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Between Sirens 2016 – Silent or Silenced?

The Ghetto Fighters’ House annually holds a study day entitled “Between the Sirens –  Study and Contemplation" that takes place between Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day. This is a tradition that began four years ago. The first gathering in 2012 was called “Binding or Uniting” and dealt with testimony and memory. In 2013 we marked 70 years since the Ghetto Uprising and 40 years since the Yom Kippur War. In 2014 we examined Hungarian Jewry and its great influence on Israeli culture and humor under the title “With One Eye Laughing”. Last year we called the event “Will the Day Really Come?” after the title of a Leah Goldberg poem, and discussed the interaction between survivors and Israelis.  This year dealt with the silence and silencing of the survivors.

Silent or silenced? At the end of World War II more than half a million survivors arrived in Israel and were immediately integrated into the struggle for the existence of a state and its character. Their absorption was riddled with the same difficulties that all immigrants faced: shortages of food, housing, and employment, but for the survivors there was the added personal burden of coping with what they had been through. In her lecture that opened the day of study, Professor Amia Lieblich, psychologist and researcher, President of the Academic College of Society and the Arts in Netanya, spoke of the “Legacy of Silence of the Survivors." 

What were the reasons for the survivors’ silence and what was the price of that silence? Not all were silent, notes Prof. Lieblich. There was a sizable group that spoke out, even to the point of exasperation, but easily half to two thirds of the survivors never spoke. There are many reasons for the silence. It is difficult to speak of trauma because the words take us back. Returning to trauma carries with it feelings of humiliation and guilt – “Maybe I did something bad and that is why I survived.” That is also a question that many survivors have heard from Israelis - “How did you manage to survive?” – a hurtful and demeaning question that survivors had to face. Many never told their stories to their children because they didn’t want to traumatize them, even secondhand. They wanted to raise normal children, like everyone else. But of course the trauma seeped through, appearing in compulsive behaviors, regarding such issues as food or children’s independence. In the third generation, however, the picture changes completely. What was not spoken of with the second generation is being told to the third generation, creating a generational bridge.

Over the course of the day there were seven discussion circles with approximately 250 participants, including friends of the museum from around the world and students. 

In her discussion circle, Dr. Sharon Geva, of the Kibbutzim College of Education, relates that women who survived the Holocaust teach us that the prevalent claim that until the Eichmann trial (1961) no one here spoke of the Holocaust at all is basically flawed and untrue. In fact, claims Geva, female survivors living in Israel were not silent and were not silenced but rather were very active – stories of women in the Holocaust were publicly told and Israelis showed great interest.


Dr. Galia Glazner-Heled, of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, based her discussion in her circle on interviews she conducted with survivors in 2011, and a comparison of the survivors’ versions in relation to their encounter with Israel with two versions she identified in her historic study of that encounter. Glazner-Heled claims that while some survivors partially reinforce the dominant research narrative and give it validity, other survivors tell a different story, a story of their own. We learn that the research narrative, while a clearly moral one, reflects primarily the dominant Israeli viewpoint that focuses on its own past, and from the survivors we hear a different narrative, in which they are center stage, as active agents forming Israeli identity in the “first person”.

Psychiatrist Prof. Israel Strauss of the Be'er Yaakov Mental Health Center researched Nazi policy towards people with mental illness and especially Jews with mental illness, and recounted his experiences when treating Holocaust survivors in Israel.

Yariv Lapid, Director of the Center for Humanistic Education at Ghetto Fighters’ House, dealt with the silence of the Austrian community. On the 27th of April, 1945, Vienna was liberated, while only slightly to the west Austrian Wehrmacht soldiers continued to fight against the Allied forces and murder thousands of Jews in the camps. On the same day the temporary Austrian government declared Austria’s independence. In this defining moment, the establishment of Austria’s historical lie began, which severs all connection between Austria and the Nazi regime. Despite over a million Austrians who served as soldier in the Wehrmacht and SS, and despite the fact that leading Nazi figures - Hitler, Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner, Globocnik – were Austrians, the Austrian government was able to convince the international community and to educate generations of Austrians, claiming that Austria cannot and does not assume any responsibility for the acts of the Nazi regime. The discussion circle explored how that lie succeeded.

Author Gabriela Avigur-Rotem titled her session "How can one even dare to write after Auschwitz", and spoke about the inadequacy of words to describe the unprecedented horrors, the coping strategies of different artists with the theme, and how she herself opened a story with a heat wave in Israel punctuated with birds of the world, and ended up in a condemned house in the ghetto (in her book "Heatwave and Crazy Birds").

Maya Keren, a member of Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhetaot and the daughter of underground courier, the late Chavka Folman-Raban, told the story of her kibbutz. Keren grew up in a home with a warrior mother who worked in the museum, was dedicated to testimony and education, and was a good friend of Antek and Tzvia. At home and on the kibbutz, there was never silence.

Holocaust survivor Amira Getzov, who lit a torch at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Holocaust Memorial Ceremony this year, told her story. Amira was born to a wealthy family in Mannheim, Germany. Her parents were deported to Auschwitz. Amira was rescued by members of the underground French Resistance. They took care of hiding her with different families, and smuggled her into Switzerland. Amira joined the Youth Aliyah, and in 1945 immigrated to Israel to Kibbutz Eilon, where she married the late Tzvi Getzov. Still living on the kibbutz, Amira has four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

At the conclusion of the evening, director Sylvain Biegeleisen touched everyone deeply with the story of his relationship with his mother, a Holocaust survivor, of her silence during his childhood and of the “correction” in communication they forged in her last days, through the films Biegeleisen created about her: "The Last Card” and “Twilight of a Life”.


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