Holocaust survivors overcame the most severe form of persecution and went on to become productive members of the communities in which they settled. They have exhibited an extraordinary resilience and love of family and community. Their survival is an example of the human spirit’s ability to adapt, rebuild and recover from genocide. As people who have seen the dark side of humanity, they provide hope and set an example for anyone who is experiencing a traumatic life event.
The lessons I’ve learned from survivors come from my personal and professional experiences with them. I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors from the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz death camp. My mother was the only survivor of an extended family of 80 people. My father was more fortunate. His two siblings and father survived out of a family of 25 people.
Professionally, I’ve worked with hundreds of survivors as a social worker, researcher, community activist and volunteer. In the 1980s, I created the first community based social service program for survivors in Canada and subsequently founded and managed Services for Holocaust Survivors and their Families at the Cummings Centre in Montreal.
As the daughter of survivor parents, I feel the responsibility to share the lessons my parents and other survivors have taught me. These lessons are universal ones and I hope they will inspire others who are going through challenging life events.
1. Adapt to circumstances you can’t change, no matter how difficult
I learned this life lesson from my late mother. At age 15, she was interned in the Lodz Ghetto and then shipped to Auschwitz. Her words continue to inspire me today when I am faced with health challenges: “In life we never know what lies ahead. What’s important is to adapt to circumstances you can’t change, no matter how difficult.” I heard my mother’s words over and over again from other survivors – the choices they made to adapt so they could control their environments.
2. Choose your attitude and choice of action when responding to situations
Although we have no control over the attitudes and behaviours of others, we can choose how we react in any given situation, even in the most horrendous circumstances, as noted by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Dr. Victor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
Many survivors say that it was “luck” that helped them to survive. However, I’ve observed that many people survived because of everyday choices they made and actions they took or chose not to take. For example, when my father arrived at Auschwitz, he carried a sack of potatoes that he brought with him from the ghetto. When guards wanted to take it away from him, he tried to fight them off. He soon stopped when an inmate, pointing to the bellowing smoke of the crematoria, quietly told him that’s where he would end up if he continued to resist. He immediately gave up the potatoes.
3. Never lose hope that things will improve
Despite tremendous hardships in the Holocaust, my mother never lost hope that she would survive and rebuild her life. In fact, my parents did just that by raising a family and contributing to their community.
4. Never give up – life is precious
Survivors’ ability to persevere and not give up despite their horrendous experiences has served them well, especially now as older adults. Many view their declining health as a challenge to overcome. They have a tenacious survival instinct manifested by a determination to recover when severely ill. Knowing that they survived worse, they are prepared to “fight” any new challenge. They exhibit an overwhelming ability to persevere and not give in to the illness. Life is too precious for them.
In the words of a survivor from Siberia: “I never gave in. I was always an optimist. My spirit was not broken. I never gave up, not when I was hungry; not when I was freezing cold. I never gave in.”
5. Have a positive attitude
Some survivors have told me that having a sense of optimism enables them to face life’s challenges. A survivor in a group program said, “I do not dwell on my suffering. I try to be happy, focus on the positive, take things in stride and adjust.” A survivor of a concentration camp said, “I have been given these past years as a gift. I have nothing to complain about.” Another woman whose house was destroyed in a fire said, “I have survived worse. No one is hurt and I am alive.”
6. Develop an inner life that nourishes you during times of despair
During times of desperation in the camps, survivors describe moments of comfort by visualizing themselves during happy times, surrounded by their families and friends. My mother remembered family get-togethers in the countryside of pre-war Lodz. My father often thought about playing soccer with his friends, while some survivors reminisced about rituals such as attending synagogue services and sitting at a table laden with their favourite foods as they celebrated the Jewish holidays with their families. These memories and daydreams sustained and nourished them in the most gruelling situations.
7. Take care of yourself
Many survivors were determined to survive and did everything they could to achieve their goal of staying alive. Mrs. A., a survivor from Romania and Mrs. B. from Hungary, both Auschwitz survivors, said they survived because they ate whatever they were given, no matter how bad it tasted. Another Auschwitz survivor said that she made up her mind to “do about everything for survival.” She tried to keep as clean as possible and keep up her strength.
