Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Lessons Learned from Katrina & the Holocaust


As Hurricane Katrina raged in New Orleans and left its devastation among its inhabitants and its fallout on all of us, our thoughts return to the six million who were annihilated in Europe during the Nazi era between 1939 and 1945. A commonality exists between the two events, although the enormity of the annihilation and the deliberate nationally sanctioned mass murder is fortunately missing. 

The people of New Orleans were informed that the hurricane was on its way and were advised to vacate the territory. Many of those who owned cars packed a few of their most precious belongings and left for safer havens. The poor clung to their meager possessions, had no workable transportation and remained. They would not believe the warnings that were announced everywhere. The wealthier German Jews fled Germany and emigrated to wherever they could find domicile. They were able to pay for their escape. The poorer among them had no way of obtaining the necessary means to elude the fate that awaited them. Some who were able to depart would not believe what seemed so obvious to the more enlightened. They clung to their possessions and stated they would leave with the last available train (“Mit dem letzten Schnellzug”). Well, they did. The train they were waiting for led to Dachau, Teresienstadt, Buchenwald, Birkenau, Treblinka, Mauthausen and a number of other camps of mass destruction – to the gas ovens! 

When in earlier times the Russian and other orthodox Jews throughout Europe were given the opportunity to come to safer shores in America they refused, stating they would not go to a “trefene Medine”, meaning to foreign lands, where they had convinced themselves that they could not retain and practice their strict orthodoxy and would become “Goyim”. They certainly were able to retain their beliefs and could say their Schema’s as the Czarists burned their houses and murdered them mercilessly. Which was the greater “Nevere”:  to end their lives or to save their bodies and souls and that of their children and the future generations of Jews who would make our people stronger and better able to face our enemies? They made their choice, like the poor people in New Orleans who did not want to leave their familiar surroundings, the warm weather, their roots. Unfortunately, in Louisiana, a fair number ended up with no roots at all, floating in the flood waters, in the disease infested dome of New Orleans and on rooftops pleading to be rescued.

When the levees were built in New Orleans, the government chose to install the less expensive ones for possible hurricane category three disasters rather than having foresight and installing structures that would have held back the waters for category five storms. This was done in order to save money and in the end it cost millions, possibly billions, more through wrongful “savings”. These types of actions took place in a similar vein in Europe when people wanted to save their earthly goods and would not take the chance to transfer their moneys to safer, more friendly lands. Some were afraid to buy tickets for their escape because they felt they would need the money sometime in the future. They also did not want to leave the proverbial “fat pots” that they had accumulated. There was in addition a lack of caring on the part of the Jewish community in America when it came to rescue work to save their fellow Jews while there was still time. They did not seem to care as long as they did not feel directly involved. This too was true of the government in not furnishing mass transportation in time for the poor in New Orleans to escape their fate, nor did help come fast enough after the damage had left its toll and people were starving, without food, adequate shelter or medical care. Money and help often trickled in too late to save the lives of many of the poor folks in that unfortunate city. Private individuals, often at great sacrifice, helped by contributions, some very generous, and often other poor folk opened their doors and took in an occasional family. The government, with its enormous and cumbersome bureaucracy set up FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administratration) to assist these unfortunate people in finding and receiving resources. Lo and behold, a host of government employees manned telephones and filled out applications for victims who were desperately in need of relief – food, clothing and shelter, yet no instant help was forthcoming. A promise of future assistance was the answer that these folks received. They were also advised of a web site which they could tap into on their computer to find missing relatives, help lines and and other resources. What computers???! These folks were standing in line to use someone's telephone to get through. A number of them wailed and shouted that they have no homes, no roof over their heads, nothing, nothing! How were they to have a computer? They were also given numbers to call for food stamps but once again the numbers given by the bureaucrats to the people who manned the telephones were incorrect. 

The one thing that the sad, desperate and impoverished victims of the hurricane had was their ability to speak, to express themselves and their sorrow and hope to find a crumb of bread, some dry, warm garments and shelter from the flood waters and devastation. Not so the poor refugees that came over bedraggled with nothing but a torn dress or shirt on their backs. They had run away from the murderers that were after them and escaped with the remnants of their family, if indeed any were left. They mourned their mothers, their fathers, their children, their aunts, uncles and friends that they had lost in the annihilation that was almost theirs. When they finally reached the shores of America they did not know where to go, where and how to fill the hollowness in their souls, or mitigate their hunger for food, their need for sleep, their total exhaustion. No one seemed to care. Their fellow religionists who sang “hine ma tov umanayim” in schul about how one should help one's kin were nowhere to be seen. They wandered the streets because the organizational people who were to meet them were not in sight. In German mingled with Yiddish and a few broken English words gleaned from what once was a dictionary they asked a man in blue (a policeman) where an agency was located. Ultimately they reached someone who gave some help. As we can see, there is similarity among the misfortune and the devastation that occurred for the victims involved. The big difference is that the few European refugees who escaped by night and fog and who managed to reach our shores were deliberately persecuted and their loved ones, six million, were killed maliciously and with venom before they reached our shores. Fortunately, those of us who were the tiny minority, the survivors, managed to create a new life for ourselves and there is hope that Katrina’s unfortunate ones will again find sustenance and peace! Shalom.

Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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