Nation Builders

The Contribution of Holocaust Survivors to the State of Israel

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Posted on: 
30 Jan 2016
Nation Builders

Our generation has the privilege of caring for and learning from the very oldest and last survivors of the Holocaust. Many survivors in Israel are frail, weak, poor, and alone. As a result of this final life-stage, coupled with the haunting photos of the Shoah, it is understandable to mistakenly regard survivors as always having been feeble and fragile victims.

The suffering of survivors is well documented. Though each endured their own particular ordeal, there are common threads to their stories: education cut-short, years of starvation, catastrophic loss of loved ones, forced to do the unimaginable, relentless terror, and helplessness to extreme cruelty and violence. Many were too exhausted and destroyed to go on.  But not all…

Research shows that survivors who prevailed share similar character traits. Though they may bear a heavy burden of memories, loss, and stress-related disorders, they also show remarkable similarity in these specific traits: resiliency, adaptability, resourcefulness, initiative, and tenacity. These rare and valuable attributes are difficult to teach but were precisely those most needed to build the new State of Israel.

With a cursory look at survivor biographies it quickly becomes apparent that survivors were builders of the fledgling nation of Israel and even leaders in their fields. Many survivors, who were recovering from illness and deprivation, found their way to Israel with unparalleled determination to start a new life.

As a little girl from Czechoslovakia, Hanna Bar Yesha was deported to Auschwitz with 70 members of her family. She survived the ordeal as well as a death march, and made her way to Israel in 1946. There she participated in the War of Independence. Hanna explains, “I had just turned 13.  At that moment I decided to come to Israel, because I wanted to belong to someone, but also to belong to my nation.” Hanna co-founded a Kibbutz and became the principal of a secondary school.

At the age of 5, Aharon Barak, who was born in Lithuania, was sent to the ghetto with his family and other Jews. He miraculously survived the war, and afterward made an arduous journey to Israel through much of war-torn Europe.  Finally in Israel, Barak studied law, became the Dean of Law at Hebrew University, and served 28 years on the Supreme Court of Israel ̶ 11 of those years as Chief Justice.

These are just a couple examples out of many. According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, “the struggle of the survivors to come to Israel, to rebuild their lives, and become active partners in the most important communal endeavor of the Jewish people in the 20th century, is a wondrous achievement that knows no equal in human history.”

In addition to establishing schools, Kibbutzim, synagogues, and building infrastructure, survivors helped build the nation in the following fields (list is incomplete): Translation, Arts, Law, Media, Construction, Transportation, Education, Research, Agriculture, Defense, Engineering, Business, Finance, Writers, Journalism, Medicine, Vet Medicine, Shipping.

It appears that building the nation of Israel was good medicine for survivors: in a 2010 study, researchers found that “Holocaust survivors from countries other than Israel showed less well-being and social adaptation than did comparisons, but no difference was found between Israeli Holocaust survivors and Israeli comparisons.” In sum, the Holocaust survivors of Israel are normal people who survived the horrific, and who, in addition to the challenges of coping with trauma, built their own lives as well as the life of one of the most remarkable nations on earth.


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