8. Create a support network
We all cope better with life’s challenges when we do not face them alone. On December 12, 1944, on her 20th birthday, Fania Fainer received a heart-shaped booklet as a birthday card from 18 fellow Auschwitz inmates. The sheets were glued together using a mix of bread and water. These women had banded together and gave up their food rations to write birthday wishes and messages of hope. If they had have been caught, they would have faced beating or death. The booklet’s eight pages are filled with birthday wishes and message of hope in Polish, Hebrew, German and French.
After the war, many immigrant survivors found a sense of belonging by banding together to establish mutual aid organizations. Members became each other’s surrogate families where they created a supportive environment that accelerated their recovery by helping each other adjust to their trauma, losses, and integration.
Some of us are fortunate to have a support network of family and friends. When this is not possible, social service agencies, such as Circle of Care and Jewish Family and Child Services in Toronto, can provide assistance.
9. Educate yourself
Education was an important value in my family. When I was a girl, I remember my late mother attending evening English classes. She then went to my grade 1 teacher who taught her to read the Dick, Jane and Sally reader so she could help me with my homework. Many survivors helped their children learn to read in similar ways.
10. Work hard
Survivors have a strong work ethic and worked hard to establish themselves in the communities where they settled after the war. Sometimes the entire family worked as a unit to contribute to their income. I remember when we came to Canada in 1953 and my father worked in the garment trade. He brought home coat linings, belts and collars from the factory so my mother and I could make extra money for food and rent. He then carried them to the factory in a sack on his back, sometimes in a snowstorm, so he would save the money it would cost for a bus ticket.
11. Help others
The majority of survivors with whom I work have a history of volunteerism and community involvement, many from the time of their arrival in their new environments. Some survivors have told me that because they survived, they have a responsibility to give back to their peers and community.
Being of service and helping others helps to put our own problems into perspective, has health benefits and enhances our self-esteem.
12. Find meaning and purpose
Research tells us that people who have a purpose and direction in life live longer. They say they have a reason to get up in the morning because they are involved in an activity that gives their life meaning. People find it in different ways. Some find gratification in relationships with family and friends or through work, while others find it through volunteer activities, altruism, spirituality, creative endeavours and involvement in social and political causes.
For Holocaust survivors, there is an added dimension, finding meaning in survival. Many survivors find a sense of purpose by bearing witness to the atrocities they endured. As witnesses to history, they speak passionately about their hope for a world that is free from racial intolerance, bigotry and hatred.
13. Advocate for human rights laws and global justice
Survivors teach us to stand up and fight for human rights, global justice and social changes that improve the quality of our lives. While some remain vigilant and speak out against injustice, others advocate social policies and human-rights legislation that benefit all of humanity.
Survivors have a heightened sensitivity to human-rights violations and in the 1960s advocated for legal safeguards to protect society from the rise of neo-Nazism in Canada. They founded the Association of Former Concentration Camp Inmates, which spearheaded a campaign that culminated in the incorporation of anti-hate legislation into the Criminal Code in 1970.
14. Be sensitive to human suffering
Many survivors have put their energies into making this world a better place by taking action to improve the lives of others. In Jewish culture, that’s encapsulated in a concept known as Tikkun olam – acts of kindness performed to repair the world. For example, Joseph Feingold donated his beloved violin that he bought in a displaced persons camp to an instrument drive in New York. It was given to Brianna, a 12-year-old student with a passion for music. When she met him, she thanked him and said, “I get to have history in my hands. You never gave up. You always had hope.”
Survivors have instilled in their children compassion for the less fortunate.
A disproportional number of daughters and sons of survivors are in the human helping fields such as psychology, social work, law and medicine.
15. Appreciate the simple pleasures in life
Survivors appreciate the simple pleasures in life such as family, friends, their health and a refrigerator filled with food. They revere the traditions of the past, respect the sanctity of life and value their relationships. They take nothing for granted. These are important lessons for us all.
Myra Giberovitch is an educator, consultant, author and professional speaker. She is adjunct professor, McGill University School of Social Work, specializing in gerontology and author of Recovering from Genocidal Trauma. Watch her speak at TedxMontreal – Genocide Survivors: Contributors Not Victims.