to remain in the ‘old neighborhood,’ living as boarders in people’s homes, renting apartments, or living in rooming houses. Their reasons for remaining were varied. Some had settled in these communities after the war and did not want to relocate. Others wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish identities. Montreal’s trend towards gentrification in the 1980s, however, displaced these survivors from the old neighborhoods and they ended up living in diverse parts of the city.

As a result, I established links with community centres, agencies, homeless shelters, and synagogues that referred socially isolated individuals. As referrals came in, I met with each individual, sometimes in their homes, sometimes in homeless shelters, and other times in the streets. I spent several nights on a Catholic community bus searching the streets for homeless people who might be Jewish. Each time I met with individuals I informed them about resources in the Jewish community and sometimes linked them with community services. When they were uninterested, I left them a folder of information about resources. Active outreach provided isolated survivors with knowledge about alternatives available to them, which empowered them to make informed choices.

For example, a local women’s centre referred a physically frail survivor who was the sole Jewish tenant in a Hungarian low-cost housing development where she was subjected to anti- Semitic provocations. I referred her in turn to supervised housing in the Jewish community where, for the first time since immigrating to Montreal, she was able to live in a Jewish milieu. Another referral came from Sister F. a nun at a downtown homeless shelter. She was concerned about Mrs. S., a seventy-four-year-old survivor with dementia symptoms. Many years ago, Mrs. S. had fled from an abusive husband and the Grey Nuns Order provided her with shelter. The nun who supported her had died and Sister F. wanted to ensure that Mrs. S. was connected with the Jewish community. I linked her with Jewish Family Services.

Consider, too, the following case study. One of the most memorable individuals I came across through outreach was Mr. D. He was born in Warsaw, Poland and survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz. His entire family, including his wife and two small children, were murdered in the Holocaust. After liberation Mr. D. went to Israel where he proudly served in the army. In 1952 he immigrated to Montreal and worked as a finisher in a fur factory. He never remarried.

I first met Mr. D. in 1991 when the late Sara Rosenfeld, director of the Yiddish Committee at Canadian Jewish Congress, referred him. He responded to an advertisement in the local Jewish press soliciting old Yiddish books. He donated several Yiddish texts. Sara was concerned because Mr. D., in his eighties, lived alone on the third floor of an apartment building in the east end of the city, far away from the Jewish community. I decided to conduct an outreach visit. Mr. D. suffered from severe angina and had not seen a medical doctor since the 1960s. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for him to climb the stairs to his third-floor apartment. He had no Jewish neighbors. When asked, however, he refused to move from the building he had lived in since coming to Montreal in the late 1940s.

I was struck by Mr. D.’s tenacity and determination to maintain control over his disease and his environment. I was also moved by his commitment to the Jewish people and his love of Israel. He showed me articles he had collected over the years and donations he had made to local organizations.

On several occasions, I accompanied Mr. D. to the emergency room of a local hospital. As we waited for him to be examined by the doctor, Mr. D. was convinced he would die if admitted. After he was hospitalized, the repressed memories of his Auschwitz experiences surfaced. His coping mechanisms were reactivated each time after he was medically stabilized and allowed to return home. Eventually, he accepted a referral for a visiting nurse who monitored his medication. Until his death, he was maintained in the community with nursing and meal assistance.

Mr. D. was a private man who, for the most part, kept to himself. When the Drop-in Centre for Holocaust Survivors opened, however, he was one of the first survivors to respond to our advertisement. He quickly became a regular weekly member. Attending this group gave meaning and purpose to his life. He made several close friends and rarely missed attending. When he did, it was because he was in the hospital. Just before his death Mr. D. spent two weeks in the hospital. He was supported and visited by Drop-in members who lifted his spirits. When he died, arrangements were made to fly his body to Israel because it was his wish to be buried there. We held a memorial service for him in the Drop-in Centre. He died surrounded by people who cared about him even though he had no family.


Example of Group Self-Determination: the Drop-in Centre

By believing and respecting that survivors know what they need, I learned about an unmet need in the community. Survivors often told me they wanted to meet, within a community setting, other survivors who would understand them. Recognizing and acknowledging this gap in service led to the development of the Drop-in Centre for Holocaust Survivors at CJCS.

