How Young Holo­caust Sur­vivors Rebuilt Their Lives

  • Review
By – January 17, 2020

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.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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