Choosing to Survive: Holocaust Survivors Views on Death

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Holocaust survivors' views on death vary in different cases. They either will be fearful of death or fearless of death. It becomes based on whether they hold onto or let go of the experience from being in a concentration camp. It relies on their sense of coherence with the ability to let go of the experience and live in the present instead of the past.

In The Cage by Ruth Sender, the first sight of fear and despair towards death was shown within the first few pages: 'faces of people I loved, cherished, respected. They were all part of my life. Now they are all dead. Murdered. Not a trace left. Not even a grave' (2). This shows immediately that she was fearful of death, not just about herself but for loved ones. This next excerpt shows fear as well. Sender states, 'I am frightened as I look at the faces of our neighbors. Their eyes were so full of fear and sadness. They know war brings hunger, pain, death' (10). The Holocaust survivors were fearful, scared to death because death surrounded them every day. They seem to have known it was going to come.

Sender mentions that while working she began to give up, but didn't. Sender told herself that if she worked she would live (31). The Holocaust survivors may have wanted to give up living because deaths surrounded them. However, some didn't allow themselves to give up.

Death to Holocaust survivors came in many forms. It wasn't just physical death to themselves they were worried about, but death of loved ones and spiritual and personality death to themselves. In Night by Elie Wiesel, two main excerpts back that idea. Wiesel writes, 'God is dead, the God of love, of gentleness and consolation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had, under the watchful gaze of this child, vanished forever into the smoke of the human holocaust demanded by the Race, the most voracious of all idols' (18). That passage shows how the God the Holocaust survivors always cherished was dead to them. This is another aspect of death that may not have been previously thought about. The Holocaust survivors began to lose themselves because they lost their faith. Wiesel mentions seeing God hanging in the gallows with the others (18). Wiesel saw God dead; he watched his faith die. The one sanctuary of faith that they had in God was murdered.

They saw death in others eyes. Wiesel began talking about a friend who returned from a labor camp. 'Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen' (25). It wasn't just physical death everywhere, but spiritual, too.

The idea that Holocaust survivors did not care to live isn't entirely wrong. In Night, Moishe says 'I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back and warn you' (Wiesel 25). Moishe plainly states that he doesn't care to live. If he doesn't care to live his fear might be gone. However, what could cause some to be fearful and some to be fearless?

Many studies have been done on this idea. According to the Journal of Traumatic Stress, a study on Holocaust survivors concluded that if the survivors were in a concentration camp, such as Auschwitz, they had a much greater chance of holding onto the traumatic events causing a higher rate in considering suicide ('Differential experiences during the Holocaust and suicidal ideation in older adults in treatment for depression' Par. 1). The study began to answer why some Holocaust survivors are fearful of death and why some are not. If the Holocaust survivor tried forgetting the traumatic events and moving on instead of holding on to them, they most likely would be more fearful of death because they would have so much to lose around them. They would be in this reality with an awareness of what was going on. Conversely, if the Holocaust survivor chose to hold onto the traumatic events and live in the past instead of the present, then they would most likely be less fearful of death because they would have no awareness of what they had around them. They would feel more alone and as if they had nothing to lose if they lost their life.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a study on Holocaust survivors' sense of coherence concluded that their sense of coherence was a protection factor in some survivors. According to Jane Collingwood, a sense of coherence is a mixture of optimism and control with the three components of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness ('Your Sense of Coherence,' Par.2). If the child Holocaust survivor had a high sense of coherence perspective they would lose the association between the traumatic events during the Holocaust and the post traumatic stress. On the other hand, if the child Holocaust survivor had a low or non existent sense of coherence perspective then they would have a loss of meaning to their life and a higher chance of post traumatic complaints ('Sense of Coherence Moderates Late Effects of Early Childhood Holocaust Exposure,' Par. 1). The study shows that not only does holding onto the actual traumatic event cause a fearless feeling of death, but so does a low sense of coherence. In a way it has to be both ideas from the studies put together. It doesn't make sense for it to be one or the other. If they have a low sense of coherence they will hold onto the traumatic events and have a fearlessness of death, rather than if they have a high sense of coherence they won't hold onto the traumatic events causing them to have a fearfulness of death because they begin to value their current lives.

Overall, a Holocaust survivor's perspective on death is going to differ based on their sense of coherence. A Holocaust survivor may be fearful of death, or they could be fearless of death. It is based on how they view the traumatic events and their sense of coherence perspective on life. If they live in the past they have a higher chance of not caring if they die, while if they live in the present they have a lower chance of not caring.

In a simple explanation, this could happen to anyone. Anyone who goes through a prolonged traumatic event could react much the same way. For example, someone who goes through a prolonged traumatic event of being sexually abused could go through the same scenario as a Holocaust survivor. A sexually abused person may have a low sense of coherence causing them to hold onto the traumatic event, or they could have a high sense of coherence causing them to move on and live in the present. A sexually abused person may be fearful of death if they live in the present or fearless of death if they live in the past with the traumatic event.

A Holocaust survivor's view on death for the reasons of their perspective and how they deal with it is very representative of anyone who goes through a prolonged traumatic event. They either choose to live and move on, or hold onto it and live in the past.



Works Cited
Clarke DE, Colantonio A, Rhodes A, Conn D, Heslegrave R, Links P, van Reekum R. "Differential experiences during the holocaust and suicidal ideation in older adults in treatment for depression. " Journal of Traumatic Stress 19.3 (2006): 417-23. Research Library. ProQuest. Libraries Linking Idaho. 8 Feb. 2009 http://www.proquest.com/
Collingwood, Jane. "Your Sense of Coherence." PsychCentral. 28 June 2006. 13 Feb 2009 .
Elisheva A M van der Hal-van Raalte, Marinus H van lJzendoorn, Marian J Bakermans-Kranenburg. "Sense of coherence moderates late effects of early childhood Holocaust exposure.' Journal of Clinical Psychology 64.12 (2008): 1352. Research Library. ProQuest. Libraries Linking Idaho. 8 Feb. 2009 http://www.proquest.com/
Sender, Ruth Minskey. The Cage. First. New York City: Simon & Schuster Books, 1986.
Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy. First. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.





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