Although elderly and dwindling in numbers, Holocaust survivors still need help from the organized Jewish community in dealing with psychological and physical issues, financial assistance, and war-related traumas exacerbated by the passage of time.
That was the message from a visiting clinical social worker, author and genocidal trauma consultant who spoke to a local audience of survivors, family members, caretakers and communal professionals.
“People tend to see [survivors] as either fragile victims or larger-than-life heroes,” Myra Giberovitch told an audience of approximately 110 on Sept. 13 at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Northwest Baltimore. “But they are ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives and are doing the best they can with the rest of their lives.
“They have coped and are still coping with their experiences and adjusting to their aging situations.”
A daughter of survivors who was born in a displaced persons camp in Bavaria, Giberovitch spoke at a Jewish Community Services event titled “Shadows of the Past: How the Trauma of the Holocaust Impacts Survivors Today.”
The program was provided through a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care.
Introduced by JCS Executive Director Joan Grayson Cohen, Giberovitch, who lives in Montreal, is the author of the 2014 book, “Recovering from Genocidal Trauma: An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors” (University of Toronto Press).
She is affiliated with the McGill University School of Social Work in Montreal as an adjunct professor and guest lecturer.
Internationally, Giberovitch said, there are currently approximately 500,000 Holocaust survivors, a quarter of whom live under the poverty line.
She said the definition of a Holocaust survivor has evolved over the years. Besides those who endured the ghettos and concentration camps and refugees of the Nazi era, she said the definition now includes: child survivors; second- and third-generation family members; survivors who immigrated from the former Soviet Union; French-speaking Jews from North Africa; and Hungarian Jews who left their homeland after the 1956 uprising.
Survivors who are 85 and older tend to suffer from acute illnesses, social isolation and psychological traumas related to their wartime experiences, Giberovitch said. Child survivors, who are in their early 70s to early 80s, have some health issues and are often in need of financial assistance, she said.
Giberovitch said some survivors suffer from debilitating psychological issues that can be triggered by such ordinary daily events as seeing trains, people in uniform, or dogs such as German Shepherds. They also sometimes fear taking showers, medical doctors and government officials, Christian symbols, and standing in lines for food.
Some survivors refuse to throw out spoiled food, she said, because of wartime deprivations, which can lead to malnourishment and illnesses.
“Food was scarce during the war and people were always hungry,” Giberovitch said. “So [survivors] always want to have plenty of food. Some even hide food.”
For some survivors, the Jewish holidays can be a time of dread, anxiety and depression. “The Nazis came during the holidays because they knew that people were at home or in synagogues,” Giberovitch said. “So the holidays can be bittersweet because they may have been the last time they saw their family members alive.”
The result of triggered memories can be bouts of paranoia, occasionally baffling behavior, despondency, and even dementia.
“There are anxieties and post-traumatic stress disorders,” Giberovitch said. “But I also see survivors as resilient individuals who cope the best they can with their challenges. Their adaptive abilities have to be recognized.”
Learning from Survivors
Nonetheless, the organized Jewish community needs to have a framework to serve survivors in a comprehensive and compassionate way, she said. When treating survivors, Giberovitch said she always tries to listen and learn from them, as well as encourage them to be active and involved with each other.
“Who better to learn from when it comes to resiliency and coping?” she said. “We can learn a lot from them.”
When dealing with a Holocaust survivor experiencing a traumatic episode, Giberovitch advised family members and caretakers to always remain calm and reassuring, demonstrate kindness and understanding, and remind them that they are living in the present by making small talk.
“If you accompany them to a hospital or an institution, get their permission to be there and let [officials] know that this is a Holocaust survivor,” Giberovitch said. “Just listen [to survivors] and be patient with them. They’re often asking, `Who will remember?’ As a community, we have to hear them. They want to remember their martyred families, so many of them bear witness to keep the memory of the dead alive. We have to tell them that they will never be forgotten.
“The grieving process will never be complete for Holocaust survivors,” she said. “My mother lost 80 family members – how do you grieve for that? Listen to them. Give them a voice for the unspeakable. They have to be heard and believed.”
As a community, Giberovitch said, Jewish communities should honor survivors by providing medical-related assistance and help with applications for financial compensation; case management for services and resources; supporting survivor social clubs; continuing to hold commemorative events memorializing the victims of the Holocaust; build monuments to those who perished under the Nazi regime; and organize intergenerational programming with students to perpetuate the memory and message of the Holocaust.
For children of survivors, she said, the organized community must offer assistance to help them cope with feeling overwhelmed about juggling the needs of their nuclear families and their aging parents, some of whom are experiencing degenerative cognitive skills and physical deterioration.
Giberovitch advised second-generation survivors to make sure to take care of their own health; avoid feelings of guilt for not doing enough to help or protect their parents; join support groups; and bring in medical personnel to work with parents who refuse home care assistance or therapies.
“It’s very difficult to do it all on your own,” she said.
At the end of her talk, Giberovitch asked the survivors in the audience to stand and be recognized. “Your survival is an example of the human spirit,” she told them. “We are blessed to have you. Thank you.
“I continue to be inspired by survivors as they become increasingly frail. They continue to persevere and they take nothing for granted,” she said. “Let’s ensure that we provide them with compassionate care. Get to know a survivor in your community and show interest in their story. They have valuable lessons to teach us about the dark side of humanity.”
For information about local services for Holocaust survivors, call 410-843-7338.
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