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Are Holocaust Survivors Heroes?

Are Holocaust Survivors Heroes?

Casting Holocaust survivors as nervy, pushy villains is a moral perversion.


Like Anna Breslaw, I too grew up with Holocaust survivors, and went through the “de rigueur exposure to the horror.” I too visited “geriatric men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms,” endlessly, sitting sullenly in boredom. I too “completing assigned reading like The Diary of Anne Frank and Night,” and had nightmares for weeks. The Holocaust was practically a member of my family.

I grew up knowing without a shadow of a doubt that had I been born in 1936 instead of 1986, I would have ended my life as an eight year old mottled blue corpse in Auschwitz, like my seven year old cousin Judith. When I was too lazy to complete a seven-mile hike, my mother informed me I would have never survived a death march.

Cousins murdered during the wa: ages 12, 10, 7The only difference between Anna and me is that I am deeply grateful for my upbringing. I grew up exposed to people who were strong in the face of adversity. No, Holocaust survivors aren’t heroes for enduring pain and suffering. My survivor grandfather will readily tell anyone who will listen that he is not holy for surviving; it was those who died were truly holy. All he did was survive, and that is why he is my hero.

They survived and rebuilt after devastation.

That is why I “clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau,” because she and her fellow survivors rebuilt after devastation. These young men and women were orphaned, cruelly tortured beyond measure and stripped of their humanity. They built the nation of Israel, and they built communities in America. They built homes, they built families and they raised up the next generation to be strong, proud citizens of their country. They worked menial jobs, saved each and every penny so that their children could grow up and live the dream of a house in the suburbs, and grandchildren who are privileged to be living out their dreams.

No, the survivors were not always heroes but few people have that privilege in a literal man made hell. I know what my grandparents did to survive and not all stories are pleasant, but I would never presume to judge them.

It is only someone who never knew extreme hunger, homelessness, degradation and terror who would dare ask, “What did you do that you’re not talking about?” with a holier-than-thou air.

Here is the answer, plain and simple. They did what they had to survive. And anyone would have done the same in the circumstance. I pray to God I never know the limits of what I would do to defend my own life. I hope Anna never has to make a choice like that. It’s the perch of the privilege to look down on the less fortunate as "conniving, indestructible, taking and taking."

My GrandmotherDehumanization has a nasty habit of warping a person. My grandmother used to force me to help her smuggle out food from buffet tables, she constantly seemed to be seeing how much more she could get. And I smiled through my humiliation at her behavior and remembered I was never 15 and hungry and having the last morsel of bread stolen from my hand. Compassion is a great gift.

I do not judge others for their mental quirks as they dealt with terrible emotional and psychological damage. Anyone would break under those circumstances.

I recall one survivor weeping as she told me she pretended not to know her own younger sisters to make sure she did not join them on the line to the gas chambers.

Is this woman a villain? No, she is human and she mourns her choice each day. We are fortunate to live in a time where these choices are no longer forced on us. In Jewish history, this period of freedom is a rare and precious anomaly.

Yes, the Holocaust is frightening. We all wonder how we would have survived, what could have been done to us, before going back to our comfortable cushy lives. Casting Holocaust survivors as nervy, pushy villains is a moral perversion. It denigrates and blames the victims and displays an unfathomable disconnection to reality. It’s also a rather convenient way of avoiding looking in the mirror and wondering how well they would have fared.

For me, the Holocaust survivors in my life are the marrow in my bones, the steel in my spine and the humility in my heart. They remind me that evil still exists and they challenge me to fight it, they endowed me with the spiritual wish to live, to love life and its beauty.

To my late grandmother, I am sorry I was not as patient to you in life as you deserved. I hope in the next world, you can know that I miss you every single day.

To the survivors in my life who taught me, shared with me their stories and loved me, thank you.

Thank you for the gift of an extreme will to live. It has made me strong and proud and grateful.

I only hope I can live up to it.

July 29, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 45

(38) Anonymous, June 29, 2017 11:42 PM

I believe holocaust survivors are some of the finest and blessed people in the world! We had a opportunity to have a survivor sit in our car one night after Shabbat service and tell us her testimony. It was awesome. I love the Jewish people like I do my own children. I have been to Israel in 1983 and love every minute of it.

(37) Devorah, January 26, 2016 11:44 PM

Holocaust Survivors

Like you, I grew up in the Company of Holocaust Survivors. Up till I was 3 1/2, I met with my Bubbes sisters. No one prepared me for the aberrations present in their violent behaviour when they were called to the dinner table to eat. As a toddler, I had never seen such a sight and I screamed and ran away from them. Backwards as I recall. My Great Uncle, their brother, picked me up quickly in his arms and took me to another room. He calmed me, and when I was calm enough, he explained these Great Aunts met "very bad people.". I had many questions about this. We joined the family again and all was well for the rest of the visit. Further visits too. Once my Great Uncle passed away, I was eventually adopted by a Family in another State. In a Family of bad people. I learned. Many of the people I met also were Holocaust Survivors. I loved them all dearly. I was blessed to have then with me as I was growing up. Are they heroes? YES! "A person meets his destiny by taking the road to avoid it ". Fontaine

(36) c.j., January 4, 2016 7:45 PM

Are Holocaust survivors heroes?

We do not have to look back in order to know what a holocaust is, but learn from the past to avoid it becomes a person's presence. I is time that we are also mourning the holocaust of the unborn in Israel, where more Jewish bloodline got lost than during the 2 World War. Every year about 35 thousand of them, but nobody seem wanting to talk about it. Let us to be sober and obey the six Commandment of God: You shall not kill. These I say not to diminish the suffering of the ones, which have lost their lives during the holocaust or are survivors of the same. I cam across one myself.

(35) Anna, January 4, 2016 7:38 AM

I saw a documentary series about the Holocaust. One man, who had been quite young, had helped (volunteered ?) to load the bodies into the fires. He might well have been one of them if he hadn't. Would I have done what he did, to save myself ? Of course I would. And, as he seems to have done, blamed and justified myself forever alfterwards. If he hadn't, someone else would have, he couldn't have stopped anything by refusing or not stepping forward. I'm sure that in his place, mine would have been the first hand raised. I can't fool myself that I'd have refused. My heart went out to him.

You seem to use the word nervy in a different way to the way we do; to me a nervy person is a nervous, timid one, but you seem to mean arrogant (?)

I used to wonder how, when two people from a family were the only survivors, they could bear to live in different countries and not see each other-but now I think that the pain could drive a wedge between people in a strange way. It could be that they could end up hardly able to bear to look at each other.

I have not much sympathy, if any, with the viewpoint that this all happened decades ago, the German people should be allowed to live it down. They should not, certainly not while there are any survivors and probably never.

(34) Rafael, January 3, 2016 9:06 PM

A hero is a person that comes to your rescue

Hero has no place in identifying Hollacaust survivors or victims .
It is an overused and misused term .
Eisenhower can be said to be a Hero of that episode on the American side . Stallin and the 20 million Soviets who lost their lives FIGHTING HITLER paid the biggest price for victory . They could be considered heroes and martyrs .
Victims are victims and survivors are survivors . These are appropriate terms for the Jews during WW2 unless they were AMERICAN or Russian soldiers .

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