by Susan Heagy
The best part of the art of living is to know how to grow old gracefully” – Eric Hoffer
The youngest Holocaust Survivors were born in camps and ghettos in 1945. This year they are 75 years old. The oldest Holocaust Survivors are 100+ years, born between 1910-20.
When you consider their cirucumstances during WWII, starving, living in filth, working beyond human capacity but still holding onto a shred of life, it is a complete miracle they survived the war. I find it difficult to understand, knowing what I have learned of the Holocaust, how they kept their sanity.
But consider, when one lives on rancid water, rotten potatoes, bread made with sawdust, bodies racked with dysentery and disease… and they live into their 90’s and 100’s? How is that possible?
Many of the Survivors today have life threatening diseases as a result of poor nutrition during that time. Going blind, deaf, barely able to walk or go outside anymore. But in spite of poor health, they continue to battle, to live, to survive.
But grow old gracefully? Not many are able. However, we have a few… one of them is Frida, pictured here with her medals. She is feisty, has a great sense of humor and is 106 years old! She is amazing.
“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” – Anonymous
A question we often receive from the Survivors is,
“Why me? Why did I survive? My sister, brother, parents, friends all died in the war. Why was I the one who lived?”
It is a recurrent refrain haunting them day after day. They suffer from Survivor guilt, actually feeling guilty for being the one who lived.
Some of them watched as parents, siblings and other relatives and friends died. Some chosen out of the masses, at random, and beaten to death or shot. Those people were denied the privilege of life.
“The Fountain of Tears” sculpture, created by Rick Wienecke, has one panel with a Survivor weighed down by the 6 million and more Jews who did not survive the Holocaust. It is a good depiction. They literally carry the weight of those who were not privileged to Survive. Like them.
“You can either grow old gracefully or begrudgingly. I choose both.” – Roger Moore
This quote is also true of the Survivors. They embrace the decision to live on. Many feel their life represents a rebuke against Hitler. They also live to represent those who were denied the choice to live..
Complaints are many about the difficulty of aging, with the body aches and pains that goes with getting older. But they also repeatedly beat cancer, strokes, heart attacks, chronic diseases and proudly state their position,
“I am not a victim. I am a Survivor!”
“Whose gonna help me fight, whose gonna help me find my way, when I’m old and lose my sight, I can’t see my lover in the sky, when I’m old and lose my sight, then I lose my only friend in the end, the moon and his light, what will become of me then?” – #NightWriter
This is an important question on their minds. They ask us, “Who is going to help me now? What am I going to do?”
It is a worry for them and a great concern for us. We have seen the elderly taken from their home and put into a nursing facility without any regard for their lifestyle, disregarding their own wishes. They need an advocate to help them when their bodies and minds betray them. We are trying our best to be that advocate, to help them choose where to finish their lives.
Such a terrible way to live, not knowing where you will die or who will be with you. Or will you be alone?
“Grow old gracefully they say, Be grateful you’re alive they say, I don’t like it in any way, Aging so fast, Rewind my skin to the past, My youth has faded so fast.” -Ven Jencie
When we enter a room to visit, often we can see the despair, discouragement and sense of hopelessness. They look at their hands, stroke those same hands over their face and neck, and comment on their age, loss of youth and lack of strength. In reality, they lost their youth in the war. Their adulthood began as a child.
Many years ago while we visited one Survivor, we heard a truck driving by outside her home, collecting broken and old appliances. As they called out, “Old things, old things!” she said, “I am an old thing. Maybe it is time to put me on the curb to be taken away.”
“Come grow old with me. The best is yet to be.” – William Wordsworth
There are a small minority of Survivors who can read this quote and find truth in it. There are couples who have Survived together and found a good life. Some have siblings living near them and many have families with children, grandchildren and more. They have adjusted to their lives in Israel and we find them happy in their daily lives. Most of them, however, still have lingering traumatic memories.
A couple from Greece, both as children, literally ran out their back doors as the Nazis broke in through the front. Both families, having had everything in Greece, arrived in Israel with only the clothes they wore. They remember the tragic circumstances and watched their parents suffer their loss through the years. In spite of these memories, they have chosen to make a good life in Israel. I am encouraged to see them enjoying the lives they have built.
But the sad reality is that most of the Survivors are not finding a good life in their last years. Their nightmares have chased them relentlessly and their aging bodies and minds make it more sad.
Are there many with whom we can laugh? Yes! Are there Survivors with a good sense of humor? Certainly! Do we meet Survivors who appreciate when someone gives them help? Oh, definitely. They are, after all, Survivors!
Having spent over 16 years with Holocaust Survivors in Israel, I recognize they need to know they are loved, truly and unconditionally loved. They acknowledge the end of their lives bearing down on them and many feel their suffering has all been for nothing.
I want them to know their God, HaShem, has been with them in every moment. Never has He left them nor abandoned them. Their tears are His tears. Their loneliness is His. His perfect love has always surrounded them, even today. Please pray they understand that.
Their Abba wants them to grow old with Him. He can make sure their best is yet to be.