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Survivors, Then and Now

By: David Mandel  

Let us compare the concept of the survivors of the Shoah, The Holocaust, to survivors of molestation, domestic violence or rape. I fully appreciate the risk involved in comparing these two issues. After all, six million perished in the Holocaust and innumerable others were forever traumatized while molestation or abuse affects a much, much smaller group under very different circumstances. It is the horror of the trauma of the individual survivor of being a victim that is being compared here, it is the concept of a survivor never really forgetting what happened to him or her. 

My wife and I are both children of Holocaust survivors. We have grown up in homes hearing countless stories of survival each more remarkable than the previous one. Any child hearing their parents' stories wonders how did they survive? How did they cope with the loss of parents and siblings? With the physical pain, the torture, the starvation? With total financial ruin? With the emotional trauma and degradation? The question most often asked by children of holocaust survivors is how would, G-d forbid, we have handled these events? You can listen to these stories over and over but you can never, ever really experience what our parents, the survivors, went through. 

So much has been spoken and written recently on the subject of child molestation, child abuse, domestic violence and related issues in the Jewish community. More and more we are beginning to hear from survivors of these traumatic experiences. What, I believe, compares the survivors of the Holocaust and the survivors of abuse is their singular experience of being the victim, of believing that no one can truly understand what occurred to them except perhaps another victim. 

Trauma is relived in many ways. My parents like so many others had their trauma inscribed on their forearms, those infamous numbers the Nazis, Yimach Shimam, used for their meticulous record keeping. My father Alav Hashalom, relived his trauma through his frequent screaming nightmares. My mother Tichyeh survives every day with the physical pain the Nazis left her. My father-in-law Alav Hashalom, and my mother in law Tichyeh often described in detail how foraging for a potato peel would constitue a meal. In the nightmare of the "lager", the camps, every person experienced countless episodes yet there are a few that remain for every survivor as the most horrifying. No doubt there are even a few stories that haven't ever been recounted not even once these past fifty five years. 

Such is the case with survivors of molestation, rape, domestic violence and related crimes. Victims of child molestation or domestic violence are all too often victimized repeatedly by the same person, be it the molester or the husband. Every offense is another nightmarish experience. The physical pain and the emotional pain leave scars in the mind and in the soul. These events may be repressed by the victim or they may play themselves out in various forms. Every survivor reacted differently to the Holocaust. Every survivor reacts differently to being a victim of abuse. 

You hear it said from those who were in concentration camps that when the British were bombing and the air raid sounded men and women would leave their barracks in Auschwitz and stand outside or if they were digging trenches they would wave their shovels in the air so the British would notice them. They preferred to take their chances of being killed by a British bomb rather than waiting to die in the gas chamber. They felt hopelessly trapped and doomed. 

A child molested or a wife beaten also speaks of being trapped. A child survivor will speak of the shame and violation often at the hands of a person they love and trust such as a relative or a friend of the family. A beaten wife speaks of the fear for her children, entrapment, despair, financial desperation, and, ultimately fear for her life. Both the victims of the Holocaust and of abuse speak of the emotional scars they bear. 

Survivors of the holocaust and survivors of these forms of physical and emotional abuse relive and recount their stories in different ways. Holocaust survivors were victimized by people who hated them and so the victims, the survivors recount the stories within this context. Most victims of child molestation, child abuse and domestic violence are hurt by people who presumably love them. These victims are shamed into a world of their own, of keeping secrets, they simply don't speak of these experiences but still live with their experience all the time. 

Lest anyone think that by writing this I am trivializing the Holocaust let me be clear in stating nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. The Holocaust was a nightmarish experience for millions, while molestation or abuse is a nightmarish experience for an individual. Yet, on an individual level, both are survivors struggling to cope. 

DENIAL 
Every few years the deniers of the Holocaust rear their head. Such litigation is currently taking place in London. The deniers of the Holocaust argue that it never took place, that it is a Zionist plot and a character assassination against the Third Reich. When you listen to your parents' stories about the Holocaust, or of the many Rebbes from Eastern Europe who saved thousands of Jews, or those who fled to Shanghai to learn Torah, or you read about the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, or you listened to an Elie Weisel lecture, did you ever once say to yourself these stories never happened? Even once? Of course not. Yet we still have people in our community today who after listening to countless horror stories about victims and from victims who still don't believe. There are responsible people who speak and act as if events of abuse in our community simply don't occur. Imagine you or me telling your mother or my mother after all these years that the pain she suffered for twelve months in Auschwitz was not real. Tell the Polish Jews who spent four years in concentration camps that it didn't really happen, that good people simply don’t act this way. Go ahead and try it. 

HEALING 
To deny a child victim, a wife victim, a rape victim that their pain occurred is to deny them the opportunity to begin to heal. It is to deny them their ability to understand that these events happen to many other people and that by sharing their experience they will realize it wasn't their fault, that they shouldn't feel guilt, that they shouldn't be shamed into silence. 

During the month of Adar we read Parshas Zachor. We're told by G-d to to eradicate the memory of Amalek . 

Every generation has its Amalek. It could be Haman, the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust.For today's victim of molestation their Amalek is the man who violates them. These victims too would like to eradicate the memory of their abuse. 

Many Holocaust survivors don't know the actual date their parents died in concentration camp, so they designated a certain day as their yahrtzeit. Many Czechoslovakians and Hungarians took Rosh Chodesh Sivan or as their yahrtzeit as that was the last day they saw their parents or siblings when they arrived in Auschwitz. By contrast most survivors of abuse remember exactly where and when their horrifying experience took place. Maybe it would be helpful to have a day to be a for all victims of abuse, the thousands of victims so the world can proclaim its understanding, its compassion and its need for healing. 

Pesach seems the right time to discuss this when our parents, the survivors recount their stories of the Holocaust. It is their to remind us, their children, so we will never forget. It was Pesach time when many Hungarians were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Our parents want to be certain we could never forget how their children, parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors and friends perished. They want us to tell our children how they survived, the pain and torture they still live with every day. 

In a similar vein it is our responsibility to recount the stories of the present day survivors of all the horrific examples of abuse so our children won’t have to experience it and will not have to be survivors. The modern day Yetzias Mitzrayim for the survivors of abuse is to escape from their inner demons. We have a responsibility to understand it so we can help them. Comparing a survivor of the Holocause to a survivor of child molestation may be difficult, yet there are important lessons to be learned. 

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