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Memories come back to haunt Holocaust survivors

As the last generation of Germany’s Holocaust survivors enters the twilight years, many are losing the strength to suppress horrific memories, and care givers find they are often ill-equipped to help.

Manfred Joachim carries a poem with him wherever he goes, written by his eldest brother’s wife on March 4 1943, the day she was hanged by the Nazis at Berlin’s Ploetzensee prison for her work in the German resistance.

“I cannot read the poem without tears coming to my eyes,” the Jewish Berliner says, his voice cracking. He collects himself and continues: “But the Nazi era is a closed chapter for me.”

It is clear, however, that his relationship with the past is more complicated.

The spry 83-year-old shares the fate of many elderly Holocaust survivors who feel the memories catching up with them as they stare in the face of their own mortality.

Some, who never practised Judaism but were classified and persecuted by the Nazis as “Jewish by race”, find themselves in an emotional no-man’s land — without ties to any Jewish social or religious groups and little support apart from a minimal stipend they receive each month.

Most Holocaust survivors are now well over 70. A social worker for Berlin’s Jewish community who assists them in coming to terms with their trauma, Eva Nickel, said that it is common for long-forgotten memories to resurface with old age.

“Then memories come back as if they happened yesterday,” Nickel said.

Nils Neidhart, elder care coordinator in a retirement home run by the Judeo-Christian Budge Foundation in the western city of Frankfurt, said even banal things can trip a switch.

Gas chambers
“Even asking people to take a shower can elicit an incredibly intense reaction” due to its association with the gas chambers, he said.

The Budge Foundation is an exception in Germany in being better equipped to cope with the particular needs of Holocaust survivors.

Christina Hilgendorff, who worked until 2007 at the Federal Association for Information and Counsel for Nazi Victims in the western city of Cologne, said the resources generally available in Germany were “dismal”.

“Germany makes use of these people as eyewitnesses to history but does not tend to their needs,” she said.

While practising Jews often seek assistance at Jewish community organisations, survivors who “after 1945 did not identify themselves with a group of victims” often fell through the cracks, said theologian Brigitte Gensch.

Gensch founded The Half Star last year, specifically targeted at offering help to people who under the Nazis’ race laws “were defined as something they were not”.

Under the Third Reich, the Nuremberg laws defined people as Jewish not based on their religious practices but on so-called racial terms: having Jewish blood.

Joachim’s mother was Christian. His Jewish father died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1944 and a brother, Rudi, survived the “death march” from Auschwitz to Theresienstadt in today’s Czech Republic.

Those classified as Jews by the Nazis were reintegrated into German society after the war “in exchange for their silence”, Gensch said — a silence that continues to this day.

In some cases even the families of some Holocaust survivors are unaware of their past.

Gensch remembers the case of a woman living in a retirement home whose relatives only learned of her time in a concentration camp when dementia brought some of her traumatic memories to light.

That is why Gensch is now offering to help seniors write their life stories and is planning to start a cafe and community centre for Jewish returnees to Germany and others persecuted by the Nazis.

The dimension of the problem has grown due to the tens of thousands of Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union to Germany since national unification in 1990.

The general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan J Kramer, speaks of “the significant burden of advancing years among this immigrant group”.

The council’s social services division is trying to create “a broad network of social and psychological care facilities” for this target group.

“That is occupying a great deal of our time at the moment,” Kramer said.

Joachim, meanwhile, has been speaking to schools about his experiences during the war, when he became an enemy in his own country. — AFP

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