Beginning in the late 1980s, when I started working in this area, many survivors told me about the central role of the landsmanshaften in their lives. However, as time passed, these organizations were shrinking in number and size. Consequently, remaining members, who were dependent on these organizations, began to feel lonely and isolated, and some became depressed. I believed there was a need for an organized centre for Holocaust survivors to replace the disappearing landsmanshaften. This need became even more evident in the 1990s when I contacted isolated survivors with no family or social support. Some were experiencing loneliness and depression. Others were dwelling on their Holocaust memories or becoming preoccupied with physical ailments.

As I considered establishing a drop-in centre, I researched existing group programs around the world (Dasberg, 1995; Fried & Waxman, 1988; Guttmann, 1995; Hassan, 1995, 1997). I discovered that these groups improve the quality of life for isolated survivors by creating new relationship networks and providing physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social stimulation. They also address survivors’ needs to socialize with peers and to feel a sense of community and belonging. The Holocaust Survivor Centre (HSC) in London, England, conformed to my vision for a drop-in centre because of its empowerment philosophy (Hassan, 1995; 1997). In this mutual-aid model created by Judith Hassan, survivors are involved in all aspects of the program, from social activities to public speaking about their experiences. They celebrate holidays together, grieve their losses at commemorative events, and warn others about the rise of fascism.

I wanted to create a drop-in centre incorporating an empowerment practice model where survivors would take an active role in self-healing and self-determination, so I proposed the program with two goals in mind – providing a safe environment where survivors could socialize with peers and where information could be provided to them about community resources and services. I knew the importance of involving members in developing group goals rather than imposing my own and I trusted that the members would be able to determine what other roles the centre could perform. Some colleagues questioned the absence of a structured group-program plan. I believed, however, that the program would evolve successfully by using an empowerment approach and developing a vision collaboratively with members. Eventually the timing was right and the Drop-in Centre opened with fifteen survivors.

From the beginning, we operated on the premise that individuals are knowledgeable about their needs. Survivors were encouraged to bring their issues and concerns to the group. I included an ongoing needs-assessment component in the program that tracked gaps in services. Each time survivors identified an area of concern, we searched for solutions together and devised a plan to incorporate the new service. For example, this process identified a need for a service to help survivors with compensation claims.

After two months of meetings with little structure, however, members became bored and requested more formal activities. We decided to identify and plan activities and programs that would be incorporated into the meetings. To this day, members act as the Drop-in Centre’s Board of Management and we refer to them as such. They are consulted about all aspects of the program and participate in program planning every three months. Giving members a voice and supporting group self-determination continues to be an empowering principle in the Drop-in Centre. It is consistent with enhancing self-esteem and encouraging members to be actively involved, and it helps create other specialized services within the Holocaust survivor program.

Here are interventions and principles that enhance group empowerment and support:

  • Treat the relationship between staff and members as a partnership.
  • View members as historians who have lived a unique history and have much to teach. Encourage their roles as historians, consultants and advisors.
  • Ensure that professional staff, volunteers, and students are aware of, and sensitive to, the historical context of members’ lives and their psycho-social issues.
  • View members as competent, adaptive, resourceful, and resilient individuals. Use language that reinforces this view.
  • Trust that members are knowledgeable about their needs and, if not, then help them identify and explore them.
  • Share power. Involve members in decision making and problem-solving.
  • Use a collaborative approach to plan programming.
  • Provide opportunities for involvement in activities that provide meaning and purpose, for example: volunteering (chapter 6); commemorative activities (chapter 10); and intergenerational programming (chapter 12).

Example of Peer-to-Peer Support: The Survivor Assistance Office

The absence of a centralized location to assist survivors with survivor-specific issues is an example of a gap in services identified by survivors. To address this need, we began by setting up an Information Line at CJCS to answer questions about issues pertaining to restitution and social-security payments. Through an empowerment approach, opportunities were created for Holocaust survivors and second-generation descendants to volunteer as staff. We trained them to provide information about restitution and social security to callers.

The Information Line quickly became a lifeline for many survivors who resisted turning to a community agency for assistance. This peer-to-peer model, where they received information and support from their fellow survivors, generated trust quickly and callers opened up about other problems concerning their daily living. Apart from sharing general information, the service referred callers to the appropriate service both within and outside CJCS.

