The Burden of Survival
by Corey Hajeian
About the author and project
Corey Hajeian, a senior communication major illustrates the burden and pain felt by holocaust survivors in the post-holocaust era. Using several sources including an anthology from numerous survivors entitled "Images from the Holocaust," and a controversial book by Michael Bodemann called "Jews, Germans, Memory." Hajeian suggests that the effects of living through such inhumane circumstances was directly responsible for tremendous amounts of anxiety, pain, and in some cases suicide. The objective facts and subjective viewpoints on this page were conducted in November. 2003, by a U.C.S.B. student enrolled in a course regarding the Nazi Holocaust. (link to course projects page)
Perceptions in the post holocaust era regarding the holocaust have remained quite subjective despite all of the objective facts that the holocaust revealed. People who did not experience the holocaust first hand sometimes ignore confronting the truth and the horrors of the holocaust. However, Jewish people who survived the holocaust often do not have the luxury of forgetting what happened. In many cases survivors of the holocaust are, in my eyes, more of the victims than those who died. In a sense the post holocaust era was an additional mental holocaust in which one would be required to use the mental strength and endurance they used to survive in camps such as Auschwitz on a daily basis. I feel this way because of the amount of suffering that occurred for much of these survivors in their post holocaust lives. This paper seeks to illustrate how survivors' experiences throughout the holocaust dramatically affected their post-holocaust lives.
In "Jews, Germans, Memory," Michael Bodemann explains that it is impossible to recreate history by using memory. By this he means that people’s perceptions of how an event occurred can change on any given day depending on how that person may feel at that particular time. In short Bodemann states "remembrance is fought over by opposing interests and always subject to modification"(181, Bodemann, 1996). Bodemann went on to explain that when more than one person contains memories that clearly resemble each other this is known as a collective memory. For survivors of the holocaust, being victims of severe inhumanity, cruelty, anxiety, depression, and fear are quite collective. To have the luxury of modifying such horrible memories based on interests would surely make their lives easier, but unfortunately this just isn’t the case for most holocaust survivors.
It is hard for people who didn’t have to go through the holocaust to imagine the amount of fear, anxiety, and depression that prisoners of the holocaust went through on a day-to day basis within the camp. In "War in the Shadow of Aushwitz," John Wiernicki, an Aushwitz survivor, explained how inconceivably miserable it was in Aushwitz. He remembers the Kapos in Aushwitz differently than Former Kommandmant of Aushwitz Rudolf Hoss, who naively asked " And why do the Kapos and the privileged prisoners treat their fellow prisoners who are suffering the same fate in this brutal manner?"(p.35,Marcuse, 2003) Wierniki recalls "Although most of their work was performed inside, sometimes when the killing took place in the courtyard, the Sonder crew had to carry the blood-spattered bodies of victims to the ovens. We saw them through narrow openings in the fence as they loaded corpses on small dollies for transport to the main chambers. Low-number prisoners who worked with me in the bathhouse told me that the stress of the Sonder men’s job was beyond anyone’s imagination. On many occasions, they had to carry, and bury, members of their own families (p.200, Wiernicki, 2001). Understandably going through situations like these have permanent effects on human beings.
In a Literature anthology called "Images from the Holocaust," experiences before, during, and after the holocaust are written about in detail from many different subjective views, including respected author Primo Levy. The anthology uses a passage from his book "Survival in Auschwitz" in which Levy explains what the experience of returning home after the holocaust was like. On a train destined to his native land in Italy, Levi recalls asking the questions, "How much had we lost, in those twenty months? How much of ourselves had been eroded, extinguished? Were we returning richer or poorer, stronger or emptier? Levi goes on to explain that "only after many months did I lose the habit of walking with my glance fixed to the ground, as if searching for something to eat or to pocket hastily or to sell the bread; and a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals"(p.434, Brown, etc. 1997).
In another passage Helen Epstein recalls what it was like when her mom returned from Auschwitz. Epstein recalls how after the holocaust her mother lost her desire to marry, and lost interest in even dating. Epstein’s mother became severely depressed and perhaps even unable to cope with the permanent scar Auschwitz had left in her brain. "She wanted all the noise in her head, all the images that passed through it day and night, to stop"(p.424, Brown, etc. 1997)
Modern day research suggests that holocaust survivors "show significant signs of anxiety and post traumatic stress even 50 years later( P.2,Lempp, PTSD,2003). Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, known as P.T.S.D., can make the task of maintaining mental stability extremely daunting. It can consist of flashbacks, phobias, nightmares, and tremendous amounts of anxiety and depression. Alcohol abuse and suicide rates soar among P.T.S.D. victims as opposed to the general public. Despite going through such inhumane, almost surreal experiences, holocaust survivors also are forced to deal with experiences that were more than enough to cause permanent mental damage. Studies show that children who lose their mother at a young age are more prone to depression than the general public. Holocaust survivors often not only lost their mothers, but their brothers, sisters, friends, sons, daughters, and lovers as well. To survive an experience such as the holocaust one must have extreme mental endurance and strength.
I argue that although history claims that a few million people were murdered in the holocaust, many more were indirectly murdered. There were an enormous number of suicides, and an enormous amount of people who lost all of their sanity and their will to live. In Post holocaust daily lives there is always something that is capable of triggering extremely painful and harmful memories. Encountering a policeman in his Nazi-like uniform, hearing a child scream, a man yell an order, smoke from chimneys and just about anything else you could imagine. This is why I believe that holocaust survivors, who have carried on and lived productive semi-normal lives, are perhaps the strongest people who ever walked the earth.
About the sources
In an attempt to gain insight and statistics regarding Post Tramautic Stress Disorder, Hajeian cites an article from the web called "Delayed & Long term effects of persecution suffered in Childhood youth." The article was written by Lempp, M.D., but Hajeian realizes this does not assure credibility and validity. In "Images from the Holocaust" Hajeian cites Primo Levy whom one of the editors in the book explained "as an author, he is best known for his autobiographical accounts of the years he spent in Auschwitz. Ironically and consistant with Hajeian’s argument the editor notes, "He died on April 11, 1987. His death was apparently a suicide."
Signer, Michael. “Humanity at the Limit.” Indianapolis. 2000.
Bodemann, M. “Jews, Germans, & Memory.” Michigan, 1999.
Marcuse, H. “The Holocaust: Interdisiplinary perspectives.” Santa Barbara, 2003.
Brown, Jean. “Images from the Holocaust: Literature Anthology.” Illinois, 1997.
Lempp, M.D. “ Delayed & Long term effects of persecution suffered in childhood youth.” http://www.holocaustechos.com/41empp.html. (2003)