Caring for Shoah’s survivors

It’s both burden and privilege for their Five Towns children


Caring for aging parents and grandparents who are Holocaust survivors remains an issue of concern for many Five Towners. More than 60 people attended a talk on the subject on Monday that was hosted by Ohel and the Claims Conference, at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence.

The children of aging parents are the “triple-decker generation, juggling so many demands,” Harriet Blank, LCSW, director of geriatrics at OHEL and the evening’s main speaker, said.

Being a child of a Holocaust survivor “is both a burden and a privilege,” she said.

Survivors “endured so much abuse — the fact that they can talk and walk and are ok is miraculous,” she said.

As caregivers, Blank stressed the need for family meetings that include the parent as “part of the decision making” and the children. The importance of scheduling time or activities to de-stress from caregiving, knowing when to get help, and that honoring your father and mother is a commandment from the Torah but “not honoring to the point of martyrdom to put on the tombstone “I was the most perfect’.”

Blank delineated five areas that children consider when caring for their aging parents: modeling their values, that children should see the child caring for the parent; preserving family histories; responsibility (they helped us); guilt, and love.

Most survivors do not have “large extended families, and may have only children,” she said. They also have an ingrained mistrust of outsiders.

Children of survivors saw that their parents survived despite insurmountable odds and now think their parents can also survive old age and illness. Grandchildren, removed from ongoing direct contact, thus become a necessary part of care in the family. “The grandchildren get the whole story, all the details [the survivors] don’t tell the children.”

Simcha Feuerman, LCSW, director of operations and strategic development at Ohel, noted that Ohel has worked with trauma “since its inception” with orphans, and is now turning to assist in the field of intergenerational trauma. Ohel opened a new office on Spruce Street in Cedarhurst and launched a new website with information and webinars.

Feuerman recalled a story he had heard from Dr. David Pelcovitz of a man who had a strange tic — he had a compulsion to jerk his head and look over his shoulder. The man consulted many doctors and psychologists who could not help him, until one asked on a “hunch” if the father was a survivor and if the father ever spoke about his experiences.

When he answered that the father was a survivor who had not spoken of his experiences, the doctor instructed the patient to speak with his father, who was over 90 years old and in a nursing home. When the son asked about the Holocaust, the father began to cry, recounting that he was separated from his family at the selection when they entered the concentration camp and that he could not bring himself to look back to see his family one last time; he said he had to exist with the terrible shame of not looking back for the rest of his life.

“After he spoke to his father, the father got it off his chest and the compulsion went away,” said Feuerman, citing this as intergenerational trauma.

He also cited the “hyper-reactivity” from trauma of survivors as in the Torah in Parshat Bechukotai, where those who would survive the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) would have tremendous fear from the sound of a rustling leaf.

Blank noted that there are both differences and similarities in the care of aging survivor parents and other aging parents. She said that there are plans to establish support groups in the Five Towns.

She quoted statistics: 80 percent of all caregiving is done by families, usually by women, one-third by men who usually deal with the finances and physical care, and $450 billion not being spent by the government because families don’t ask for help. She cited support groups as a good way to learn and get information, noting that women are balancing many roles aside from taking care of parents, including taking care of family needs, children, jobs, and grandchildren.

She pointed out the need to find repetitive activities for Alzheimer’s patients that keep the patient from being agitated and feeling productive and part of the family. She noted a prominent rabbi, now an Alzheimer’s patient, who tears all the toilet paper, paper towels and foil needed by the children and grandchildren in the family for Shabbat. “He’s calm, he has something to do, the children and grandchildren come to collect it and see their alter zaidy (great grandfather) every week.”

She also cited a psychologist’s visual illustration of the wearing down a caregiver ultimately feels by holding up a half glass of water and asking “is this difficult to do?”

When answered with “no,” the psychologist asked “what about after an hour or all day?” “It starts to weight you down,” explained Blank, “the hand becomes paralyzed. You can handle a little; it gets too heavy, you fall down.”

The evening’s scheduled keynote speaker, Dr. Irit Felsen, was absent due to flu.

For more information call 800-603-OHEL.