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“A Journey of Perseverance in Holocaust Survivors’ Lives in America”

Book Essay on: William B. Helmreich, Against all Odds : Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America
( New Bruinswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996), 348pages.
UCSB: E184.J5 H55 1996.

by Maribel Ceja
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at amazon.com ($25)

About Maribel Ceja

I am a senior sociology major who is very interested in the dynamics of human interaction with regards to class, race, religion and gender. Prior to taking this course I learned about genocide and the destruction of lives of many European Jews during the Holocaust, but I never learned anything about survivors’ lives after the tragic events of the Nazi regime. After visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., I became interested in finding out about the life stories of survivors who have established their lives and families in America. I chose to analyze Helmreich’s book because I am interested in learning about survivors’ life adjustments after the Holocaust, particularly on how lasting effects influence survivors’ beliefs, morals, lives and their identity in society.

Abstract (back to top)

In Against all Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America, William B. Helmreich writes of survivors’ experiences as they first arrived in the United States. Helmreich explores the power of individuals to prevail over hardships by narrating survivors’ determinism as they reconstructed their lives. His work is derived from six years of traveling in the United States and recording more than fifteen thousand pages of personal stories. In this book, Helmreich argues that survivors’ strong-minded characters enabled them to lead successful lives in spite of their experiences. Although survivors already showed great perseverance during the Holocaust, once in the United States they were more determined than ever to overcome the language barriers of a foreign country, as well as to establish strong values of marriage, family and religion that distinguished them from American Jews. This suggests that although survivors were able to establish successful lives, they suffered from lasting effects which influenced their morals, identity and lives.

Essay (back to top)

The Nazi Holocaust marked a historical genocide period for European Jews during World War II. The Nazis’ systematic murder of millions of European Jews was accomplished through intense persecution and inhumane living conditions of starvation and forced labor in the concentration camps. Millions did not live to tell their stories, but thousands survived and have retold their life stories of the Holocaust. In Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America, William B. Helmreich writes of survivors’ experiences as they first arrived in the United States: the mixed reactions they encountered from American Jews who were not very eager to receive them; their choices on where to establish a living, and their efforts on finding marriage partners with whom they would feel comfortable, which most often were survivors.

Helmreich’s work explores questions about prevailing over hardship; how people have gone through such experiences and are able to reconstruct their lives; and how they obtain the strength to overcome such experiences and keep on going. In this essay I will analyze these accounts and present the findings of Helmreich’s research. The main questions I will addresses are: What happened to the victims of the Holocaust after their ordeal was over? How did they manage to cope with their memories and adjust to a new life?

In Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they made in America, Helmreich argues that survivors’ strong-minded character enabled them to lead successful lives in spite of their experiences. Although survivors already showed great perseverance during the Holocaust, once in America they were more determined than ever to overcome the language barriers of a foreign country, as well as to establish strong values of marriage, family and religion that distinguished them from American Jews. This suggests that although survivors were able to establish successful lives, they suffered from lasting effects which influenced their morals, identity and lives. He does not focus attention on the stereotype that survivors are typically depressed, anxious, fearful and hopeless. Instead he portrays the efforts survivors made to re-establish their lives when their worldview was consistent with their past experiences, even though those had ended. This book shows how survivors adjusted to their new life. The book’s sources are drawn from Helmreich’s interviews with survivors and new material from archives that had never before been available (Helmreich, 262). Helmreich’s work consists of six years traveling in the United States, listening to personal stories which he recorded in more than fifteen thousand pages. He made this data publicly available to portray the ways in which survivors reached out for resources in order to rebuild their lives.

