The International School for Holocaust Studies
"The Road Ahead"
Survivors Speak about their Lives after the Holocaust
- How would you describe your initial encounter with Israeli society?
- How do you feel in today's society as a survivor?
- What would you consider your contribution to Israeli society?
- When did you begin to tell your family of your experiences during the Holocaust?
- As a survivor of the Holocaust, how do you respond to contemporary genocides?
- Suggestions for Educational Discussion
"So here I am right now, about eighty years old – coming to the year of eighty. I have two married children, wonderful children. I have five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world. Just last week I was thinking – 'My God, sixty-two years ago I came here, a boy of seventeen, from a different planet, into a different planet,' and now, these days, after sixty-two years I am moving from one apartment to another one."
– Eliezer Ayalon, Holocaust survivor
"I can't lecture my sons and my children. They don't want to be lectured. The fact is they know I went through hell. They know that I lost my parents. They never ask me. [...] Before I went to the States my son stopped me in the kitchen and asked me, [...] "Who are you?" I was shocked. [...] Ever heard a son who asks his father, "Who are you?" [...] So that was the reason why I wrote from there, to tell them what I went through."
– Professor Zwi Bacharach, Holocaust survivor
The postwar contributions of Holocaust survivors within Israeli society cannot be overstated. We have interviewed seven survivors living in Israel, focusing on their thoughts and experiences after the Holocaust.
When meeting Holocaust survivors today, we tend to learn only about their experiences during that period. It is easy to assume that once the Holocaust was over, and survivors began rebuilding their lives, their pain would disappear. However, as echoed in the interviews here, Holocaust survivors had – and still experience – difficulties on a day-to-day basis.
The complexity of the survivors' lives should not and can never be understated. In the years following the Holocaust, they constantly battled with private and painful memories while attempting and mostly succeeding to rebuild their lives in a new and lonely environment.
The experiences of survivors who arrived immediately after the Holocaust were significantly different to those who arrived many years later. In a sense, this latter group had their new identities shaped before they arrived in Israel. Their absorption problems may have been easier – they had already re-built their lives in another country, married there, and started young families – but the pain of their Holocaust experiences remained.
In contrast, survivors who came to Palestine directly after World War II had no family members, few possessions, and had generally come from a different background. Often they came alone and had to cope with the reality of rebuilding their lives and identities yet once again. How was this accomplished in a strange environment, in a new language, and in a society where some survivors felt that people just didn't understand what they had endured? In some cases, it would be many years before they would speak of their experiences.
This article was first published in our newsletter Teaching the Legacy (January, 2008). Full versions of some interviews can be found there. Following are some of the questions posed to the survivors, and an overview of their responses. You may click their names below, when they first appear in the article, to read short biographies of each survivor. After the conclusion, we have added suggestions for educational discussions.
Eliezer Ayalon remembers the moment of arrival in Haifa after a four-day sea-voyage from southern Italy:
"It was November 8, 1945. The moment the boat arrived, Haifa and Mount Carmel looked like heaven. [...] Here began my new life in a country with the Jewish people. I felt that I had been saved."
Two-and-a-half years later, Eliezer reached another milestone:
"The day that the State of Israel was established in May, 1948, I felt that I was coming back to normal life."
For Eliezer, and many other survivors, the reality of adjusting to life again in a newly created country wasn't easy. Bursting with the need to share their Holocaust experiences, Eliezer recalls,
"...we were really anxious to tell our stories, but all of a sudden I realized that they really don't believe us. Our stories were so incredible, in addition to the fact that sometimes you could hear a sort of [...] hint that maybe we did something wrong to survive."
Eliezer's reflections have been echoed by many survivors. Eliezer testifies that these reactions forced him into a stance of silence, which he maintained for 37 years before he was able to publicly express himself on the subject of the Holocaust. This silence inevitably extracted a heavy price from survivors, who often found themselves living a double life. He adds,
"It still took me a few years, but by bits and pieces, I began to speak and I felt right away such a relief and release…"
Professor Zwi Bacharach also testifies to an extremely difficult existential gap between Holocaust survivors and the local population. Those who were geographically removed from the actual events had difficulty understanding or believing the reality of the Holocaust. He states,
"They could not understand the nature of someone being released from [Nazi] concentration camps. It's coming from abnormality to normality, so the normal person can't understand you."
