There is a major difference between the secular approach to Holocaust studies and the traditional Jewish approach. The secular approach views the Holocaust as another historical era to be studied. Our approach is vastly different. As educator Mrs. Libby Blum has noted, our approach will ideally enable us to recognize and acknowledge the miracle of our national survival and the spiritual and physical rebuilding that followed. By studying the stories of our survivors and their faith, by witnessing how our Jewish brethren maintained their humanity despite the atrocities they personally witnessed and experienced themselves, we transmit to the next generation the essence of true faith.
Rabbi Yaakov Salomon emphasizes the imperative of familiarizing our children with the lessons of the Holocaust. “Protecting our kids with ‘feel good’ curriculum is unhealthy and unproductive. When the eyewitnesses are no longer, our knowledge base must increase. The alternative is forgetting… forever.”
Judge David Schmidt will never forget. Nor will his children or any individual who ever visited his office. In it stood a glass case, displaying a prisoner’s garb, the distinct striped pants and shirt worn by all concentration camp inmates. His own father, Reb Chaim Schmidt a”h, had worn this very uniform in three different camps. Torn and filthy as they were, he held onto these garments as a reminder of where he had been, and how far he had come since then. He taught his son well. His son had these garments professionally mounted in a glass case, displayed prominently in his chambers, a daily reminder of the horrors of the past, but also a reminder of the miracle of the rebirth of our people. Of how far we have come. Today retired, Judge Schmidt graciously gave this prison uniform to Amud Aish where it is prominently displayed and its lessons continue to be transmitted.
The current display at the museum also includes a pair of tzitzis that had belonged to Reb Mendel Landau a”h. Reb Mendel was born in 1922 in Osciecim (Auschwitz), Poland to a family of Bobover chassidim. The Jews of his hometown were expelled in April 1940 as construction of the infamous concentration camp began in an abandoned Polish army barracks on the outskirts of the city. At the age of 18, Mendel was taken as a slave-worker to the Annaberg and Greiditz labor camps. In early 1944, following years of starvation, bitter cold and hard labor, he was sent back to Auschwitz.
In Auschwitz, Mendel noticed a Hungarian Jew with tzitzis. He asked to borrow them in order to make a blessing and fulfill the mitzvah. A guard saw Mendel in the tzitzis and beat him viciously, leaving him battered and bloody. The guard threw the now bloody tzitzis near the camp fence. Later on, Mendel was successful in retrieving them and tried to return the pair to the original owner, who no longer wanted them after seeing the brutal punishment Mendel had received for wearing them. Mendel held onto these tzitzis whilst in Auschwitz, brought them along with him on a Death March, and had them with him when he was liberated from Dachau on April 28, 1945.
Reb Mendel immigrated to the United States in 1950. He married and rebuilt a chassidishe home, similar to that of his childhood. He died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2008. He had held onto this pair of tzitzis until his death. These bloodied tzitzis remained a proud legacy for the family of their zayde’s sacrifice for a mitzvah.
Today, when visiting groups of schoolchildren and adults view these tzitzis displayed in Amud Aish, they are told this story of spiritual heroism, of incredible valor and bravery in the face of horrific cruelty and savagery. What lessons will these students take home? What inspiration will they glean from these objects? It is the legacy of Am Yisrael, the demonstration of love for and devotion to yahadus by those who were mighty as a lion to do the bidding of their Creator. It is the miracle of survival and rebirth. Powerful lessons indeed.
Our survivors are our heroes. Most of our survivors are now quite elderly. MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care (Metropolitan Jewish Health System) has stepped up to help us care for our beloved family members. MJHS recently sponsored a five-hour Holocaust education program for healthcare and social service professionals entitled, “Understanding the Impact of Early Life Trauma; Aging Holocaust Survivors Facing the End of Life.” I met with Mrs. Toby Weiss, the director of Cultural Sensitivity and Jewish Programming for MJHS, who shared with me the material discussed at this program. This same program had been offered in 2011 and 2012, but the number of Holocaust survivors facing end-of-life issues continues to rise. After having cared for over 700 survivors in the last five years, MJHS saw the need to repeat this program once again to an even larger audience. This program was held this past June 22 at the Jewish Heritage Museum and attracted over 170 professionals and clinicians.
Is there really a special approach necessary to dealing with aging Holocaust survivors? “Yes,” Mrs. Weiss states most emphatically. Understanding the trauma they had experienced during the Shoah, and manifestations of the post-traumatic stress they may now be exhibiting, even decades later, is important. For example, survivors may present as numb, or emotionally distant. Seen as remoteness or lack of engagement, this emotional constriction rather reflects depletion due to chronic states of physiological and emotional hyper-arousal. This “survivor syndrome” may manifest as chronic anxiety, depression, guilt and/or sleep disturbances. It may manifest itself through hyper-vigilance, irritability, exaggerated startle responses, and micro-managerial behaviors. The unfortunate reality is that some of these very same symptoms may have been transmitted to the children of Holocaust survivors, potentially adding complications to the caregiving process for the patient, family members and the caregiving team.
Professional caregivers are educated about potential triggers that may give rise to re-experiencing of past trauma. As an example: For survivors, the seemingly simple act of taking a shower may be a trigger for an emotional outburst or change in otherwise pleasant behavior. Harsh, unpleasant smells may bring about flashbacks to earlier experiences in crowded cattle cars. ID bands worn on wrists may be reminders of the depersonalization that was part of the war experience for many, being identified by number, rather than name. The list goes on and on. We must be extremely mindful and sensitive to their unique needs. Thank you to MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care and to Dr. Felsen for bringing this vital education to professionals who can apply the learning to the benefit of our precious loved ones.
This valuable guidebook may be easily accessed: hospicenyc.org/holocaust-booklet.