It’s Victory in Europe Day. But 75 years to the day after the allies declared victory in Europe, some people still haven’t come to terms with the news.
We all know about the survivors who have become icons of resistance. But to me, after ten years in Holocaust education, the bold term Victory in Europe day, makes me think about those who have never managed to adjust to the fact that it’s over.
Countless survivors never recovered, they were consumed by the fear and never found the tools to ‘build a future’. To this very day there are mental health units in Israeli hospitals for Holocaust survivors who continue to suffer as a result of the trauma they experienced.
As the survivors pass on (and those with mental health issues often have a shorter life expectancy) one would expect these psychogeriatric units to be reaching their natural end. Tragically however they are home to second generation survivors, victims of the Holocaust of the second degree, suffering the effects of the trauma inflicted on their parents. The Holocaust was a personal and national wound which has been passed from generation to generation and is yet to heal.
Events over recent months have given us a deep realisation that not all historical events are discernable as they happen. We for instance will not know for many years which days or episodes in our current crisis will become the most important when our grandchildren learn the history of the coronavirus pandemic. VE Day is one of those days however, a moment in time which seemingly separates between war and peace, life and death, destruction and rebuilding.
May 8th 1945 is etched in our collective memory with pictures of conquering heroes and a soundtrack of victorious music. But for the residents of war-torn Europe it was a day without a soundtrack and did not take place in the dramatic slow-motion that we often imagine. Instead the ‘end of the war’ was a fleeting moment before the work of rebuilding life began.
For Jews the date heralded an end to the Holocaust. The Nazi tyrants no longer incarcerated Jews in the camps of Europe however it didn’t necessarily herald freedom. Of all the difficult moments, for many, liberation and the end were some of the hardest.
The end of the war suddenly gave survivors a new lease of life. With that first intake of breath came the deep realisation of loss and the very next breath came the fear of what would be next. An 18-year-old Jewish girl from Slovakia called Eva was liberated in Reichenbach and described that:
“A deep despair came over me. I felt like Adam when he first knew he was naked, horrible and ashamed. I looked around me and saw myself and the other prisoners for the first time through the eyes of those soldiers. … When I heard about freedom, I was also very frightened. What would we find? … Worry about the future weighed heavily on me. We had to build our future, but how does one build a future?”
This fear and shame had the power to consume, and for some the freedom remained elusive to the very end with the victory being impossible to discern.
We are used to showcasing the achievements of those survivors who rebuilt their lives and, in many cases, gave and continue to give so much to the world. These are the survivors who have managed to stand in front us, lay themselves bare and share their experiences for us to learn from. These survivors have rightly become our modern heroes and we should cherish every moment that we are lucky enough to spend with any of them.
But I’m also thinking today of those who we don’t meet, the ones who have always been too timid, too caught in the trauma of it all, to ever face a group or talk to a video camera.
And so, during the celebration of VE Day, we should take time to think about the others, the often-forgotten victims of the Holocaust, those survivors who were never to feel the yoke of destruction lifted from their necks. As we celebrate the fact that the world was saved with the war’s end, it is just as crucial to consider the toll that the destruction continues to take.