How Refugees Differ From Other Immigrants


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Holocaust Survivors

There are in the U.S. today about 50,000 immigrants who are generally called “Holocaust Survivors”. Unlike any other immigrants to this country, these few survivors of the mass murder of European Jews by Europe’s Christian population cannot return to their native lands, cannot visit their relatives, cannot hear the language of their youth again, cannot call anyone who knew them in their earlier life nor can they visit their erstwhile homes. They are indeed outsiders in the most extreme meaning of that word, for they carry with them a life long stigma inscribed upon their minds and their bodies by a most incredible experience. The Russian Jews who came here in such great numbers in the early years of the 20th century had little desire to return to the miseries of their erstwhile existence. Nevertheless, they, as well as all other ethnic groups who came here could write, visit or be visited by their families in the Old Country. They could also rejoin those of their families who came here after them. Many, in fact, came with their entire families and settled together in ethnic enclaves where their language was spoken and where they could count on the support of others to help them adjust to their new environs.

   None of this was true of those who came here as a result of the Holocaust. Those who survived that experience came alone. They had no families nor friends nor acquaintances because those whom they knew and cherished in Europe had all been murdered by gas, by starvation, and by mass executions.  

   The Greek phrase Holocaust or whole fire refers to the extermination of the European Jews between 1933 and 1945. That extermination was preceded by stigmatizing the Jewish population of Europe in a manner which even the medieval world never attained. Indeed, Martin Luther had called for the expulsion of all Jews from German lands as early as 1542.  Nevertheless, this was not carried out until 1939, when the Germans began the systematic transportation of its 503,000 Jews into concentration camps in the conquered lands of Poland, the Baltic countries, and the Balkans. Since the Jewish population of Germany in 1933 constituted only 0.77 percent of all Germans, it is evident that many Christians in Germany had never seen a Jew. However, stigma made up for experience.  Beginning with the ascension of the Nazi party to power in that year and ending with the defeat of the German armies in 1945, a total of 431 anti-Jewish decrees were enforced on the European Jewish population from France to Russia and from Norway to Italy, as most of Europe had come under Nazi domination.  Included in these many decrees was the law of September 1, 1941 which decreed that all Jews had to wear a six cornered black star on a yellow background including the word JUDE, or Jew, at all times. On March 4, 1942, an additional decree ordered that a Jewish star had to be affixed next to the name of the Jew at all rooms, apartments or houses in which a Jew lived. Jews were issued special internal identification cards which carried a large J. On the first of January 1939, all male Jews were forced to use the name Israel and all female Jews were called Sara by German decree.  In addition, the German government issued a list of about 50 male and 50 female names which Jews were obliged to use because these names were regarded as Jewish and hence stigmatized their users. In addition, in every park there were some yellow benches bearing the logo “for Jews only.” Jews were not permitted to sit on any other park benches nor use public transportation or drive a car. These measures made it easy to identify the stigmatized Jews, so that they could then be transported to ghettos in the East and finally carted to their deaths in concentration camps such as Sobibor, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Buchenwald, etc.

    The late historian Lucy Dawidowicz and others have presented statistics to show the extent of the mass murders carried out in Europe during the years 1933-1945.  5,933,900 Jews out of a total of 8,861,800 Jews were slaughtered in those years. The 33% who survived consisted mostly of Russian Jews sent to the inner Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion of that country in 1941 so as to escape the killings. Others succeeded in coming to the U.S. and other countries by a variety of means. In any case, those who survived differed from all other immigrants who had come here in that they had undergone a level of cruelty which they could not forget and which no one else could understand.  

   Holocaust survivors have internalized the stigma attached to them in their early years. This means that these survivors, like all people, exhibit a personality which reflects their experiences. Therefore many of these survivors display anxieties in situations which do not create problems for native Americans. Holocaust survivors display suspicions of others’ motives, express the belief that they will be ostracized when that is not intended, feel rejected when no such motive exists, see insults and demeaning situations which others don’t see, and generally give the impression that they are defensive and mistrusting.  All of these characteristics create additional problems for the survivors, whether inside or outside the Jewish community.  American Jews are now generally third and fourth generation Americans. The immigration of the grandparents or even great-grandparents has become family legend for them. Holocaust survivors, however, carry with them a baggage unknown to anyone else. This produces conduct and psychological projections for survivors, frequently leading to their rejection by Americans, whether Jewish or not, so that Holocaust survivors generally are outsiders in American culture. In short, Holocaust survivors do not fit in anywhere and lack the support which ethnic enclaves, relatives, and erstwhile countrymen furnished other immigrants over the years. There is no Holocaust survivor community. There are no Holocaust survivor enclaves.  Instead these survivors live amidst a large and diverse American community which largely rejects the survivors and finds them peculiar, different, and uncomfortable, as indeed they are.

Holocaust survivors feel like unwanted outsiders wherever we go because throughout the many years that we lived in Nazi Germany, we read signs on every store, public building, restaurant, hotel, etc., which said “Dogs and Jews not wanted.” Newspapers through those years in Germany kept printing that Jews were not a religion but an inferior human race who ought to be killed.  On the streets, people insulted us publicly, and called us “Christ killers” and other ugly names while storm troopers marched down the streets singing, “When Jew blood squirts from the knife,” etc.

This went on day after day, month after month, year after year.  As a result, we absorbed this and can’t get rid of it.  Occasionally also, we relive the Nazi horrors in our mind’s eye.  Some Holocaust survivors even hide food in their own houses because they feel compelled to do this in memory of the starvation they suffered many years ago.

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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