Understand Historical Context
The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah was a genocide perpetrated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In the early 1940's, six million Jews were killed. This was two thirds of the total Jewish population in Europe at the time. Many survivors were the only ones in their extended families to live.
Jews were murdered systematically in various ways, such as in gas chambers, death marches, firing squads, and other tortuous means. Others died as a result of disease in overcrowded ghettos. The British Library explains:
"Jewish people had lived in Europe for over 2000 years. Originally Jews lived in Palestine but the Romans drove them out of this land in ancient times. Consequently the Jews settled in different places around the world. They often lived peacefully alongside their non-Jewish neighbors.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Germany was experiencing great economic and social hardship. The Germans had been defeated in the First World War, and had been forced to pay huge reparations to the Allies. As a result, Germany suffered terrible inflation and mass unemployment. Hitler blamed the Jews for the hardship that weighed down upon his country. His anti-Semitic policies eventually led to an intricate plan to exterminate the Jewish people. It is unknown whether this was his original intention, as it seems he initially planned simply to force the Jews out of Germany."
Sensitivity to trauma
Holocaust survivors endured a wide array of traumatic experiences during the Holocaust. Each survivor will have had a unique experience and their own way of processing this trauma. Professional mental health services were not readily available to the vast majority of survivors. Facing History and Ourselves explains the effects of trauma further:
"The voices of survivors have become a central part of how we understand the Holocaust. Today there are hundreds of memoirs on library shelves and thousands of hours of recorded audio and video testimony in archives. After the war, these stories emerged only slowly. Some survivors preferred to remain silent or were discouraged from speaking; for others, sharing their experiences was simply too painful. And for many survivors, the desire to tell their stories was outweighed by the belief that those who weren’t 'there'—in the ghetto, in hiding, in the camps—could never truly understand. Author Elie Wiesel has said, 'Only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.'
Sonia Weitz, a poet who survived five camps, prefaced her memoir by asking, 'But how does one bear witness to the unspeakable?... Normal standards do not apply to the Holocaust. Even language fails and words like hunger, fear, hot, cold, and pain lose their meaning. In fact, the Holocaust is a crime without a language.'"
Oftentimes, students come into their meetings with survivors expecting to have the Holocaust as the main conversation topic. But this does not need to be the case. Let the conversation flow naturally, as if you were speaking to your own parents or grandparents. Many survivors lead thriving lives after the Holocaust, and have much to discuss. Try asking them about their family, hobbies, travel, or other things that brought them joy in life. Don't be afraid to speak about yourself as well. Some points in your conversation may feel a bit uncomfortable, but as your relationship with a survivor develops conversation will begin to flow more naturally. Remember that you are doing an incredibly kind deed.
If you'd like more in depth information, you can listen to a recording of a 20 minute phone call with Janet Stein, President of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, from March 2018. In this call, Janet spoke with TRTN volunteers about visiting survivors:
You may also find value in browsing the Facing History and Ourselves education resources at https://www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources
Thank you to Facing History and Ourselves and the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston for help in creating this guide.
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to Elan Kawesch: Elan@TogetherRestoring.com