Based on the collection of case interviews, the beginning of a new life initiated when survivor refugees settled in a sea voyage that brought them to America: the land where their dreams of beginning a new life, marrying, raising families and reintegrating themselves into a normal life would begin. “By outlasting the Nazi death machine, they foiled Hitler’s dreams of total destruction. When they came here ... they were at the beginning of a new stage in their lives, one whose outcome they could not predict…Most waited a long time before they could enter this country” (Helmreich, 57). Once in America survivors has succeeded. However, one of the challenges that as immigrants’ survivors had to overcome was interacting with the American Jewish community when they were unenthusiastically welcomed. Survivors presented challenge for the American Jewish community by straining its resources. Survivors often found American Jews cold and unsympathetic to their present struggles and past suffering. This only presented one of their struggles, but was not an impediment to their aspirations of social and economic stability. Their efforts to improve their lives is best described by survivor Elie Wiesel who argued although the past had been terrible, it became a basis for the future. In one occasion, in a Jewish Appeal conference in 1973, he stated: “We owe it to our past not to lose hope… We must show our children that three thousand years of history cannot end with an act of despair in our part… Do not permit the enemy to rob us our joy and our hope: to give up would be his victory and he does not deserve it” (Helmreich 59). Here we find strength in his perseverance, but a clear disassociation from mainstream society.

One counter example towards this notion of avoiding being brought down by the American community is the story of future congressman Tom Lantos, who expressed his gratitude to the Hillel Foundation in the following lines, “I am so happy and glad that it is possible to find the proper words to thank you for everything. Since I am in this country everyone is so kind and good to me that I simply don’t want to believe it” (Helmreich, 56). The reasons why survivors had different thoughts regarding their arrival to the United States is not noted in Helmreich’s analysis. However, to analyze these implications it would be necessary to take into account each survivor’s experience relative to the location, environment and people they interacted with. It is important to not make any judgments based on Wiesel and Lambs public speeches because we do not know what their feelings unless that was brought into consideration.

Once in America, survivors initiated a new stage in their life, one that was hard to foresee. Establishing a new life in America was “for some, a measure of tranquility… for others recovery of lost wealth and status… All realized that they would have to build new lives, solve new problems, and begin the long struggle towards a stable and secure existence” (Helmreich, 57). As foreigners, survivors had to adjust to the American life style. They had a language to learn, a difficult task for those who were already adults. Once the language was moderately learned about half of the survivors attended school. Although in various speeches survivors acknowledged that education was valuable, the necessity of earning a living was a priority. They began securing employment positions and participated in a variety of Jewish programs which gave them the opportunity to establish relationships out of their group of survivors. However, in their desire to establish new lives in America survivors did not assimilate to mainstream American society. However, through media and school survivors were exposed to American music, sports, and clothing styles that “speeded up the Americanization process” (Helmreich, 82). In this way survivors began to adapt to mainstream society.

Did survivors succeed in their occupations and professions? It is hard to measure success. It is clear that most survivors learned the language, established a home, began their own business, and went into a number or occupations or professions that secured their employment. Hence, their efforts are well recognizable and show that in this concept survivors did very well. They had the courage to stand strong on their feet and keep on going when their hearts were almost broken. A case example is Moses Feuerstein, owner of Malden Mills (a textile firm that employed many survivors), who stated: “They were generally good workers who had gone through a lot. As a result they were very serious people… They didn’t want to be pampered. They were willing to work hard and they were quite intelligent. When they got a job, they stayed where they were a long time” (Helmreich, 93). In this case we find that survivors were perceived as hard-working individuals who were strictly committed to their jobs. However, a quite small number of survivors were by no means primarily interested in persevering to success through employment, education, or wealth. Survivor Cantor Matus Radzivilover described his desire to freedom as a primordial desire. He explained this notion as follows, “I never expected… great financial achievements; this was not my purpose in life. All I was interested in was spiritual freedom” (Helmreich 111). The restrained lives that Jews experienced during the Holocaust led to their aspiration for freedom above any other achievements, for some survivors. However, one can predict that once freedom is achieved, survivors might strive for more.

Establishing families was among the most important aspirations for survivors. They valued the commitment to getting married and having children. Work was a source of great pleasure and achievement but family relationships were a form of human recovery (Helmreich 121). In my view, the way survivors valued family is quite normal when considering all they went through. Their value towards family is best described in the words of survivor Paula Gris, who lived through the Holocaust, “I have five children to replace the Jewish losses. I have five children to fill the world with hope and with the possibilities that were snuffed out with all those other hundreds of thousands of children who never reached adulthood. I have five children because I remember loneliness” (Helmreich 128). With these thoughts, many survivors married and had relationships that were mainly stable and enduring.

Statistics show that by 1989 about eighty-three percent of the survivors were married, compared to sixty-two percent of the American Jews of the same age. Moreover, American Jews were more likely to divorce than survivors (Helmreich 121). This demonstrates that they valued family life in a significant way that derived from their past life. One can argue that given the terrible life they experienced during the Holocaust they were left with hope towards family unity. Moreover, most of the time the people they married were survivors, people who had gone through the same horrors of the Holocaust and with whom they felt most comfortable. This shows that survivors tried to stay within their own group of Jewish survivors, remaining apart from American society. The value they held for family relations is due to the challenges that they encountered during and after the Holocaust, which endowed them with a strong character of commitment to marriage and care for their children.

There is however, counter evidence towards survivors treating marriage as a lifetime commitment, particularly those relationships with other survivors. Although the majority of survivors thought of marriage as an unbroken unity, there were counter cases towards this idea. The case of survivor Barbara Davis best describes this, for she was first married to a native-native born American Jew and later to a survivor. Unfortunately both unions ended in divorce. During her first marriage as things did not work out there was pressure to stay married from her brothers who strongly opposed her divorce by saying, “A Davis doesn’t get divorced” (Helmreich 124). This idea was strongly inculcated in the Jewish community, but it was almost part of survivors’ identity. And indeed because of family pride, Barbara suffered for sixteen years before getting divorced from her first marriage. By her second marriage she thought that her relationship would work out since they both shared the common bond of having survived the Holocaust. However, only pain was to be recalled from that relationship. She describes her situation as follows, “He was an intellectual and I thought I had finally found happiness. Then he hired a young woman from Germany, a graduate student, to be his assistant… And then after a while he was coming home late. And pretty soon it became clear to me that he was having an affair with her” (Helmreich, 125). Barbara soon divorced him and today she lives alone. Her strong character and perseverance to overcome life in the concentration camps is once more observed through her perseverance in remaining married for long periods when her marriages were not going well.

Living with memories was common among survivors. The Holocaust left unhealed scars that had certain psychological effects on survivors. Their attitudes towards certain issues were influenced by their terrible experiences. Their experiences appear to have made them more reflective than average individuals (Helmreich, 262). The success of the survivors in coping in no way diminishes the horrors they experienced. Overcoming tragedy was not a simple task that involved assimilating to the mainstream society. First they came to America under poor conditions. Establishing in the community, finding jobs and achieving some education moved them up the ladder of success. According to the United Service for New Americans, by 1953 less than two percent required financial assistance, and by 1989 about thirty-four percent of survivors reported earning over fifty thousand dollars annually. The factors that explain the financial success of survivors were that they were hard workers with determination, skill, intelligence and willingness to take risks (Helmreich, 265).

Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they made in America presents the hardships and adversities that survivors encountered in America. It demonstrates the courage that they had to move on with their lives and establish families. It is impressive to consider that compared to American Jews, survivors were less likely to be divorced and more likely to have more children. Overcoming tragedy while living with memories must be a challenging situation nevertheless, survivors were able to get their lives started, get jobs and education. Analyzing this book shows the strength that survivors had when picking up their lives from destruction and leading them to success. It is an important source that teaches the rest of us a lesson on how to overcome tragedy.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Rose Cichy, Library Journal September 1 1992, Vol. 117 Issue 13

    Cichy’s review aims to demonstrate that Helmreich’s well-researched work is exclusively representative of the experiences of survivors who immigrated to the United States with a desire to establish a new life. In her analysis she stresses that readers not only learn about survivors’ struggles but their adaptability to the United States of America.

