As the years go by and the Holocaust recedes into history, it remains a subject that continues to be examined from a myriad of perspectives in a continuing attempt to understand it. Taking, as it were, a scholarly microscope to the period, historians and others focus increasingly on the details.
In her most recent book, French-born Françoise S. Ouzan of Tel Aviv University asks what it was that enabled Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives, often with notable success. She focuses her study on child survivors who rose to prominence in three different countries – the U.S., France and Israel – attempting to understand how, more so than why, they “triumphed over adversity even though their families, culture, and religion were all annihilated.” They may well be the last group of survivors to be studied.
Their wartime experiences fell into two different categories, namely, the youngsters who were sent to concentration camps and those who fled or were hidden. Their postwar rehabilitation reflected what they endured during the war, and the social behavior they adopted depended on the country they returned to (France) or immigrated to (the U.S. or Israel).
In rebuilding their own lives, the survivors had an impact on their countries. They were no longer victims, but participants who could both commemorate the past and contribute to the future. They succeeded in professional fields such as medicine, education, law, the sciences, the arts, business and, especially in Israel, the study of history.
Crucial to Ouzan’s research were the interviews she conducted with nearly forty survivors in the three countries, and she paints a larger picture through their individual lives. For the general reader, these offer some of the most interesting sections of her study, as she cites them as examples of her findings. A number are well known, yet putting their stories together in the context of postwar achievement has a new impact.
For example, in the U.S., Hungarian-born Tom Lantos became the only survivor to be elected to Congress. An anti-Nazi partisan in Poland, Miles Lerman, who became a chicken farmer in New Jersey, went on to help found the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Nechama Tec, who became a respected sociologist, was a hidden child in Poland who passed as a Christian.
There was also Hungarian-born Tibor Rubin, a concentration camp survivor who enlisted in the U.S. army, fought in the Korean War, was taken captive by North Korea and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. He was one of a number of survivors who fought in that war and Ouzan speculates it may have aided them in overcoming the helplessness they experienced in the camps.
The same kinds of stories are told from Israel, like writer Aharon Appelfeld and Menachem Perlmutter who helped make the desert bloom, and from France, like Simone Veil, who survived Auschwitz and later became the first female French government minister.
Along the way, of course, there were obstacles, and the pathways to integration and success were not smooth. The difficulties, however, “did not prevent them from creating rich lives.” This ability to renew and rebuild out of utter destruction is, ultimately, a story of hope.