Supporting Our Survivors

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This Holocaust menorah has a prominent place in Smith-Kogod Residence in Rockville.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak)

A 100-year-old woman chatted briefly as she got her hair done at the salon in the Charles E. Smith Life Communities’ Hebrew Home in Rockville, Maryland, where she lives. It was just one of the many things she was rushing to accomplish before Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As one of the dwindling number of remaining Holocaust survivors who lived through the brutality and inhumanity of the concentration camps, this woman, who didn’t want her named used for this article, is very much in demand. As a survivor of Auschwitz and a death march, she finds herself being asked to tell her tale of woe over and over again, to any group who asks. And it never gets any easier.

“Can a non-survivor ever understand a survivor?” resident Claude Kacser asked rhetorically. “I knew one who was still as angry as hell and had nightmares his whole life.”

Kacser came to America on the Kindertransport when he was six years old. “All of this had a great impact on my personality. You can never be normal. You are 98 percent normal, until the moments you aren’t,” he said.

Rabbi James Michaels at Charles E. Smith Life Communities is well-aware of the struggles Holocaust survivors experience. When he first started work as chaplain in the Rockville facility, there were more Holocaust survivors living there. Most of them had suffered starvation, beatings, and the separation and death of loved ones.

Today, the majority of survivors living there were very young when their parents sent them away or hid them. Few ever lived in work or death camps. Still, they grew up with parents who carried physical and emotional scars. Many were one of only a handful of survivors in their families. They spent much of their lives mourning siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles whom they didn’t remember.

At every party, family get-together, and holiday, Marsha Leikach Tishler, who lived with a Christian family from the age of three months to three years, continually reminded people of all the family members who perished. During Yizkor (the memorial prayer in synagogue), “everyone became despondent.” Every holiday reminded Tishler’s parents of relatives who didn’t survive. As a child, and through most of her life, Tishler felt “the burdens of the past.”

She recalled how her mother used to chase after trams on the streets, certain she had spotted her niece’s blond hair, but the person she spotted was always a stranger. “My father was always running away from those shooting at him in the dark as he slept,” she said. Whenever he passed a thick group of bushes, he’d point it out to his daughter so she would know “that’s a good place to hide.”

Edith Lowy, who survived six concentration camps and a death march, explained that the Holocaust “is not always in my head, but it is a lot in my head.” It also haunts her how little the world has learned. When she sees how unwelcome today’s refugees from war-torn countries are, “it frightens me,” she said.

“All the refugees, all the suffering, all the hate. It’s just terrible to see,” said Lowy.

Survivor Edith Lowy finds it very hard to understand why people never learn: now, once again, there are unwanted refugees from war-torn countries. (Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak)A television news clip featuring fleeing refugees is enough to trigger strong emotions from many survivors. While they often led happy, successful lives, when something small happens, it can send them right back to the fear they experienced during World War II.

“You never know what is going to trigger a response,” said Rabbi Michaels. He recalled a woman who was singing happily at a Chanukah party when she spotted the Holocaust menorah at the Smith-Kogod residence. “She started screaming. She walked to the menorah and starting hugging it. She made it impossible to continue the program,” Rabbi Michaels said.

Dealings with children of survivors is another challenge Rabbi Michaels and his staff face. “There is a sense of obligation, protectiveness. They tend to be more demanding on staff than the average resident,” he said. He attributed it to being raised by demanding parents, or maybe that some of the trauma their parents faced has been passed on to them.

He has witnessed family members fight to keep their aging parents off the Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) list. They believe that if their parents survived death camps and all the horrors, surely they could recover from their current illnesses, Rabbi Michaels explained, adding that keeping them alive at any cost isn’t always fair to the aging parents.

Survivor Marsha Tishler, who was hidden with a Christian family, looks over a poster that includes a photo of her younger self in a displaced person’s camp.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak)During orientation for new staff members at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, Michaels briefly talks about Judaism, Israel, and the Holocaust. Most of the staff are Christians and many did not grow up in America, he said. He helps them understand why some residents are fanatical about lighting their electric candles each Friday night or have a strong connection with Israel.

Some staff, especially those born outside this country, have never heard of the Holocaust, said Rabbi Michaels, who edited the book, “Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Residential Care” by Paula David from the University of Toronto.

One chapter in the book deals with survivors who suffered “massive trauma.” As they age, they sometimes forget their more recent life filled with family joy and good jobs. Instead, they think they are back in the Holocaust. “They can become lost in the very dark labyrinths of older, long-term memories,” she writes. They may lose the ability to differentiate between the past and present.” Some have become terrified when pets are brought to their residential home. Those dogs conjure up their fears of when Nazi guard-dogs controlled their moves, she writes.

As they age, and friends and the little family they had die off, survivors often miss out on the benefits of shiva and the comfort of having family members by their side, David writes. They also may struggle when a spouse becomes ill, never having experienced death in any terms but sudden and far too young.

Survivors can’t be healed, David writes. Instead, friends and caregivers should let them live out their final years with dignity and the least amount of trauma possible.

The Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) in Rockville has a Holocaust Survivor Program that casts a safety net out to the more than 430 Holocaust survivors it serves in Montgomery County, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Fairfax County, Virginia.

JSSA offers personal care services, kosher Meals on Wheels, and individual care management. The agency works with community partners to provide hearing aids, eyeglasses, and free dental care.

More than 85 percent of JSSA’s survivor clients came to the United States from Russian-speaking countries, and, while they suffered through war and starvation, they rarely were in concentration camps. Many, however, witnessed the mass murder of family members.

Rabbi James Michaels, chaplain at Charles E. Smith Life Communities, helps staff members better understand the residents who are Holocaust survivors.  (Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak)The great majority of them live below the poverty line, often because they came here when they were older and didn’t have long careers or good jobs in their new homeland, said Hileia Seeger, JSSA’s director of senior services. They often didn’t have access to good medical care while living in the Soviet Union, she said.

Besides taking care of their needs, JSSA offers social events to foster relationships among survivors. The non-profit also helps survivors obtain the financial restitution from Germany they are entitled to through the Claims Conference.

JSSA strives “to establish a relationship. Let them know someone is there for them,” Seeger said. Rabbi Michaels added: “Survivors need to know they still count. They are valued.”

By Suzanne PollakSurvivor Claude Kacser believes that after living through the Holocaust, “you can never be normal.”  (Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak)