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October 9, 2015 / 26 Tishri, 5776
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Caring For Our Seniors and Holocaust Survivors: A Conference (Part 3)

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Last week I began to share the list of triggers put together by the Ahavas Chesed of Montreal. This list discusses the daily events that can cause an intense emotional reaction in our survivor population. The reason for the response is noted along with the possible emotional reaction to the trigger that an observer might see. It is the hope that caregivers, doctors, relatives and anyone else who is interacting with a survivor who is reacting in this manner, will better understand what is causing the reaction. In this way they can deal with the person and be able to give the help that is needed in a more appropriate manner. Below is the rest of the list of triggers, reasons and reactions.



 TRIGGER                                             REASON                             REACTION                     

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 their 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.

 You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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