Return from the Abyss
Is not the hypothesis on ‘a return from an abyss‘ an oxymoron? But in a still hard to comprehend segment of modern history, this very process has become a reality from the summer of 1945 onward for a massive amount of people. For those several hundreds of thousands who did survive the Holocaust in the camps, and those others who survived against all odds in hiding. There were also many others who managed to escape and whose life although saved had been cracked, jammed and entirely put upside down in all possible senses.
Thinking on the abyss; on those who had been physically brought out of there in a few months between January and April 1945, but metaphysically speaking, the way took decades. Can one ever return from an abyss? How it is done? What does it take? What scars are left on one’s personality and life after such experience? How one adjust and gains on life?
More Genocidal than a Genocide
For many long years and decades, the methodical look into that area was an unspoken and undefined tabu. Why, I always wondered? For many years, I was astounded that the whole massive of phenomena of post-Holocaust had not become the subject of studies and public discussion, the area of established knowledge in the international public domain similar to our established massive of knowledge on Holocaust.
I was thinking: so the Nazis were defeated, and hundreds of thousands of shadows of people, homeless, orphaned, all with a giant open psychological trauma, were wondering throughout Europe. Many of them yet before coming to pre-Israel Palestine and soon to Israel, America, Australia were trying to return to their homes. How did they live? What did they found at the places where they were born, their families lived, and their life went before the Nazi blacker-than-black cloud did cover the horizon of life of the millions so successfully?
What had happened to them when they reached the shores of their unexpected destinations? What was the attitude and practices of the societies towards them both in Europe and anywhere else? What was the character of their social life, their communications with people on a personal level? What was the reaction, attitude and practices of the people and societies in different countries after the Holocaust towards those hundreds of thousands of the survivors?
The fact of our recent history is that in many senses, the Second World War did not finish in May 1945. This certainly was the case for all and everyone from the Holocaust survivors.
I remember how my dear friend Simon Wiesenthal told me on how American military were prepared, so absolutely naturally for them, to return him and the other survived inmates of Mauthausen to ‘home’, and how they were assuring Simon on this nicely. “Home? Which home?” – asked Wiesenthal who with his 1,91 cm height was weighing 36 kg at the time. ‘Poland? Home? Every tree, every stone, every street there is a cemetery for me. How one suppose to live at the cemetery?’ – he told to his American liberators who did get the point, but only after being explained on it by the person who had lost 95 members of his and his wife family in the Shoah.
For most of the Holocaust survivors, not only families, fathers, or mothers, sisters or brothers, grandparents, nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews, or cousins, friends had gone; not only books, photos, and one’s cups and childhood’s spoons, their watches and pictures, tables and chairs, their toys and mementos, all and every property, people’s own things, not only one’s clothes and footwear entirely, one’s scarfs and hats, just absolutely everything was robbed of them in a meticulous mass deprivation of a giant scale. Not only their homes were taken physically, but on a deeper level, those people, all and everyone of them were deprived, with violence and horror, of the very concept of home, of the very concept of family, of the very concept of friends, of the very concept of one’s social environment and personal connections and belonging.
This is not to mention the degree of physical abuse and torture. The total and constant fear. That indescribable hunger, thirst, and exposure to cold. That overwhelming endless humiliation. The entire machinery of dehumanisation in its evil functioning day and night, for so many days, nights, months, and years.
I would never forget as being 94, my another very dear friend, great Marian Turski staying on the podium of the United Nations in New York in January 2018, 73 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, with that disarming smile of a person who would be never able to tell us everything about his and people around him life beyond life, just very briefly mentioned in a reference to the trials that people had to go through during the Holocaust: “ Hunger? How can I describe that hunger to you, my fiends? Only to mention, perhaps, that all these years, the smell of a soup and a slice of a bread are still staying in one’s head all the time and are felt the same strongly as they were back then? All those years. Now too.” And you are swapped with a hot-wave of shame. More so because it all still had been not told as it should, in particular on the dimension of the psychological effect of the Holocaust.
This very dimension that has made the Holocaust as a crime more genocidal than a genocide.
Change in Attitude
It took us too long to start to look into that massive of extremely important knowledge of the life of the people affected by the Shoah after 1945. There are many reasons for that: fresh pain in the beginning; the desire to re-focus among the survivors; million problems of every sort to be resolved on the way.
Then there was the time when the world needed to have a closer look into the Nazi’s crimes itself – which took far too long, and is a fiasco of its own. Just to remember that only 10% of the Nazis functioning in Auschwitz alone had been in some way brought to justice, many of them released very soon. And how about the rest of the Nazi camps? And all the other parts of that evil machine?
The one of the first books examining the impact of the Holocaust on the children who experienced it and on their further lives appeared 25 years after the end of the WWII. The combination of personal narratives with psychological observations was written by Helen Epstein, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, in her Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of the Survivors ( 1979).