Ehud Loeb, unlike the examples of Bacharach and Ayalon, arrived in Israel in 1958, a full thirteen years after the end of the Second World War. Within eighteen months he was married, had a home, and was working – ostensibly a recipe for normality. Describing his early years in Israel, Ehud recalls,
"I became or I tried to become a member of Israeli society... speaking the language at the beginning with mistakes and maybe a bad accent, but here again I went into hiding, because living in Israel and being part of Israeli society, I had had my real life up to then or during the years of the Holocaust hidden purposely because it wasn't fashionable to speak about it, so my past was entirely hidden and again I lived in a new society…with an entirely new identity."
From the testimonies of the three survivors mentioned above, without the subjective problem of human beings dealing with such an unprecedented human tragedy, it appears that even the objective external framework for this human dialogue was studded with difficulties and obstacles that both sides needed to overcome.
Elisheva Lehmann married a young Jewish soldier from Palestine whom she met in Holland after liberation, and came to Palestine with him in 1946. When asked about her initial adjustment in her new country, she says,
"Some couldn't talk because it was too terrible, they were in the camps. But we who were hiding underground could talk. I wanted to tell a story of love, but they didn't allow us. Every time I tried to tell, I was told, 'You are here now, and you are a free person.' Nobody let the people talk – nobody."
Zwi Bacharach, coming from a somewhat assimilated Jewish home in Hamburg, Germany, joined a religious kibbutz after his arrival in the country. He reports that the kibbutz members, many of whom left Germany during the Weimar years in the thirties, were more sympathetic with a common language and a common pre-Holocaust past. As a result, he was able to talk about his experiences. When we asked him if he talked to them about his lost family, and if they listened, he says quite categorically,
"Of course I did. I had a very good friend who was my teacher, my madrich [mentor] and we became like brothers. Really we became so close like brothers. I am still in contact with his wife and children. He passed away and yes, to him and close friends I told my story privately, but what I needed was a guiding hand and that I didn't get, not because they didn't want to, they didn't know how to handle that. At that time nobody knew how to handle us."
However, Bacharach is insistent that closing the gap and solving problems was his responsibility – and that the young Israeli society should not be accused of being the obstacle.
Eliezer Ayalon says,
"The wounds have healed, but the scars still remain."
The fact that Holocaust education is so prominent in Israeli society today has enabled those survivors who felt they couldn't speak of their experiences in the past, to now begin telling their stories. Additionally, they feel time is running out. If they do not tell their stories, this important part of their lives will be lost forever.
Similarly, Ehud Loeb feels the attitude of the people in Israel towards the Holocaust and the survivors has changed over the years:
"...there is a change in the attitude in the people in Israel towards the Shoah [Holocaust] and the survivors. They are more receptive to listen, to read about the Shoah and the survivors. There is more interest also in schools, education everywhere, children, students and adults alike. The ceremonies which are held are more comprehensive during these past dozens of years."
Henry Foner arrived in England with the Kindertransport from Germany, in 1938. In 1968 he and his wife came to live in Israel. He feels at home here. He says,
"I had no difficulties related to the Holocaust. I can relate it to my life in Israel only I think in the sense that if it should ever happen again, at least the Jews and I will be able to fight back. In that respect it does relate to my life here and I think it does – my outlook on life too and I am sure my past has shaped my personality and it has made me uncertain and it's made me not take things for granted and think that everything will always be all right."
Masha Greenbaum came to Israel in 1978, and as a result, the influence of the Holocaust on her absorption was less traumatic, especially as she already spoke Hebrew well. Being able to communicate was an important factor in the immigration process. While living in England and South America, she often addressed groups about her Holocaust experiences, and therefore her absorption into Israeli society was less burdened by the need to tell.
All the survivors feel that in addition to their professional lives, on a personal level they have made an educational contribution to Israeli society by building families and through speaking about the Holocaust; those who came in the early 1940's contributed by joining army units and fighting for the very existence of the State of Israel. Later, many survivors displayed remarkable initiative, playing an active role in building the nascent state.
