As we mark the seventieth year since the end of World War II and the liberation of concentration camps, the families of some Holocaust survivors, who are in the twilight of their lives, are experiencing an interesting phenomenon.
Many have incomplete or incorrect birth records, possibly because their birthplaces just didn’t keep good records back then. After my father was liberated from Buchenwald on 11 April 1945, the US army chaplain Herschel Schacter carefully marked up the entry cards of some of the ‘older’ survivors so that they would be under eighteen years of age and thus fall in the care of the Red Cross. The year of his birth was varied to 1928, which remained on his passport. But for anyone who asked, he went with 1926, which I guess was a rough average, considering the birth record I was able to locate said 1923. After researching the matter, I mistakenly thought it was because his father had bribed officials to make him older so that he would be sent to a work camp rather than killed, but we recently obtain the hand-written birth certificate confirming once and for all that he was indeed born in 1923.
A few years ago, my father’s cousin (who has since passed away) celebrated his 90th birthday. As the date approached, my father decided to revise his own age up by a couple of years. “If he is turning 90, I must be older than I thought”, he reasoned to us. Being a little older was also consistent with his state of physical health, so it made sense. This is not an isolated story: I’ve heard of several other cases of Holocaust survivors recently declaring to family that they too were “older than they thought”.
Recent discussions with a couple of cousins may shed some more light on this ‘rapid ageing’ phenomenon amongst Holocaust survivors.
One, who had done extensive genealogy research, told me it was common for survivors to portray themselves as younger after the war. That way, they would appear more attractive to prospective marriage partners as they set out to rebuild their lives and families.
Another told me of her father-in-law, who for years told people he was born in 1919. Late in his life, he confided to his son: “When I pass away, make sure they record me as a fertzener (Yiddish for saying he was actually born in ’14)”. When asked why he had misstated his age all this time, his father poignantly replied: “Hitler stole five years from me, and I decided to take them back!”
The Nazis took six million of us, and large families were left with few survivors or destroyed completely. Some survivors set out to rebuild by having large families themselves. There is logic to ‘replacing’ lost relatives with children and grandchildren. But from the survivors own lives, the Nazis took the most precious commodity of all and one that cannot be replaced: time. They cannot get back those years, but revising their age is a self-empowering way of ‘turning the clock back’ and starting life afresh after the war years that were taken from them.
For their family members, it only emphasises that Holocaust survivors are a ‘diminishing natural resource’ in our communities. Every milestone we merit to celebrate with them is precious. May they continue to be an inspiration to us for many years to come.