But it was not before a decade later when the matter of post-Holocaust as a phenomena of its own has become a subject of systematic study as it was done by great Yehuda Bauer in his Out of Ashes. Impact of American Liberators on Post-Holocaust European Jewry in 1989. Still, Bauer was looking there at one aspect of the multi-dimensional phenomena, and still we had had wait for another decade when in the end of 1990s-beginning of 2000s we, the mankind, at last started to look and to see, to think and to write, to ask questions and to search for answers on what has really happened with and with regard to the people who did survive the extermination, but whose wounds from it were still open for a very long time after.
I am not forgetting here all the priceless testimonies and analyses, from Wiesel and Levi to Frankl and Appelfeld, all of them. In my opinion, every story of a person affected by the Shoah ought to be written down because of uniqueness of each of those stories. Focusing on examination of the process of return from the abyss, I think that it is ultimate thing to do in our duty to be human.
In the beginning of a new millennium, more than a half of a century after the most horrific crime in human history, we started to look on those people with interest and compassion. Michael Bremmer wrote important analyses on the Jews who lived in Germany after the Holocaust in After the Holocaust ( 1999), Michael Morgan analysed the spiritual dimension of it in his Beyond Auschwitz. Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought in America ( 2001).
From 2010s on, the process of methodical research into the ocean of sorrow which hardly has diminished in its size with years has become as it should be from 1950s onward. In my personal opinion, we have lost from 50 to 60 years in what we owe to the Holocaust survivors.
In 2011, a fundamental study Holocaust Survivors: Resettlement, Memories, Identities has been published under editing by Dalia Ofer, Francoise S. Ouzan, and Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwarz. In 2015, shortly before his passing, Elie Wiesel participated, with Joseph Pollack, in After the Holocaust: The Bells Still Ring book of evidences. In the same year, important study on the topic, Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation had been published by Adara Goldberg. The time has arrived, at last, to look, to examine, to analyse the lives of the Holocaust survivors after the war, and everything that had been connected to that unprecedented phenomenon of massive in size, but always absolutely individual process of the return from the abyss.
Codename ‘Resilience’: the Francoise S. Ouzan’s recent book
In her recently published book How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives ( Indiana University Press, 2018) acclaimed French-Israeli historian Dr Francoise S.Ouzan decided to embark on a very demanding emotionally journey and very ambitious in making study on looking into detail of the process of reconstructing their own characters among many well-known people who all are Holocaust survivors, in three countries, France, the USA and Israel.
One can surely produce a comprehensive study looking into the destinies and circumstances that were around the lives of the young survivors in each of the named countries separately. But Dr Ouzan has elaborated plan in mind for her project.
Being from France, Dr Ouzan masters her subject there, French history and reality effortlessly. Being acclaimed Americanist, she is the authority on the American history, as well. Living and working in Israel from 2000, as a senior member of the prestigious The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Centre at the Tel-Aviv University, Dr Ouzan has earned the reputation as a top-class historian in Israel, too.
More than widening the geography of her research, Francoise Ouzan interpolated the data from the seemingly self-sufficient segments of her study. The result of the historian’s careful analysis of that interpolated data and her conclusions are rich, new, and extremely well grounded. With this book, many people who are interested in the subject of the post-WWII Jewish history would get comprehensive picture of the process of reconstructing the lives and souls of the young Holocaust survivors in all three countries, France, the USA and Israel simultaneously. From this point of view, the approach of Dr Ouzan is new and significant. I am positive that this book will become a central source for many university courses on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust studies.
Francoise Ouzan brought her scholar attention to the people who were and still are visible, who ‘made it’. It was the one of the criteria in her research, and quite logical one: not only they did survive unsurvivable, but they has become accomplished writers, politicians, artists, doctors, scientists. They has built a successful careers and has got an international recognition and fame. By which price? – asked the historian. She searches for the answer in a painstaking detail, working with the heroes of her book with utmost delicacy, notably.
It is clear that a young Holocaust survivor, often an orphan, always the one who lost many members of his or her family, would need a double, triple, G-d knows how much fold effort to succeed in the world which was not that sympathetic towards those who were perceived more often than not as an awkward reminder of something unpleasant. The very presence of the Holocaust survivors in the after-WWII life had been ‘uncomfortable’ to so many people, so many institutions, so many establishments , without exceptions geography-wise.
It would be honest to recognise this sobering truth. And Dr Ouzan contributes to that important recognition the truth without pushing, but still firmly and crystal clearly. The intellectual honesty is a rare commodity always. I think that it is doubly important when the subject of studies is Holocaust and post-Holocaust.
