Never again

Nonprofits stepping up services to Holocaust survivors in Israel after Oct. 7

Hamas attacks bring back painful memories for some survivors; many feel compelled to speak out because of their experiences

Holocaust survivors, a vulnerable population in the best of times, have been hit hard by the Oct. 7 attacks. Some Israeli Holocaust survivors have been evacuated from their homes and need blankets and food, aid workers at Jewish nonprofits report. Others have been re-traumatized by the barbarity of the attacks. But perhaps more importantly than any food package or session with a trauma counselor, nonprofits are finding as they step up their outreach, survivors want aid workers to take a seat on the couch and talk to them.

“We had a [staff member] who was bringing food [to survivors], and the survivor desperately needed the food because they hadn’t gone out of their apartment because they’re afraid of the rockets,” Greg Schneider, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany’s executive vice president, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “The person who delivered the food said, ‘I’ll come back in a week and bring another package.’ And the survivor said, ‘I don’t care if you bring the food. Can you just plan to stay for an hour and sit and talk to me? It’s more important.’”

As of 2023, 147,199 Holocaust survivors lived in Israel, thousands of whom have been displaced from their homes in the Gaza and Lebanon border areas. 

“It is a very difficult feeling to be evacuated from your home, from your village and from those you love and those we lost,” Reuven Rosenberg, an 88-year-old survivor who was evacuated from his home near Gaza, told eJP.

More than ever, survivors feel cut off from those around them, Yossi Heymann, the director of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Eshel program that develops services for older adults in Israel, told eJP. Their families may have been evacuated and may not be staying near them. Some have no family at all. Caregivers and other loved ones have been called into the reserves. Caring for survivors is among a number of competing priorities for the government, which is also focused on rehabilitating displaced communities and getting children back in school, as well as prosecuting the war itself.

Because of this, many survivors turn to TV news to provide company, which can exacerbate their fear, causing them to further cloister in their homes, reinforcing the isolation.

Along with ensuring essential needs are met, JDC and its partners make sure services are in place, especially for those evacuated and those who chose to remain in places under fire. If a home health aide isn’t able to travel with them or was called into the reserves, JDC gets another aide. If social services have been affected by travel, JDC helps set them back up. In addition, JDC has volunteers calling and visiting frequently to check in.

While survivors have learned to overcome and thrive over the years, it has come at a price, Martin Auerbach, national clinical director of AMCHA, the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation, told eJP. “Most of them have mastered [many aspects of life], to raise a family, to have a career, not to give up. So it’s a big success story for most of them. Not for all of them. And it came with an enormous psychological cost of traumatic memories, of unresolved grief, of repeated depressions or post-traumatic symptoms.”

No matter their successes in life, survivors may never have felt safe, and now they are facing what many see as an existential threat. Reactions vary from “very frightened and it’s happening again on the one side,” Auerbach said, “to the other extreme, where people say, ‘It’s nothing. We are hardened, and we [have faced] more difficult things. I have lived my life, and if I die, OK.’”

AMCHA has been providing long-term psychological treatment for survivors developing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, offering therapy via telephone, video or face-to-face, depending on where the survivor is located and if they’ve been evicted.

Along with re-traumatization can come a feeling of hopelessness. “Holocaust survivors have spent their entire lives educating us, going through great pain to tell their own stories, talking about the most painful moments of their lives, in order to prevent this very type of atrocity from happening ever again,” Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director of the Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma at the Jewish Federations of North America, told eJP.

On Nov. 3, the center released a guide for employees and volunteers who work with survivors, titled “Aging with a History of Trauma: Strategies to Provide Person-Centered, Trauma-Informed Care to Older Adults and Family Caregivers.” One of the best ways to support survivors is by empowering them to take action, Rood Wernick said.

Many survivors are hitting the streets in their communities, holding aloft photographs of the hostages. They attend vigils and participate in Zoom open mics. But some are finding it increasingly difficult to speak and are pulling out of events.

Rood Wernick organized a letter, signed by nearly 2,500 American Holocaust survivors and their descendants, to President Joe Biden, thanking him for his support.

“We witnessed the murder of our families, our communities, and the near annihilation of the Jewish people,” the letter said. “We chose the United States as our home, rebuilt our lives, and worked tirelessly to share our most painful experiences so the Holocaust would never occur again. We fought for the rights of all people to live in peace. Yet, the Jewish people have been massacred again…  But today is different. Today we have Israel. Today we have the United States of America and a President willing to support the State of Israel and denounce antisemitism at home and abroad. Your unwavering affirmation of Israel’s right to defend itself is meaningful to us.”

Many volunteers and employees working with survivors are also drowning in despair after the massacre. Working with survivors gives them hope.

“The greatest day for [employees and volunteers] over the past month has been the days when they go and sit with survivors and hold their hands and listen to their stories,” said the Claims Conference’s Schneider. “You just feel better when you touch someone’s life, when you can make them feel better. You’re strengthened by their story.”