Forgetting and remembering - the trauma of the Holocaust

Eli Saar was the first of the more than sixty Holocaust survivors we have interviewed over the last decade. The pleasantness of our surroundings, a sunny porch at our friend’s home at Gan Shmuel Kibbutz, created a harsh juxtaposition with the shocking story we heard that day in 2008.

We were warned, “Eli is a hard man”. He was reluctant to talk about the Holocaust and our friends weren’t sure that he would turn up. 

As I listened to him tell his story, I didn’t see hardness. I saw pain, etched on lines of his face as he recounted memories almost impossible to imagine. A child taken by the legs and smashed against a wall. Corpses propped up in the street. As a child, he didn’t understand and played a game, jumping over the dead.

Eli was six years old when he and his family, along with all Jewish residents of Warsaw, were forced to live in an area sealed off from the rest of the city, enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet tall, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. At one point over 40,000 Jews were imprisoned in an area just over 2 square kilometres.

It is remarkable that any recover from such horrendous events. Many do, move forward and thrive. But we don’t hear so much about the ones who fail to thrive. In the period following the war, survivors were given little in the way of emotional or psychological assistance in dealing with their trauma. Many felt guilty that they had survived. In Israel, there was seldom time to look back. A new state was formed in 1948, and energies were galvanised to fight for the new state, and then to build. 

However, the trauma of the Holocaust didn’t disappear. 

Many survivors have preferred to keep the memories locked in the past, and refuse to speak of their experiences. Others have found that sharing their stories has helped the healing process. One survivor, Sarah, told us that during the Holocaust she would dream every night of feasting on all kinds of delicacies and rich foods. After the Holocaust, she had nightmares every night of being chased and in danger. In the 1980s, she began sculpting and the forms she created of grotesque and yet stunning figures told a story that words could not. She was able to heal to some extent. Several survivors have said that they didn’t start talking about the Holocaust until their grandchildren began asking questions about their past and the many missing relatives. Another found that writing memoirs brought release from the past. 

Still others believe it is an obligation to speak of what happened. To remember in order to learn. 

Eli explained that he made a great effort to forget and suppress his experience of six years of terrible fear. “A person who hasn’t experienced it, cannot understand.  They can sympathize,  but they cannot understand. Terrible fear, day & night.  You feel like an animal threatened by a predator. It took tens of years…I can’t say something is left in me from this”.

Sadly, a recent survey has shown that one-third of all Americans believe the scope of the murder of Jews in the Holocaust has been exaggerated, 45 percent of Americans could not name any of the 40 ghettos or concentration camps erected by the Nazis… and 58 percent said a Holocaust or similar catastrophe could occur again.’ Even more disturbing is that in Europe where the tragedy took place, a recent poll found that a third of Europeans knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. The poll also found "a worrying increase in the number of people who believe traditional anti-Semitic tropes or hold anti-Semitic views…”

Eli’s story is tragic and deeply moving - and in light of these disturbing trends, it is increasingly important.

An Interview With The Last Nazi Hunter: Part I

Last year we had the opportunity to interview Dr Efraim Zuroff at the historic King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Known as The Last Nazi Hunter, Efraim has spent much of his life tracking down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to trial. I remembered seeing Efraim on a documentary about Nazis who had found their way to New Zealand and his attempts to bring them to justice.

Efraim made the point that New Zealand was the only Anglo-Saxon country, (out of Great Britain, United States, Canada and Australia - South Africa was not open to immigration at that time), that chose not to take legal action after a governmental enquiry into the presence of Nazis in New Zealand.

A 2008 story in the Otago Daily Times addressed the New Zealand government’s decision not to take further action:

New Zealand set up a two-person unit in 1991 to investigate allegations that perpetrators of war crimes settled in this country.

The unit spent $190,000 investigating the claims in New Zealand and overseas, narrowing the suspected list from 46 to 17 known to be alive and living in the country.

The Wiesenthal centre had supplied 42 of the 46 names.

Fifteen were cleared and two were further investigated, with the unit finding it was "possible" one of the suspects was involved in war crimes.

The finding of the unit was presented by the then attorney-general, Mr Paul East.

"We feel we've discharged our obligations to the international community in the steps we've taken and that we will now only respond if we are given something far more substantial than individual names," Mr East said in 1992.

Dr Zuroff said the centre tried to convince successive New Zealand governments to take legal action against suspected Nazis, but to no avail.

"New Zealand was the only Anglo-Saxon democracy which faced this problem and chose to ignore it," he said.

"There was absolutely no political will to take legal action against the Nazi war criminals who emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1940s and early 1950s, posing as refugees fleeing communism."

"By the time that I found these people, many were no longer alive.

But one who was alive and living in Auckland was Jonas Pukas, a Lithuanian who served in the 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion, which murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Lithuania and Belarus," Dr Zuroff said.

Given recent events in New Zealand, not only the massacre of Muslims by a terrorist, but the concerns of university students regarding far-right elements on campus and the casual attitudes of shopkeepers towards Nazi paraphenalia, it is timely to consider New Zealand’s relationship with the far-right.

A number of historical events give cause for concern. The New Zealand government’s reluctance to bring Nazi war criminals to justice was not the first questionable decision over the handling of the Holocaust. Our government was also reluctant to allow many Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate. In more recent times we’ve seen the University of Canterbury granting academic credentials to a Holocaust denier and TVNZ’s uncritical glorification of a Nazi Waffen-SS soldier.

The government’s poor response regarding Nazi war criminals raises uncomfortable questions.

Why were these Nazi crimes minimised?

How would we feel about Tarrant’s crimes being minimised in his old age?

Why is there a casual attitude toward Nazi symbols and paraphenalia when they are associated with genocide?

Is antisemitism taken seriously in New Zealand and is it opposed with as much passion as other forms of racism and hatred?