Holocaust Survivors in America

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




The American population of 283 million is 4.5% of the population of the 6.2 billion now living in this world. We are, therefore, a small and privileged minority. This is generally overlooked by us because few of us know this.

For us Jews this is an even more important advantage than for anyone else. For us this means that we live in the only country on earth which allows us the right and freedom, outside of Israel, to take advantage of every opportunity offered anyone else.

It has been said that there are numerous Christian countries in which Jews legalistically have equal rights with other citizens. This may be true in England, although that is tenuous. Then there is one Jewish country - Israel. There is however only one Judeo-Christian country; that is the U.S.A.

Therefore, American Jews have been able to establish themselves here for at least four generations and sometimes more. The result has been spectacular. In the world of finance and business we have reached great pinnacles of success so that there are some Jewish billionaires. In the professions, notably medicine, the Jewish doctor is legendary. Jews who have won Nobel prizes are far in excess of our puny numbers, whether in science or in literature or in any of the areas in which the prize is given.

Amidst all of this success it has become impossible for the generation of American Jews now reaching adulthood to have any conception of how their ancestors lived just 50 years ago when there were still so many Jews alive who had survived the European Holocaust. Such Jews are hard to find now and indeed hardly anyone wants to find them.

These are Jews who exhibit behavior that is incomprehensible to those who did not share their experiences. That is of course true of all of us. Everyone reflects his experiences in his personality so that we conduct ourselves in a fashion that is the product of our past.

Therefore, those whose past is most unusual and most divorced from the experiences of the majority seem at least peculiar and, to many, obnoxious. Holocaust survivors are people who have had experiences not known to anyone else. These experiences lead such survivors to one of two reactions. The majority, having learned that their background is not understood by anyone else, talk only to other survivors. Many of these unique people resemble Coleridge’s “ancient mariner” as they repeat over and over again the nightmares of their early lives. So hideous were their experiences, so gross and horrible their memories that they can discuss only that one topic, again and again and again. This leads to their rejection by the majority who cannot tolerate listening to these tales over and over.

There is also a second group of such holocaust survivors. These are the workaholics who seek to suppress their memories by working all the time. Some of these survivors are famous people like Henry Kissinger, erstwhile Secretary of State. Less well known is the former secretary of the treasury in the Carter administration, Michael Blumenthal. Blumenthal was born in Germany in 1926. He survived the Holocaust, then lived in China and then came to the United States. Here he became a professor of economics at Yale and later held a number of offices in the Kennedy administration. His rise to membership in a presidential cabinet was as spectacular as that of Kissinger, although Blumenthal is hardly remembered.

There are of course numerous other Holocaust survivors who have acquired the label of workaholic. These are people who believe that they must excel over and beyond all normal expectations lest they aren’t “good enough” and will again be the targets of exclusion, humiliation, insult and rejection. Nothing can really change the attitudes of either of these survivors. They cannot help themselves any more than the American community can help them overcome their fears and their perpetual obsession with the past. Some survivors blame the American Jewish community for not doing enough to obliterate their emotional suffering. Yet, that is quite impossible. No one is responsible for the historical events which made some of us live in a world only we understand. It is not the fault of the American Jewish community; it is the fault of Hitler and his horrible followers. We have no right to blame the present American Jewish community for the cruelties of the past. Such assignment of “blame” solves nothing and cannot reconstruct a normal life for us. Therefore, the gap remains. The American community cannot understand us, and we can never “fit in.” That is permanent. That is fixed. That is immutable. All we can do is accept the past and live as normal a life as we can while always remembering that we are only 4.5”% of the population of this earth, a fact for which we must for ever be grateful.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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