Seven years ago, I was at a reception at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for the various leaders of Holocaust survivors associations in Israel. I sensed a certain tenseness during the long speeches, but ascribed it at the time to a struggle going on over survivors’ benefits and welfare payments.
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Only later did it occur to me that their host, Shimon Peres, was of the same generation as his elderly guests – and as the man who had stood at David Ben-Gurion’s right hand, he probably represented the old establishment that had not done enough to recognize and rehabilitate them in the early years of independence.
After the event, they spilled out onto the wide pavement and, exhilarated after imbibing a bit too much of the cheap wine that is served at these functions, a few engaged in the most bizarre argument I have ever witnessed.
They were competing about who had the right to be regarded a “true survivor,” and which of the many Nazi concentration and death camps was the most hard core.
One of them, carried away, shouted at his friend, “For God’s sake, you were only at Dachau! Dachau was a summer camp!”
Not everyone finds that anecdote amusing, and I probably tell it too often. But the discomfort it causes is telling because we tend to over-idealize survivors and put them on a pedestal too high for ordinary mortals.
Those who came out alive are so sacred to us that we forget they were normal men and women, with all the human failings and weaknesses, not super-heroes. But along with our admiration, we are also doing them an injustice by measuring them only by the chapter in their lives that ended with liberation in 1945 – as if in the subsequent 70 years they have achieved nothing else of note.
Next week, as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated worldwide and at Auschwitz, ceremonies will be held for the 70th anniversary of its liberation. The survivors will naturally be the center of attention.
Many, of course, will comment on the dwindling numbers of survivors left and wonder how we will keep the memory alive when those who were there are no longer among us.
In countries where the education system has decided to include the Holocaust as part of the national history curriculum, the small handful of survivors still physically capable of traveling and lecturing to students are in intense demand. Some have even become minor celebrities, often appearing at the side of prime ministers and presidents at public events.
What a change from the first decades of freedom. when no one wanted to hear their stories, much less to see their experience as unique in any way.
No matter where they began rebuilding their lives, the postwar world was not interested in them.
In the European countries where the Nazis had ruled, from France to the Baltic, there was too much guilt over collaboration, and no one cared to be reminded of it until well into the 1980s.
In the Soviet Union and the lands it dominated, Stalin and his successors permitted only one narrative: A Great Patriotic War had been fought against fascism, and even on the memorials that were allowed to exist on mass-murder scenes such as Babi Yar and Auschwitz, throughout most of the Communist era the very mention of Jews was forbidden. They were all “victims of fascism.”
In Britain, which alone had withstood Nazism for six years, survivors were expected to be thankful and remember that it was the RAF pilots of the Battle of Britain who were the real heroes.
It was only in the early 1970s, when the monumental series “World at War” was screened with an episode dedicated to the Final Solution, that many Britons began to realize that Nazi camps were not only those places from which Allied POWs were gamely trying to tunnel out.
The survivors who made it to the United States had fewer historical complexes to overcome, but in the bright and bustling New World of the baby-boom generation, who had the time get stuck in the past?
For the hundreds of thousands of survivors who arrived in Israel on the eve of its birth and in the immediate aftermath, no one had any time for them, either.
There was a nation to build, wars to be fought and a deep sense of frustration with these Diaspora Jews who, unlike their pioneering fighting brothers in Zion, had allowed themselves to be taken “like lambs to the slaughter.”
Scant resources of the struggling young state were dedicated to rebuilding their lives, but as far as their stories were concerned, they had to fit in to the pantheon. The annual Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, was to be Holocaust and Heroes day, commemorating the final Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it was these rebels and partisans who refused to go meekly to the furnaces who were elevated above other victims and survivors.
It was only in 1961 at the Adolf Eichmann trial, when the survivors of the camps – not only those who had taken up arms against the Germans – took to the podium in the televised proceedings, that their stories began to be heard among the wide Israeli public.
After all these years, it is pointless to blame those who failed to pay attention, sometimes even actively suppressing the survivors’ testimonies.
It wasn’t only political circumstances and national neuroses; it was a world urgently building a future. And today’s notions of bearing witness and the need for closure did not exist.
The survivors were not some cosseted and protected endangered species. There were over a million of them, young men and women seemingly identical to their peers, and there was no particular reason to be sensitive toward them.
They could be the aggravating neighbor, a rival at work, the woman you dated and married – they could be your friend, colleague, enemy, father or mother. Normal everyday people all around you.
They had been “there” during the war and it remained an unspoken chapter, certainly not to be mentioned in front of the children. Many took that chapter to the grave, never reopened.
In many ways, we live today in a better age. For a generation, the survivors still among us have been revered and their stories sought after. Teams of professionally trained researchers have carried out thousands of lengthy interviews, not only recording their experiences for posterity but often revealing them for the first time to children and grandchildren.
The best of these interviewers did not restrict their questions to the war years and the lost world that existed before, but asked also about the years after. That is still largely the untold story.
While a lot is being done to educate a new generation on those years of genocide, we need to begin focusing more on the survivors’ subsequent lives.
This – not only out of respect for all they achieved, but the way they dealt with the challenge of trying to live once again in a normal world that didn’t want to know, after everything had been taken from them – is as relevant to us as how they scrabbled and persevered during the war.
It’s perhaps even more relevant, because we hope never to go through a similar event again, but they have also lived in our world and our times. We can and need to learn so much about that.
In an Israeli society that is still so woefully inadequate at accepting strangers and foreign groups, we must revisit and recognize the mistakes made toward the survivors in the 1950s – when they were “the other” – and try to do better with the others of today. It is central to finally get around to defining Israel’s true character.
Jews living in today’s Europe, and non-Jews as well, must now listen to the survivors’ stories of how they reestablished a Jewish presence and their own Jewish identities in a continent that had just tried, and failed, to eradicate both.
It is crucial for a Europe that is struggling to understand whether it can still contain Jewish communities, and other minorities, in its midst.
Survival did not end with liberation. Those who lived through the Holocaust continued to survive for the rest of their lives, and we must see that in them as well.
In a time where just about every aspect of the Holocaust is becoming increasingly politicized and fetishized, we have to use the opportunity we still have with the survivors to treat them not as super-humans but as normal people like us, living normally in our world today after having lived in the most abnormal world.
That should be the true way to respect them, their success as well as their failure, and to learn from their memory.