  • Jeffrey S. Gurock , Journal of American Ethnic History Summer 1998, Vol. 17 Issue 4

    Gurock describes that in Against All Odds the trauma and terror of the concentration camps brought survivors to a new nation: the United States, where their behavior patterns of Americans were quite normal in a broad sense. This review aims to show that survivors were able to make successful lives in spite their experiences during the holocaust. Furthermore, Gurock suggests that by reading Helmreich’s text we not only understand survivors’ immigration, but we also learn about the Jewish migration and their adjustment.

  • Deborah E. Lipstadt , American Historical Review December 1993, Vol. 98 Issue 5

    An important note is presented in this review which indicates that Helmreich’s comprehensive analysis is composed of about 200 interviews conducted to random survivors in America. He argues that based on Helmreich’s work, survivors- who have suffered from horrible treatment- are not chronically depressed or anxious despite the terrible lives they lived during the holocaust.

  • Stephen J. Whitfield, New Leader: A Death somehow survived December 14 1992, Vol. 75 Issue 16

    This review integrates a series of speeches from Elie Wiesel’s memoir. Whitfield argues that Helmreich work presents the lives of “severely scarred refugees” who have adapted to the U.S. social and economic living standards. He suggests Helmreich’s work emphasizes the virtues of survivors’ to overcome the hatred that destroyed their families during the holocaust.

Books and Articles

  • Beth B. Cohen, Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007

    Cohen explores how the Truman Directive enforced American Jews to help survivors handle their financial strains. This text shows the available assistance that the community offered to survivors while making clear note of that which was not available. Cohen makes reference to the difficulties that children, in particular orphans and orthodox Jews, encountered when beginning their lives in America after the holocaust. She describes survivors’ early years in America while characterizing their establishment as a very complex one.

  • Dorothy Rabinowitz, New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust living in America New York: Knopf, 1976

    This book highlights the experiences of survivors in a set of memoirs of more than one hundred individuals who describe the efforts of rebuilding their lives after the liberation from the Nazi concentration camps. This text contains the many challenges that survivors encountered as foreigners. It brings awareness about the horrors that survivors encounter when living with memories, and how these thoughts influence the certain paths survivors take in their lives. Lastly, this text enables readers to learn about determinism to overcome tragedies.

Relevant Websites

  • Neenah Ellis, “Life after the Holocaust” (archive.org: May 2006, last revised April 2008).

    This website presents images, audio, interviews, transcripts and exhibitions from six Holocaust survivors who reflect on their thoughts and experiences after the Holocaust. Particular attention is given to the challenges survivors encountered when establishing lives in America. It integrates the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a resource for further investigation of these events.

  • William Helmreich, Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Effect “Don’t look back Holocaust Survivors in the U.S.” (Published: October 1991: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

    An analysis of survivors’ social and emotional lives, their adaptation to the United States, their close relationships, and their morals- all comprise the successful lives of survivors in the United States. In this web site we find stories about how survivors adapted to a new life, one which differed to their past. To find more details about Helmreich’s research this web page is suggested.

  • , “Holocaust Survivors and the Remembrance Project: I Survived the 20th Century Holocaust” (archive.org: August 2003, last revised May 2008)

    A recollection of testimonies, photographs, biographies, and memoirs that highlight the experience in the concentration camps and document the lives of those who survived. An overview of the efforts of survivor Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) to pursue Nazi war criminals is in further detail described in this web site.

  • , “United States Holocaust Memorial Museum” (archive.org: November 2001, last revised May 2008)

    A visual experience of the Holocaust Memorial Museum is available in this web site. The purpose of this web site is to instruct citizens on the history of the Holocaust. It aims to inspire Americans’ to confront hatred- and prevent genocide. In its efforts to present this, this web site conveys research on genocide through collections, archives and galleries that facilitate its learning.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Maribel Ceja on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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