What I Learned About Life From Holocaust Survivors

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If you know me personally, you might know that this past year I had the honor of working with Holocaust survivors. I was a Social Work Intern at an organization in NYC called Selfhelp Community Services, and I had 11 clients. Basically I acted as their full-scale social worker, providing case management and counseling services.

It was an incredible experience. I met with each of my clients in their homes anywhere from once or twice a week to a few times a month, and I got to know them very well. They shared their stories, their laughter, their tears, their hopes, their struggles, and their slices of apple pie with me, and I will never forget their generosity. I feel very lucky to have met them.

Needless to say, these people had lived long lives and knew a thing or two about what it means to grab life by the horns. Either directly or indirectly, my clients imparted their wisdom about making the most of every day. Here are some of the lessons I learned from them:

Traveling can be it’s own kind of sustenance.

I had many clients who were struggling quite a bit. But whenever we started talking about traveling, my clients’ demeanor would immediately change. All of a sudden I was hearing about adventures in Southeast Asia and the wonderful cuisine of Europe, and my client had a huge smile across his/her face. I will never forget when one of my clients looked me in the eye and said, “Amanda, if you don’t do anything else in life, you must travel. Travel is the only thing you take with you when age hits – your memories of those times will sustain you.”

A solid social circle that will stay with you for the long haul is an invaluable resource.

I can’t begin to explain the difference between my clients who had family and friends who checked in on them and spent time with them and those who did not. It is the difference between joyful aging and misery, in my opinion. My clients who lived with cherished loved ones or went out for dinner with people they trusted on a semi-regular basis were the ones that coped the best when tough situations struck. Even a phone call to a distant cousin was the game-changer that made their day. My clients who did not do these things were the ones who had a harder time adapting to difficult life events.

Exercise should not be underestimated.

One of the things my healthier clients reiterated over and over was their gratefulness for exercise. Many of them attributed their faithfulness to swimming, afternoon walks, chair yoga, or another form of activity to their longevity and happiness in older age.

A trip outdoors can do wonders.

Goodness, this one surprised me so much. I had no idea how big of an impact the outdoors can have on a person’s emotions and outlook. When my clients had been cooped up inside for too long, it showed. But if they were able, a trip outside totally changed their mood and put a new pep in their step, even if they only walked once around the block.

Find your own way to cope with the past.

This one may be controversial. Obviously my clients, survivors of a terrible genocide, had endured a great deal in the past. They all had different ways of coping with the tragedies that had occurred. Some had to share their stories with anyone who would listen, even if it was the hostess at a new restaurant. Some needed to confide only in trusted individuals, like their social worker or a good friend. Others chose to suppress memories and avoid conversations about the past in order to maintain their joy for living and their mental health. Suppression is a contested form of coping, but I think that when used correctly it can be the most beneficial for those who have endured difficult times. (Don’t trust me, though. I’m only a student!) In any case, my clients found it absolutely necessary to reach for whatever coping mechanism gave them the ability to live their fullest lives, as liberated as possible from a painful history.

Everyone should have a therapist.

Another contested idea, but one I feel incredibly strongly about. I am all about therapy. I think everyone should go to therapy at least once in their lives. (I’ve seen a therapist on a semi-regular basis a total of 3 times and counting!) Therapists can help you with finding the coping mechanisms discussed above, but they can also help you resolve conflicts, understand yourself, and reach your full potential. Basically therapists are awesome, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to see one. My clients benefitted a great deal from therapy sessions they had during situations that were trying on their daily lives. (By the way, there are many nonprofit organizations that provide therapy free of charge for eligible clients!)

Human triumph is more incredible than I could have ever imagined.

During my time at Selfhelp Community Services I learned lessons about so many things, but the parts that feel most relevant are the parts about humanness. Human evilness, to be sure, but also human triumph, most evident when I sat with survivors at their kitchen tables as they shed unknowable tears about the ultimate torture, the ultimate trauma, the ultimate horrors wrought upon them so many years ago—

and then their faces lit up five minutes later as they shared proud memories of immigration, successful careers, major accomplishments, their beautiful children and grandchildren. It’s inconceivable, these survivors. Their stories go past resilience into a greater beyond I cannot fathom. Their lives are something holy.

Recognize where hate lives.

The last and probably most important lesson I gathered from the survivors I was so privileged to work with was the necessity of recognizing where hate lives: inside of me. Sometimes society acts as if what Hitler did was due to a personal failing of severe proportions, an isolated incident of evil. It’s far harder to think about what I do every day to perpetuate injustice, inflicting terrible wounds on society’s most vulnerable. Sometimes hate in me looks like settling as a bystander while others commit the atrocities. Sometimes it looks like denial that I commit atrocities with my own hands, that I’ve drawn the blood. My human responsibility is to inspect myself, critically and constantly, and to invite others to challenge me on my own evil as well. This is the only offering I have.

I’d love to hear the life lessons you’ve gathered over the years! What’s something someone else taught you that you’ve carried with you ever since?

P.S. If you are interested in working with Holocaust survivors in the NYC area, you can find information on Selfhelp volunteer opportunities here! I highly recommend this amazing organization that does so much for a cherished population.

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What I Learned About Life From Holocaust Survivors | Survivors of genocide taught me so much about what it means to live fully. Here are some of the lessons I gathered from them.

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