Meir Eldar arrived in Palestine in July, 1946 on the Hagana ship Biria. He became a proud soldier in the Palmach, the pre-state Jewish fighting force. He took part in opening the road to Jerusalem, which had been besieged during Israel's War of Independence. He recalls,
"In April, 1948, we took part in the unblocking of the Arab blockade of the Jerusalem corridor. We opened the road to Jerusalem from Sha'ar Hagai."
Elisheva Lehmann says the following about her contribution to Israeli society:
"Surely it is in education. I taught the children love, I taught them music. I talk about the Holocaust – that's another thing if you call it a contribution I think it is a must for me to tell it – it must not be forgotten. Yes, it is a contribution."
As a young man, Prof. Bacharach was encouraged by his university teacher, Prof. Talmon, to pursue an academic career in Holocaust studies, perhaps as a means to try and understand the unfathomable questions of the Holocaust, and to internalize what had happened to him personally. Over the years, as a Professor of Modern Antisemitism and Holocaust Studies, he has been able to transmit this difficult subject to his students through formal education. To the question of whether his contribution over the last 50 years was as a survivor or as an Israeli citizen, he responds,
"I try to be open to everyone here in this society and in other societies. First you have to be human and then to be Jewish, not vice versa. That's my rule: be human. We were born not as Jews – we were born as human beings. I wasn't born as a religious boy, so I try in a certain sense to transmit this to my students and to others."
Ehud Loeb answers this question very succinctly,
"Well, I think that living an honest way of life here, bringing up a family, being happy with my family and they are all living here, our four children and grandchildren, living here, having worked my whole life until my retirement, irrespective of what I did, which profession I held, is a contribution; and I think that if you lead an honest life, and work and can add something to the welfare of the country, especially coming from such a background, is a very gratifying thing."
One of the difficult and painful decisions for Holocaust survivors was how to tell their loved ones of their traumatic experiences. Survivors had to decide in their own time, when and indeed if they wanted to relate the horrors of the Holocaust to their families. For some survivors, it was not a problem and they began to relate these experiences from the very beginning of their new lives.
Masha Greenbaum says that her children grew up on her stories. Nothing was hidden. Interestingly, her mother never spoke about her experiences, but she listened to her daughter tell their shared story.
"It was never easy, but it had to be done."
However, Masha does say that these days, after talking, it is more emotionally exhausting than in the past.
Meir Eldar felt unable to directly relate his Holocaust experience to his family, but found other means of doing so:
"I didn't want to think about it, talk about it. I wrote. I put it on a piece of paper and that's all. My wife was not in the camps, so she didn't know anything personally. I didn't speak too much. The children became older and they didn't ask anything and I didn't tell them anything. I wrote a book published in 1999, so they didn't ask, and now if they want to read the book they can read it. I also go to Poland with groups and my son said I want to go with you. So I said come with me. He didn't know anything – didn't ask anything."
"When the group participants ask you each evening about the Holocaust one of them asked my son, 'What questions did you ask your father about the Holocaust – what did he tell you?' My son answered, 'I wanted to ask the same question you are asking, but couldn't and now I have the answer.'"
"They never asked – they have the book. I am writing."
Meir took a course at Yad Vashem a few years ago, which guides survivors in how to speak to groups about their experiences. He now speaks regularly to groups, and is still writing.
Ehud Loeb had to contend with a complicated personal history of changing names and identities. Born Herbert Odenheimer in a small town in southern Germany, his Holocaust experiences as a child entailed repeated name and identity changes – while in hiding during the Holocaust, again after the War with his adoptive family in Switzerland and then again in Israel. Sidestepping the difficult question of what effect this had on him as a child, he conveyed an unsettling childhood to his family:
"I had to give them the outline of my biography, but the first dozens of years it was just the facts that I told them. I had to tell them very small parts, fragments of my lives, and after the end of the 1980's and beginning of the 90's when it became more and more known to the general public what happened in the Holocaust, and people started more and more to speak and stories were published, then we had the courage to speak about it. I say 'we' – it is not only me, but they also had the courage to ask and had the courage and patience to listen. [...] They were already grown up or adolescents and they could understand whatever one means by understanding."
Professor Bacharach says,
"You know what I did? I went to visit my brother in the U.S. and there I sat down and wrote twelve pages of the most horrifying experiences I went through and sent it to my children from the U.S. I [haven't received] any reaction to this very day."
