The Holocaust Survivors Who Had 'Psychic' Experiences, and the Man Who Documented Them

Following the Holocaust, tales circulated about survivors having supernatural experiences. One New York journalist documented them obsessively

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A Jewish restaurant in New York, in 1946. America’s Yiddish press was a channel for collecting accounts of mysterious Holocaust experiences.
A Jewish restaurant in New York, in 1946. America’s Yiddish press was a channel for collecting accounts of mysterious Holocaust experiences. Credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

One day in late 1942, in the predawn hours, the writer Shea Tenenbaum was jolted out of his sleep. In a dream he heard his niece, Chayale, cry out. Tenenbaum, a well-known figure in American Yiddish circles, had been living in New York since 1934. Chayale had stayed behind in Lublin with her family. “She stayed there, across the sea, in Hitler’s hell,” Tenenbaum recalled. He broke out in a cold sweat and knew something terrible had befallen his relative.

“I also saw multitudes of camps of Jews, shouting, falling, being pushed, trampled, choking. Fear of God!” he wrote in his diary on the morning of November 9.

At the time, almost no one knew in America about the scale of the Nazis’ crimes. But a few years later, at the end of the war, his nephew, Chayale’s brother, told Tenenbaum about the murder of members of their family in the Majdanek camp. He afterward discovered that the last Lublin Jews were murdered on November 9, 1942.

Tenenbaum’s testimony was incorporated into a now-forgotten work published in two volumes (“The Other Dimension,”1967; “Expanded Parapsychology,” 1973; both in Hebrew) by the New York-based Jewish journalist and writer Aaron Zeitlin. In a note he appended to the book, Zeitlin noted that Tenenbaum (who passed away in 1989) was not alone in having experiences of this kind during the Holocaust.

“Who knows and who can say how many shouts of horror were sent to America during the Holocaust by the spiritual telegraph?” he wrote. “Any number of sensitive people received them; the rest did not receive: The voice of the American mass spoiled their reception station.”

Zeitlin, who compiled the testimonies, wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. Styling himself a “metaphysician,” he engaged in the study of parapsychology – supernatural mental phenomena such as telepathy, reincarnation and dreams that foretell the future.

The term parapsychology is hardly in use today: There is general agreement that it is a pseudoscience. But until the 1980s, reports of such phenomena were common in the press and in certain books. Indeed, no small number of physicists and other scientists, as well as philosophers and psychologists, were occupied with telepathy and telekinesis. Experiments were conducted to verify the existence of supernatural powers.

Arcane world

Many Jewish writers and journalists were also drawn to the arcane world of parapsychology, not least in Israel. In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of books on the subject were published in this country. Around the same time that Zeitlin was publishing his books, two magazines dealing with parapsychology were founded in Israel: “Other Worlds,” edited by Aviva Sten, and “Mysterious Worlds,” whose editor was Margot Klausner. The latter, who was involved in the theater and was also a film producer, established the Israel Parapsychology Society, which sponsored seances and experiments in “psychic phenomena.”

Some searched for parapsychological manifestations among immigrants from North Africa. Thus, the philosopher and rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Samuel Hugo Bergman, wrote, “Here in Israel there apparently exists a broad scope for investigating the ‘primitive atavistic’ vision of the occult.”

It could be surmised, he noted, that one could find among the new immigrants “primitive seers of the occult,” namely witches. “It behooves us to explore and examine the ‘remnants’ as long as it is possible to do so,” he wrote in the preface to a book on parapsychology, published in 1966.

Although he lived in New York, Zeitlin was in close contact with the literary world in Israel. In his books he set forth a range of theories aimed at proving incontrovertibly the existence of supernatural forces. To that end he collected hundreds of testimonies on the subject from the history of European Jewry and Zionism. From a critical perspective, it can be said that Zeitlin would have a hard time persuading the skeptical reader about the existence of “worlds beyond,” but the testimonies create an exceptional and at times touching portrait of Jewish life in the 20th century.

During his winter vacation, on the beaches of Florida, Zeitlin did not pass up the opportunity to collect testimony from Jewish vacationers.

“Our brethren from among the Children of Israel flock to sun-drenched Miami, Florida, during the winter from every corner of the United States and Canada, and I must emphasize: In an atmosphere of leisure and shaking off of burdensome concerns, people may dredge up from their psyche a garland of notions that were [previously] rejected consciously or unconsciously, and here they rise to the surface,” he explained.

Zeitlin compiled additional reports about extrasensory experiences from letters sent to him by Jews. America’s Yiddish press became another channel for collecting accounts of mysterious experiences. One reader, Avraham Dovrin, reported to the Tag Morgen Zhurnal that while traveling on a train from Chicago to Miami in 1943, he saw an image of his mother. He later learned that his parents had been murdered that day.

A Holocaust survivor from New York, Leah Zabirowicz, related that her father had warned her in a dream that she must pose as a mute.

Zeitlin took special interest in unusual experiences that befell “famous people”: Jewish leaders and writers. He cites a long list of events of this kind from various areas of life.

The iconic poet Haim Nahman Bialik, for example, had a vision as a child rows of dwarfs dressed in black singing softly. The novelist S.Y. Agnon reported an experience of a different sort. His mother, he related, was once sitting next to a window when her body suddenly shook and she fainted. It turned out that just then a robber had attacked her husband and tried to strangle him. And Geula Cohen, the famed fighter in the pre-state Lehi underground and afterward an MK, testified that when she was arrested by the British and tried to escape, her mother had a dream apprising her of the events.

Zeitlin also took an interest in the spiritual dimension of the sense of smell, between re’ah and ruah – Hebrew for scent and spirit. As an example, he cited a story about a rabbi from Jerusalem who was able to detect, by means of his olfactory sense, the presence of a person who had recently masturbated. He claimed that sexual attraction was also related to telepathy.

But the most touching cases are those relating to the Holocaust. Zeitlin’s father, writer and publicist Hillel Zeitlin, was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, together with his whole family. Aaron, who happened to be in the United States when the war erupted, was the only one spared. The younger Zeitlin claimed that his father was a prophet who foretold future events in his dreams. In the decades after the Holocaust he wrote a great deal about the destruction of Polish Jewry, in some cases interweaving the Holocaust and parapsychology.

“There is no doubt that many highly fraught psychic phenomena entered into the horrific experiences of those in the ghettos and the camps. We know about the smallest part of this from the survivors,” he wrote.

Poet Abba Kovner, one of the leaders of the uprising in the Vilna ghetto, whose whole family perished, added corroboration of Zeitlin’s feelings. “Could it be that my mother’s outcry was not received somewhere? I read about a telescope that picked up the explosion of a star that took place millions of light-years ago. But how is it possible that the outcry of human beings should not also live for millions of light-years? I sense their voices in space.”

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