This service grew rapidly into a full-fledged Survivor Assistance Office (SAO) supported by the Claims Conference (chapter 9). Other SAOs, being piloted in the United States at the time, were staffed with professional workers and paralegals. I believed and advocated that our volunteers could be trained to provide the same service. Today this office provides, at no charge, help with restitution, compensation and social-security programs; translates foreign documents; and stamps (validates) annual Life Certificates (survivors who receive restitution payments from the German government must have life certificates validated annually to prove they are still alive). The Information Line still responds to all issues pertaining to the survivor community. Using survivors to staff this program is a wonderful example of creating opportunities for survivors to help each other. Who better understands a survivor than another survivor? These volunteers also find meaning and purpose in their own lives by being of service to their peers.

Examples of Supporting Group Advocacy on Political and Social Issues

Survivors feel empowered when they advocate on issues of significance to them. Advocacy also has a beneficial effect on their self-concept. For example, the members of the Drop-in Centre wrote to the ‘special master’ of the Swiss Bank Settlement. Members circulated a petition advocating that the $22.5 million dollars of ‘looted assets’ be paid directly to individual survivors instead of to organizations that provide them with support. Members also speak up and condemn the mass atrocities that are committed against other people such as in the Darfur region of Sudan. The group wrote a series of letters to local newspapers and Canadian government officials calling for a more aggressive approach in protecting these African civilians. Survivors identify with other mass atrocity victims and feel it is their duty to speak up against such brutalities. We also encourage and support individual survivor initiatives for advocacy. For example, we supported a child survivor who lobbied the Israeli government to release the names of survivors who were put into institutions immediately after the war and still remained there. The group sent parcels to them at Chanukah.

We collaborated with the Canadian Jewish Congress, the former political arm of the Jewish community, to ensure that survivors’ voices were heard and that issues of concern to them were recognized and taken seriously. The members actively participate in both local and national issues. For example, when there was a violent anti-Israel riot at a local university, the group wrote a letter to the chancellor condemning these acts. When the Israeli consulate in Montreal was on the verge of closing for financial reasons, they invited the regional chairperson of the Canadian Jewish Congress to a group meeting to talk about the situation. He suggested they write a letter of protest to the Israeli government, which they did.

Reframing Self-Concept through Intergenerational Programs

Institutional Adaptation

Ensuring that health care and social-service systems are responsive to survivors’ unique needs is a critical strategy that supports survivor empowerment. As service providers, we need to address the following issues and ensure that policymakers do so as well:

  • What gaps in services need to be filled to deal effectively with this population?
  • Are there barriers that impede access to service delivery, decision making, and culturally appropriate services?
  • Are institutions adapting their environments and services to accommodate Holocaust survivors?
  • How well educated are service providers about the unique needs of Holocaust survivors such as their psycho-social functioning, their diversity, and the resources available to them?

Examples of Institutional Barriers Faced by Survivors


Some service providers avoid working with survivors because their attitudes and emotional reactions about the Holocaust may overwhelm them and cause vicarious trauma (discussed in chapter 16). Also, survivors are sometimes labelled paranoid, delusional and/or depressed, which may cause referrals to an inappropriate service. Social problems may also be overlooked because of this labelling. For example, two survivors who were referred to a survivor discussion group and had to be redirected to a more appropriate resource. One woman was being harassed by a tenant in her building and was afraid to leave her apartment. She was referred to a storefront organization that deals with tenants’ rights. Another woman was being emotionally abused by her husband and was referred to an elder-abuse center.


Technology and language barriers may impede survivors’ ability to access social services. Some are intimidated and/or frustrated when encountering automated telephone answering systems rather than a human voice. Older survivors, who speak their mother tongues and lack proficiency in the local language, may not understand automated instructions to press the required sequence of numbers to reach a worker or department. These factors hamper their ability to access social services. There are also the issues around culturally appropriate services (such as gender issues in the Haredi community) and the importance of having workers who speak the survivor’s mother tongue. For example, survivors living in rural areas of Quebec, where the majority of the population is French-speaking, often have difficulty obtaining the services they need in a language they understand.

In chapter 17, I make other recommendations for institutional change and share my thoughts about creating a national resource to streamline and improve services to survivors.

Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, University of Toronto Press, from:

Giberovitch, M. (2014). Transcending victimization through empowerment. Recovering from Genocidal Trauma: An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 123-140.

The book can be purchased by clicking on this link:

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