Personal Efforts: Loving Close-up Examination
Francoise Ouzan turned her scholar eye towards the people who did make it being the young Holocaust survivors – such as member of the Academy of France, the one of the 40 ‘immortals’, the creme a la creme of France, late Simone Veil ( whom I knew too, and was delighted to read that fantastically deep portrait of her in the Dr Ouzan’s book); outstanding Aharon Appelfeld, the most tragic , in my understanding, writer on the Shoah; famous Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld; prolific scientist, the former head of the French National Centre for Scientific Research famed psychoanalyst Izio Rosenmann; well-known writer Georges Perec; famous philosopher Andre Glucksmann; American military ( late-recognised) hero Tibor Rubin; great American senator Tom Lantos ( whom I also had a privilege to know and was very warmed up to read his portrait in the Dr Ouzan’s book); prominent academic Nechama Tec; universally known historian and long-termed director of the American Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman; Menachem Perelmutter , the man who has made Negev to bloom; our dear friend, the man for all seasons, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau; important historian Saul Friedlander; major international lawyer and statesman Samuel Pisar; irreplaceable Elie Wiesel ( very special dear friend whom my husband and I are missing acutely), and the others. All in all, during her seven years of work on this book ( and twenty years of thinking and preparing for it, as she pointed out), Francoise Ouzan worked closely and personally with forty young Holocaust survivors in the three mentioned countries, working with them in three languages, French, English and Hebrew. The wealth of material was supplemented by the historian’s diligent work in more than dozen leading international archives , from Yad Vashem to the Centre de Documentation Juive in France and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum archive in Washington DC. The concise 300-pages volume is breathing a giant massive of knowledge, information, documented material it is based on. One can notice unmistakably simply enormous amount of work of the scholar accumulated in the Francoise Ouzan’s book.
The panorama of the process of rebuilt lives of some of the most notable people of our times – such as Veil, Appelfeld and Wiesel among them – arises in front of a reader’s eye from these pages elegantly conveying the transformation of unspeakable pain into resilience to prevail. Remarkably, there is no vanity complex in none of the stories researched by Dr Ouzan thoroughly, even in the cases of such famous politicians and public figures as Simone Veil or Samuel Pisar ( the boundaries of modesty of Elie Wiesel had been always known). Those youngsters who found themselves alive – and who did not quite know how to live ‘being survived for some reason’, as Aharon Appelfeld mentioned so profoundly in his immortal The Story of a Life – were willing to prevail in memory of their exterminated families, their friends, their brethren who had been attacked in the most brutal and unjustified way ever. They were motivated to prevail possibly to compensate the losses of our nation, even if they did not fully comprehend it at the time. Those who did survive the Holocaust, they lived for many.
And that’s why the attentive, delicate, loving analyse of their lives conducted by Francoise S.Ouzan for her recent volume is of especial importance. It is a tribute to all six million, to every one of them, via the curves of lives and suppressed nightmares of those forty Jewish people who became the pride of our nation.
Decrypting the silence
As historian, Dr Ouzan was looking for tendencies, factors and phenomena in her scholarly work. There are many, and with her research, Francoise S. Ouzan has contributed into a new reading of the after-WWII history in all three countries, with regard to the French, American and early Israeli society’s attitude towards the Holocaust survivors. The attitude was complex, with many negative and unexpected nuances about which one could not ever think or guess about.
On the samples of the lives of the people who all has become a notable players on a world stage in their own fields, Francoise Ouzan examines the way from victimhood to active role in various fields of life; looks into the struggle of rebuild after captivity; gives a fresh look and provides new detail on the unexpected international impact of the young Holocaust survivors. Her special interest in the book is the destinies of hidden children in all three countries who were overcoming many extra barriers on the way to their return to normal life.
In the case of Israel, the author ponders on the double re-birth, of the state and of young survivors; the name of the chapter is very telling: “To build and to be built”. The generous and loving understanding by the young and growing Israeli citizens of the young and growing state of our nation – as it is shown by the author brilliantly on the sample of Aharon Appelfeld – is important, special and touching feature of the book. Identity in general and Jewish identity in particular is the subject which is close to Francoise Ouzan throughout her career. In her new book, the scholar continues the theme on Jewish identity, Israel and Diaspora on the material that she has been collecting for 20 years. Her approach is personified, and this close-range look makes the analysis of the Israeli state and its society in building really interesting and truly credible.
Very importantly, Dr Ouzan’s book pays an emphasised attention to the psychological side of the reconstruction of lives of the young Holocaust survivors. The life is about psychology, in my opinion, and I was glad to seeing the similar understanding of it in the Francoise Ouzan’s book. This is not about a clinic psychology. But to note a nuance, to understand something that your vis-a-vis was unable to say in words, to hear and being able to decrypt the silence of the people who lived through Holocaust, it is not only a quality of a scholar. It is an ability of a soulful person, and the reader of the Francoise S Ouzan’s book is privileged to read a truly soulful author.