"You can't put it into words. When I teach, I am doing it in a disciplined and scholarly way, which controls my feelings and emotions. There in the classroom you can't sit and cry [...] I can't lecture my sons and my children. They don't want to be lectured. The fact is they know I went through hell. They know that I lost my parents. They never ask me. [...] I think they don't know how to cope with it. Before I went to see my brother in the [United] States, my son asked me, 'Who are you?' I was shocked. Ever heard a son who asks his father, 'Who are you?' I [cannot] forget this. [...] So that was the reason I wrote from there, to tell them what I went through."
Ehud Loeb said:
"Those genocides should concern every human being and very unfortunately it does not. Not only Darfur but also what happened in Rwanda and in Cambodia and other countries and I believe that suffering is suffering and an orphan is an orphan and a raped woman is a raped woman everywhere but it hurts much more I think. It hurts much more a survivor who has experienced himself or for his family these losses and suffering and not only can you identify better, but you feel much more sorry for these pains which other peoples have, had and have to suffer."
Some time ago, Ehud participated in a seminar at Yad Vashem with several survivors from Rwanda. Relating to that meeting, he goes on to say,
"When you speak to them and they speak to you, you speak the same language of suffering. When you sit with them in their midst and hear their voices and you hear what they are not saying and you understand what they cannot express, then you feel a solidarity. Having these experiences with these survivors, you feel everything over again and you cannot understand, just cannot understand that these things can happen today, after everything that happened, and people know what happened, and this is something that I am just not able to understand."
On a more general level, Masha Greenbaum explains that,
"All survivors feel for them through their own experiences."
Although Meir Eldar empathizes with the suffering of the victims, he doesn't think about it. He reflects,
"No – I don't think about it. I read it in books. I know about what happened to a friend of mine from Armenia. But I can't relate to it. What happened in the Holocaust didn't happen anywhere else."
"I feel that I accomplished what I wanted. My life, my children, and grandchildren, I couldn't be happier in any other place. I am always saying to people: [the fact] that I survived as a decent man and a believing Jew, who can laugh and love and look on the world's bright side, is nothing less than magnificent. My whole life has changed, but my life is still a continuing defeat for Hitler and the Nazis who hoped to destroy us, but 'Am Yisrael Chai' ['the people of Israel live']."
– Eliezer Ayalon
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the importance of survivor testimony is paramount to understanding the events of those terrible times first-hand. Through them, we can begin to understand how the experiences of the survivors during the Holocaust affected their new lives in Israel, and how those experiences are imprinted into our own national consciousness. Their experiences related and passed down to their children and grandchildren have become part of the legacy of the Jewish people.
In our classrooms today, we can try to help our pupils understand the complexity of these events, which to them may easily remain "just" history. While the survivors still live among us, they must be invited into the classroom to give first-hand testimony, not only about the Holocaust, but how they managed to rebuild their lives after the Holocaust.
We wish to thank the survivors for allowing us not only a look into their difficult past, but also for a glimpse into their positive and bright futures.
The subject matter at hand touches on a variety of themes, which we feel tie in well with an interdisciplinary approach to teaching the Holocaust. The interviews presented here – two of which appear in full in our newsletter Teaching the Legacy (January, 2008) – address not only the Holocaust as an historical event, but also psychological aspects of trauma recovery, sociological issues of absorption and outsider immigrant status, genocide studies, familial relations, etc. Following are some sample questions we recommend for discussion of the material in the classroom:
- Why do you think the survivors remained silent for so long about their own experiences?
- We often see a pattern by which children of Holocaust survivors tend to shy away from direct discussion of the Holocaust, while the third generation is more open to hearing and exploring their grandparents' story. Do you find anything in these interviews that may help explain this?
- How did Henry Foner's past experiences shape his personality?
- What aspects of his contribution to Israeli society are important to Ehud Loeb?
- How does Prof. Bacharach control his emotions as a Holocaust survivor when speaking about the Holocaust in the classroom?
- Why was it easier for Masha Greenbaum to integrate into Israeli society?
- In what way does Ehud Loeb relate to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide? Do you think his perception has been influenced by his experiences?