By Karen James, LCSW-C
I recently read a novel about a concentration camp with my book group. Several group members could not finish the book. Yet so much of Jewish identity is affected by the horrific events of the Holocaust and the responsibility to ensure it is never forgotten.
Those who lived it, though, have little choice in what they choose to bear. For them, the Holocaust can never be forgotten. It is a constant undercurrent in their lives. And like a current, the impact of those events can sometimes ebb and flow. Yet that current can also carry them away.
The survivors of the Holocaust had many different experiences and not all can be compared or even understood. One thing shared, though, is that something mind-numbingly catastrophic happened to them, their families, and the world. They experienced severe trauma, and many pray and work toward making sure such a thing never occurs again.
Yet there is still terror and genocide in this modern world. Survivors can experience aspects of their trauma again when other catastrophes occur. Memories are carried and other events can re-awaken them.
What is the impact of such mental and physical trauma on our survivors as they age? What happened to each of them and how does it now affect them? Aging itself is a time of many losses and a challenge to personal resilience. It can seem a terrible mimicry of those earlier experiences. And again, those outside that experience may never really know what has been endured and what is causing current suffering.
Our communities are becoming more aware of the effects of living with such trauma on the survivors, their families and others close to them. Human service agencies like JCS are becoming more aware of how trauma affects behavior and the ability to connect with others. Organizations are now looking at the populations they serve with the awareness that sometimes what seems ordinary or everyday can affect or in some cases re-traumatize Holocaust survivors.
Families and caregivers can grapple with this too as they try to understand their elder’s reactions. When I worked in a nursing facility for elders with severe memory loss, one woman began to be agitated and inconsolable when she saw other patients being wheeled into the facility’s shower room. Unfortunately those around her did not know her personal past and some even had little knowledge of the Holocaust itself. It took some time for staff to understand that seemingly innocent scenes that Survivors witness today could bring back horrific memories of innocent people unknowingly being herded to the “showers” which were actually gas chambers. Once caregivers understand the history, they are able to change the routine.
To increase this knowledge of trauma and its long-term effects on lives, JCS will be presenting Shadows of the Past: How the Trauma of the Holocaust Impacts Survivors Today. The free program will take place at 630pm at the Edward A. Myerberg Center and is open to Survivors, their families, caregivers and professionals. Click here to learn more.
This community-wide program was made possible by a grant from The JFNA Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care. In addition, JCS staff members who have been specially trained will be sharing their knowledge with other professionals in the community who work with or care for Survivors in an effort to help as many Holocaust Survivors as possible cope with the Shadows of the Past.
By Karen James, LCSW-C, JCS Adult Therapy Services
JCS provides multiple services and supports to Holocaust Survivors and their families in the Baltimore community, with the primary goal to allow Holocaust Survivors to remain in their homes and within their communities as they age. Social services for Nazi victims have been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and a grant from the Maryland Department of Aging. To learn more, click here or call 410-466-9200.