To me, the high importance and quality of the Dr Ouzan’s research and book is its human dimension. The portraits of her heroes are vivid, full of decisive detail, very well set in the tissue of the period and realities that had been surrounding them at the time. By this ability to create a living human portraits set against meticulously researched and sculptured background of the historical circumstances of the time, Francoise Ouzan has shown herself as a matured, multi-sided and deep scholar with standing out focus on the human aspect in her long-termed studies.
Among the most impressive portraits to me, there are those of Simone Veil and Aharon Appelfeld. Dr Ouzan, the graduate of Sorbonne and historian who worked and lived in France until 2000, knows her native country in closest detail. Her narrative of the tendencies of pre-, during and after-war life in France is free and captivating. In a shrewd and intelligent way, the historian enlightens the very factors that defined life of people in that big, important and special country seeing clearly its utter shame and massive confusion during and after the Second World War. The atmosphere for Jews in after-war France was still suffocating and painful. As if the Holocaust and its ugly, cold and merciless version in France was not enough. No, it was not – in the true life which historian Francoise Ouzan analyses in her recent book, with explaining the reasons and genesis of it.
Her portrait of Simone Veil filled with many details of that untold and undiscussed background makes the outstanding figure of the great French Jewish woman as dramatic, as one did not read before. It is extraordinary analyses and powerful reading that stands in one’s memory for ever. It also enlightens the paradoxical and surreal attitude towards the Jews and Holocaust survivors in France after the WWII and for a long period thereafter, in fully articulated but gently presented by Francoise Ouzan drama of this painful phenomenon.
Another portrait that Francoise Ouzan has created in her book and which is very important contribution into the narrative of post-Holocaust in general is portrait of Aharon Appelfeld. When great Israeli writer passed away in January 2018, the pain of the loss reverberated all over the world. So many people were deeply, even shockingly affected by his super-concise, absolutely tragic writings. What Aharon Appelfeld did produce during his long life and quite productive writer’s career was just one monologue which never ends for anyone who read even a part of it. I call it a monologue of silence. To me, Appelfeld was the writer of silence. The most tragic writer on the Shoah. The one who led his reader to the abyss, right back there.
The importance to understand and to know more on such emphatically introvert person as Aharon Appelfeld is paramount for our cultural heritage and legacy. Francoise Ouzan worked with Appelfeld closely, with full devotion and understanding, during 15 years, from 2002 through 2017. The historian’s effort has brought a very meaningful fruit. Aharon Appelfeld did not allow people into his inner world easily. But he was generous and truly grateful for interest, appreciation and understanding. When Francoise Ouzan asked the great writer on where did he get the strength, Appelfeld answered simply, “from my grandparents”. Aharon was just five when the WWII broke out. Still, his loving, faithful, believing grandparents did make it possible for him to survive mentally and spiritually. How much did he want to pray, we are reading in his memoir. That desire, that connection did maintain his belonging to the essence of our people in the same way it did for Elie Wiesel who had had a serious spiritual crisis as a result of him eye-witnessing the Shoah and being a victim of it, but still being able to stay connected, to belong.
The heartbreaking episode in the Ouzan’s book of Appelfeld’s meeting with his aged father whose name he has finally and by chance found in the Jewish Agency lists in the 1950s, in the apple orchard in Israel, is of a Shakespearian quality. Importantly, Appelfeld himself did not include that meeting, that crucial episode in his life into his The Story of a Life memoir, and being asked why, the great writer only smiled with his that special smile, and said to the journalist “not enough time has come yet. Maybe, in 20 years or so”. The conversation took place in 2008. But Francoise Ouzan has included that incredible episode in her book, thus making sure that the essential part of the Appelfeld story will be not missed. Francoise also was deeply impressed by that special, disarming smile of Aharon Appelfeld. He also produced only that smile when Francoise gently tried to turn on his re-union with his father years after the Holocaust, nothing more.
These smiles of the Holocaust survivors, the open, disarming, childish, enlightening smiles of those who were deprived of childhood. Our ever enduring legacy.
It is very hard and nerve-consuming work, to decrypt the silence of the Holocaust survivors. I am deeply grateful to Francoise Ouzan for imposing that mission upon herself and for doing it with such love and devotion. Thanks to her work and her books, we all have got a new knowledge and far better understanding on what did it mean and how it was done, that return from the abyss by resilient, brave and courageous sons and daughters of Jewish people after unspeakable and hardly comprehensible trauma imposed upon them by the Nazism.
Thanks for selfless stand and highly professional study of Dr Ouzan, the incomprehensible has become closer, more clear, explained and analysed. It has become a part of our growing understanding of the most under-researched part of our recent history. I salute to Francoise for her own resilience in bringing the very essence of the surviving the survival yet more closer to minds and hearts of us all.