By Jesse Lempel/TPS
Jerusalem (TPS) – When Pnina Katsir turned 80, she finally told her daughter a secret she had kept for decades: she was a survivor of the Holocaust.
“I didn’t tell anyone. My kids didn’t know,” Katsir told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) at a ceremony for Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Wednesday evening. “I decreed silence on myself in order to raise a normal, happy family – not living in the shadow of that awful time.”
Yet Katsir, now 86, boldly recounted her experiences before a crowd of dozens at the Jerusalem ceremony, including many fellow survivors, their children and grandchildren, as well as a group of female soldiers. They had gathered to share stories and commemorate the dead as part of the AMCHA organization, an Israeli psychological and social support group for Holocaust survivors, which Katsir credits with giving her the tools to finally express herself.
“There was a conspiracy of silence among survivors and Israeli society,” explained Elisheva Flamm-Oren, AMCHA’s director of planning and development. “They were afraid to tell their children and burden them with what they went through, and Israeli society also didn’t want to hear it – they preferred to project strength.”
AMCHA was started 30 years ago by Holocaust survivors and health care professionals to address this “conspiracy of silence” and provide survivors with the support they need. They now cater to 20,000 Holocaust survivors in fifteen centers across the country, boasting 480 mental health professionals and a thousand volunteers. In the past year alone they logged 186,000 hours of therapy, 30% of which took place in house calls to survivors too frail to leave their homes.
“There’s a lot of power in meeting other survivors,” Flamm-Oren told TPS. “AMCHA created a place where you can come and talk about the past without fear. We want them to know that they are normal people who went through unimaginably abnormal circumstances.”
And the survivors do more than talk. They participate in AMCHA’s creative writing seminars and theatre troupes—who recently staged a play starring a 97-year-old actress—all designed to give survivors creative outlets to process their past traumas and communicate with younger generations.
“They know how to get you to open up,” said Katsir, who read a moving composition describing her childhood in a Ukrainian ghetto, including the “nightly task” she shared with her sister to clutch their grandmother’s legs as she slept in the hopes of keeping her warm.
For many survivors, the creative process has been enormously satisfying.
“I have a kind of Holocaust disease – it actually makes me feel good to talk about the Holocaust,” Elias Feinzelberg told TPS after reciting the Kaddish, the solemn prayer for the dead, at the ceremony. Feinzelberg, a very active 98-year-old who was born in Lodz, Poland, endured nine different concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“I spoke at two schools today,” Feinzelberg said, proudly pointing to the pins on his blazer bearing the names of educational institutions around the world in which he has shared his story.
“Once I opened up,” Katsir told TPS, “I realized how much energy I had wasted all these years on not talking.”TPS / Tazpit News Agency