Last week I talked about the conference I attended that was designed for non-Jewish caregivers of our elderly and Holocaust survivors. I mentioned how much of the information would be valuable to the young and mature alike in our community as we enhance our relationship with this group among us. With the permission of Ahavas Chesed of Montreal, I am reprinting the section on “triggers.”


           Below is a listing of the triggers that could possibly cause an emotional reaction, why that is so and what emotional reaction to look for. I hope this information will be a refresher for those of us who may have forgotten the extent to which these “normal” behaviors can trigger negative feelings and will provide a learning experience for our youth, in order for all of us to better our relationship with our seniors through understanding.






Shots or needles

Many Holocaust survivors have tattoos on their arms. In some concentration camps, people were no longer referred to by their name but only by their number. Tattoos were made by pricking the skin with needles and inserting a permanent dye. This was of particular humiliation to Orthodox Jews since, according to Jewish law, one is not permitted to have tattoos on one’s body. Nonetheless, the physical pain of the experience and degradation were true for everyone.

Anger, refusal, fear.


Nazi “doctors” and guards wearing white uniforms performed inhuman medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. For some elderly survivors, these experiences are as alive today as they were 65 years ago.

Fear, anxiety, refusal to cooperate, anger, withdrawal.

Hospitalization, medical procedures, therapies

If a person became ill in the concentration camps, one of three things may have happened to them: a) he was immediately killed because they were no longer able to work and therefore were of no use, b) he was admitted to the concentration camp “hospital” where they were left to die, or c) he was in danger of being subjected to horrible medical experiments. The more fortunate ones were cared for by friends in their barracks until they recuperated.

Fear, anxiety, withdrawal.

The sound of people crying or screaming

People in concentration camps and ghettos lived through unspeakable horrors. Many cried or screamed from either emotional or physical pain. Hearing someone else cry or scream may trigger the memory of being in a ghetto or concentration camp.

Fear, similar behaviors.


In the ghetto, dogs were used to “round up” people who were hiding from the Gestapo (German police). When people arrived at the concentration camps, they were met by SS (Nazi security) guards with large dogs. Some dogs were trained to attack and were actually used to kill people who tried to escape.

Unusual fear, revulsion.

Directions such as “Go to the right, go to the left”

Jews were often subject to “selections.” “Go to the right” or “go to the left” might have meant who was to go to the gas chambers and die or who would go to work detail.

Moving away quickly, fear, anxiety.

White lab coats or uniforms

So-called “doctors” who performed medical experiments wore white lab coats as did their assistants. The guards who mistreated Jews horribly wore uniforms. Today, even a maintenance uniform could trigger a bad memory.

Fear, anger, anxiety.

Restraints, locked doors, gates

Holocaust survivors were forced to do many things and were restrained for any number of reasons. Being restrained today may trigger the memory of being locked in the ghetto, or surrounded by the barbed wire that enclosed the entire camp.

Frantic “trying to escape” feeling, panic.

Being shaved

The heads of both male and female prisoners were often shaven when they entered the concentration camps. This was another form of humiliation and dehumanization.

Refusal, anxiety re baldness, anger.

Smell of feces or urine

On the long rides to concentration camps, many hundreds of people were crowded into boxcars. Because there was no room to sit, people had to stand for hours. There was no food, bathrooms or air. Often people died during the trip and others were unable to hold their bowel movements or urine. The smell of waste may easily trigger the memory of those train rides. Sanitary conditions in the camps were terrible. If a man or a woman wasn’t allowed to go to the barracks for toilet facilities, they may have had to soil themselves.

Refusal to use washrooms, incontinence or withholding, anxiety.

Crowds, small spaces, elevators

Conditions for Holocaust survivors were often overcrowded. When Jews were rounded up and made to live in ghettos, they were crowded together. Several families were often made to share quarters in apartments or homes meant for one family. In the barracks of the concentration camps, four to six people often shared one “koya” or sleeping shelf.

Anxiety, withdrawal.

Hiding or hoarding food, eating too quickly

Whether in the ghettoes or in concentration camps, food was scarce. When food became available, people sometimes rationed themselves so there would be something left over in case they would not receive food again for a while. Some people stole food so they could bring it to their family members too weak to stand in the rationing lines. If someone was extremely hungry, he would have eaten the food he received very quickly.

Hoarding or hiding food, eating quickly.


Frightening things happened in the dark. An inmate of a concentration camp or someone in hiding was also terrorized by the dark.

Anxiety, panic.

Request for personal or financial information

Survivors were robbed of all their assets and had to start over. They were also desperately secretive about personal information for fear of incrimination that would mean certain imprisonment or death for oneself or a family member.

Refusal to cooperate, anxiety.

Lack of privacy

Whether in a ghetto, in hiding or in a concentration camp, there was no privacy at all. At any given moment, there were people, soldiers, or surprise assaults ready to invade someone’s space.

Withdrawal, secrecy.



         Using this information may help us all-relatives, friends and professionals-better understand the anxiety displayed by our aging survivor population. Being with a person who reacts with great trepidation to any of these every day “triggers” should be a signal to us to realize that they are reacting to a past experience. Their fear is as real as if they are once again faced with the horrors they experienced in the war. It is up to us to help them and that first begins with understanding where this fear and their reaction are coming from.


         For more information on the workshop or the booklet and printouts you can contact Carol Polter at


         You can contact me at