Lessons of Resilience from the Survivors: Dr. Irit Felsen

Dr. Irit Felsen

Adjunct professor at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and a clinical psychologist with a special focus on Holocaust survivors and their families

During Passover this year, many Holocaust survivors were completely secluded in their homes, too elderly to risk any exposure to COVID-19 and unable to celebrate the holiday with family and be comforted by visiting children or grandchildren.

How are Holocaust survivors dealing with living through another cataclysmic event? How are they coping with the isolation and the separation from loved ones and managing their fears? The fear of contracting the illness; the helplessness in the face of an invisible yet pervasive, deadly danger; the fear of loved ones contracting the virus, signifying new potential losses; the fears of shortages and rationing.

All of these are potential triggers for memories of past traumatic experiences. One patient told me that she called the last remaining friend of her deceased mother, and the woman—who survived a concentration camp as an adolescent—said she had been crying for three days because the seclusion had triggered so many difficult emotions.

For many survivors, staying busy and social and having structure and purpose in their daily lives have been important pillars of the resilient lives they have built. The current limitations on mobility and on social activities obstruct these helpful coping strategies and leave survivors alone with more time on their hands than they would like. The past tends to resurface in the later years of life, and life review is often very painful for people who endured extreme brutality and suffered the loss of their loved ones.

Moreover, survivors of the Holocaust (and their children as well) are keenly aware of the worst of mankind. They have seen not only what perpetrators are capable of but also what happens to people when food and other supplies are scarce, when survival mode takes over and the fight for oneself and one’s family overrides civility. Survivors know how rapid the disintegration of social order can be, and many of them were not at all surprised when, during Hurricane Sandy, there was an immediate need for police presence at gas stations because brawls were breaking out among the cars waiting to fill up.

And yet, despite having seen the worst of mankind, many of the survivors I have known are outstanding examples of resilience. Many are managing their anxieties well, accepting the new reality and making the most of it, relying on past experiences and drawing strength from having endured and come through such difficult times into a better future.

As Yom HaShoah approaches, we should recognize the incredible resource that survivors of the Holocaust embody for us all, both those still with us and those whose blessed memory is within the hearts of their descendants. Research tells us that our own resilience can be cultivated and amplified by finding and identifying with a resilient model, with someone who has experienced adversity and navigated it successfully. We can all look to survivors of the Holocaust for such models and inspiration.

For me, the memory of my Holocaust survivor mother, who was the sole survivor of her entire family, continues to provide the guidance and the inspiration for how to live my life. In these uncertain and scary days, I focus on her approach to life and try to emulate it, because she is the pillar of fire to follow in these times of darkness. Translating from the Hebrew, the German, and the Polish in which my mother would have expressed them, here are three short sayings my mother held dear and the messages she meant to convey by them, messages I see other Holocaust survivors trying to live by and to teach us.

“There is nothing bad that does not turn out to something good.” In difficult times, we have to make a conscious decision to move forward, to strive to see the positive and focus our efforts on that which is possible rather than on feelings of helplessness and despair. This intentional shift in attention helps transform even bad situations into something more positive. I am full of hope that such a shift in perspective, not only on the personal level but on the social one, might come out of this somber time and leave us with a more mutually responsible society as we understand how connected we all are in matters of life and death, beyond any racial, economic, political or geographic boundaries.

“In life, you have to be flexible, like tall grass bending in the wind, not rigid.” One’s vitality and the ability to move forward despite disappointments, crises and unwelcome changes depend on our capacity to respond flexibly. Tall grass bends in the wind and might even get flattened, but eventually it straightens without being broken. When the winds of life blow hard, do not be stiff, because you might break.

“Let me think I am in the war.” When things seem too difficult to bear, when there seems to be nobody to turn to and no one who can help, one has to be able to fall back onto one’s own core resources. At such times, great strength can be drawn from knowing that one has withstood great difficulties in the past and that one has somehow found the strength before to survive and to overcome. The knowledge of one’s inner strength and the confidence in one’s capacity to get through can be the positive outcome of having successfully survived extreme hardship. In the psychological literature, this type of strength and the optimism it confers are referred to as aspects of resilience, hardiness and “post-traumatic growth.”

As my parents’ daughter, as a parent today, I hope we will all find the way to connect with our resilience and humanity, to come together and learn from Holocaust survivors about the power each of us has to endure, and the need to make our world a better one.