As a therapist without G-d what was there to say to holocaust survivors and their children?
I braced myself as I listened to their stories: A woman whose angelic child was viciously killed before her eyes; a man who had to eat insects to stay alive; a man who watched his brother being buried alive until the shoveled earth above his brothers outstretched hands finally stopped moving; and a poor soul who stood helpless as a loved one’s face was smashed into an unrecognizable pulp with one swing of a Nazi’s shovel – may his Holy blood be avenged!
The truth is that I had nothing to say to my clients. I sat there frozen and traumatized nodding my head as if I understood. There was nothing in my training that I could draw upon; there was nothing in my American background that I could draw upon; it seemed there was nothing in the world that I could draw upon. myself and twenty survivors from a nightmarish world – far from Yankee stadium - and they knew it!
I sat there week after week with twenty holocaust survivors and nothing to say – I was too frightened, confused, or angered to be of any real help. Meanwhile they spoke to each other in code - I was utterly lost – and they knew it. When the group meetings ended – you had to peel me off the floor - I literally couldn’t function. My soul felt murdered. I would go home and collapse – and at night my dreams tortured me – because I had looked into Hell with no G-d to protect me.
After writing Confessions of a Psychotherapist, I was contacted by a truly remarkable woman who lives here in Israel. Yisraela was born in a DP camp. She has virtually no extended family – there are no graves for her to visit. She grew up in a constant state of fear and humiliation. She felt “spiritually raped” by her abusive and anti-religious father who survived the camps. She said about her father, “It was easy for him to blame everything on the war it meant he never had to take responsibility for his behavior.” Yisraela told me that her father didn’t have much patience for their childish problems. He couldn’t understand how anyone who didn’t live in a concentration camp could have a problem. “But how could I express my anger to my father with all that he went through”, said Yisraela, “after all - his father was murdered!” Yisraela who is now 63 still takes care of her father who is still abusive at 98!
Yisraela told me an amazing story. She said that when she was 6 years old she was given the biggest gift of her life. One of her mother’s friends, Etta – may her Holy soul rest in peace - secretly taught her the Shema. Now Prayer wasn’t something one spoke about in Yisraela’s home – “there was no G-d. G-d was my father telling us what to do - I had to say the Shema in secret - but I just kept saying it… and saying it… and saying it!” She memorized the Shema when she was six years old and has said it faithfully every night – till today - she says that it’s saved her many times.
One night when Yisraela was 10 years old she awakened to fighting and screams - another survivor, a friend of the family had gone berserk and was trying to kill her parents with a butcher knife. Her parents were cut up pretty badly before they were miraculously rescued by a young man in the building - a non-Jewish Polish man.
After that, Yisraela said that it became clear to her that she could look at life in one of two ways: “I could have been angry that my family was anti-religious but I saw that if I believed in G-d that he would always sent me people from outside my family to give me what I was missing at home. I think I’m a very fortunate person. Most people don’t appreciate the miracles that are constantly happening under their noses.”
I asked her how she had found her way to our website and she said, “I don’t know why, but when I found Breslev I just knew that it was for me. I check out the site everyday – and as my emuna has strengthened, I eventually stopped asking the question that had been burning inside me all my life – why, why, why was there a holocaust? She said, “If you’re going to keep asking ‘why’ your whole life you might as well bury yourself in the ground right now - because you’re not really living! I choose life - I don’t see any other way.”
Although her husband is not religious, Yisraela has merited having religious children and grandchildren who she has great joy from. They live near her. As we were about to part, she said “you know something - it just hit me recently - when I bought my grandson tzitzis (a ritual garment) - I knew that we really won the war. Would my mother’s father, a religious Jew, ever have believed that the chain of Judaism would continue in our family and that he would have great grandchildren living in Israel who keep Shabbat? I can’t get over it!”
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Zev Ballen, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He is licensed in Israel and the State of New York. Zev has the endorsements of prominent Gadolei Yisrael such as the Nikolsburger Rebba, Shlita, Reb Yitzchok Fagelstock, Shlita, The Kasaner Rebbe of Forshay, Shlita, Rav Shalom Arush, Shlita, and Rabbi Lazer Brody, Shlita. He resides with his family in Jerusalem where he learns in Rav Arush’s Kollel and maintains a part-time practice. You can write to Zev Ballen at: email@example.com or call him at: 845-362-8600 (US line) or 054-840-9499 (Israeli line).