Goodman: ‘You see the old man. But the client is
the traumatized boy.’
By Howard Goodman - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
There was a picture of an old man, the face lined, his eyes lidded like teardrops. Next to it was a picture of the boy he was when maybe 8 years old, smiling shyly, wearing an old-fashioned suit coat and, on the left breast, a yellow star.
Michael Gans, an expert on the Holocaust and himself the son of a survivor, was showing the pictures to a room full of caregivers who work with the elderly.
“You see the old person,” he was saying, “but it was the little boy who was traumatized. That’s the person you’re working with.”
Time moves on, and for most of us the Holocaust is a thing in history books or cable TV documentaries, a dark phenomenon that belongs to the black-and-white 1930s and ’40s. And as the torch-bearing cretins who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed, there remain some who doubt that the mass slaughter of Jews, and other groups marked by the Nazis as subhuman, actually occurred, and some who maintain it didn’t go far enough.
But for some 20,000 men and women in South Florida, the Holocaust is as real as a tattoo still inked on an arm gone wrinkly. Loreley Caetano, who used to care for a woman named Bessie who survived Dachau although her professor husband did not, said the former concentration camp prisoner used to tell her: “If I close my eyes, I can go there and walk around.”
It takes a special sensitivity to care for people who, as children or teenagers, were wrenched suddenly from parents and brothers and sisters, never to see them again. Children who might have gone on the run and into hiding, who almost surely went hungry and slept in fear, whose homes and communities vanished, who lost possessions and security and progressively their freedoms, who saw death all around.
The Alpert Jewish Family and Children’s Service provides aides for many elderly in Palm Beach County. Officials there noticed that some of the caregivers — many of them immigrants from the Caribbean and other places where the history of Jews in Europe was perhaps not high on the curriculum — had scant idea about the old person who they were to help.
“We had one aide who looked at the arm of the senior she was caring for, and said, ‘Why are you writing phone numbers on your arm?’” Gans said.
The numbers, of course, were an identifier to mark you as a nonperson as you were herded into a Nazi concentration camp. Clearly, Gans said, there was a need for education.
Thus, every few months the social service organization holds teaching sessions for caregivers and health care workers. They’re led by Gans, the director of cultural competence for the organization’s Holocaust Assistance Program. Since 2016, some 2,000 to 2,500 people have received the “Honoring Life” training, often given at local hospitals and colleges that offer nursing, therapy and social work programs.
One day last month, about 35 people listened intently to Gans and his co-presenter, Jenni Frumer, the Alpert JFCS’s CEO, as they recounted basic facts about the massive crime: the systematic killing of 6 million Jews and 5 million others (Gypsies, gays, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Slavs, Soviet POWs). A crime so massive, it is hard to comprehend, yet many times ignored or denied. In a 2013-14 survey from the Anti-Defamation League of people in more than 100 countries, 54 percent said they never heard of the Holocaust; 32 percent believed it was exaggerated or a myth.
There is no denying the reality, however, of the survivors. These are people who not only endured the war, but dealt with the confusion and dislocations of the aftermath: trying to learn the fate of their families while shuttled to displaced-persons camps, then immigrating to Palestine or the United States, learning new languages and skills, starting careers and new families while shutting out bad memories.
“For 50 years, no one talked about it,” said Gans, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa.
Given survivors’ experience, it’s not surprising that, beyond the normal issues of aging, many might suffer from anger, bitterness, chronic anxiety, paranoia, survivor’s guilt. They might hold a strong Jewish identity (they tried to kill us, but couldn’t!), or none at all (how could a God let this happen?).
The arrival of Jewish holidays might trigger depression; the Nazis, in their sadism, often chose a Jewish holiday to descend on a Jewish neighborhood and round people up, Frumer said. Everyday life, too, holds triggers, she said: A bright light. A sudden noise. A barking dog. Getting a haircut, taking a shower. Disrobing. Nakedness.
Don’t be surprised, Frumer told the aides, if the person you’re caring for gets irrational about having enough food on hand. If they shrink when asked for a medical history (“They don’t know their family histories”). If they get anxious when saying goodbye (“Too many people have disappeared from their lives”).
Irv Seldin, president of Visiting Angels, a living-assistance services company that contracts with the JFCS, has taken the training three or four times. “Jenni is right,” he said after the latest session. “Every client is different. You have to shut up and listen and feel your way with them, and see what works and what doesn’t.”
A longtime social worker, Seldin first worked with a Holocaust survivor in 1983. “I noticed immediately that the paperwork alone put them on edge,” he said. The Germans had been meticulously bureaucratic as they diabolically separated out Jews and marked them for deportation, labor or death. “I’m always apologetic,” Seldin said, “and try to explain exactly what I’m doing at all times.”
Sharon Gates is caring for a 100-year-old woman in West Palm Beach who escaped a concentration camp when a guard took a liking to her and helped her hide. The woman, who did not want her name published, saw her parents and sister killed there, Gates said.
“She is the nicest person you would ever want to meet,” said Gates, who is 47 and had read about the Holocaust but “didn’t know it was that bad” until she heard stories from her client, a “gorgeous lady with a huge personality,” just 4 feet tall. “I really adore her,” Gates said.
The effervescence faded during the recent Jewish holidays, Gates said. “She was depressed – and she never gets depressed. She was thinking about her parents and her sister.”
Gates said she told her: “You’re a hero. You survived, and because you did, you have children here, and grandchildren, and you’re soon going to have another great-grandchild.”
“I said, ‘Your parents would be so proud to realize that.’”
“I believe that helped her,” the caregiver said. “She said, ‘I never thought of it like that.’”
For a long time, survivors made people uncomfortable, their presence too real a reminder of humanity’s cruelty, said Gans, the Honoring Life leader. But that attitude has changed profoundly. Now, organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are funding this Palm Beach County project. The government’s interest is in learning how to care for older people who suffered trauma when younger, such as refugees from war zones or U.S. soldiers.
In Jewish life, there are frequent admonitions to remember the 6 million dead. That is a good and necessary thing. What the Alpert JFCS is doing is perhaps harder. It is remembering the living: the dwindling thousands who escaped the genocide’s slaughter but not its scars.
“As a community, we have a responsibility to take care of them,” Gans said. “They’ve been through enough.”
For some 20,000 men and women in South Florida, the Holocaust is as real as a tattoo still inked on an arm gone wrinkly.