Among the Survivors by Hedy Epstein

In June 1981 I attended the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel. I frequently overheard survivors asking other survivors, “in which camp or ghetto where you? When were you there?” When told, the all too frequent retort was, “Oh, where you were was nothing in comparison to where I was. I suffered much more than you did.” This shocked and surprised me. Why was it necessary for survivors to compete with each other about the extent of their suffering? I do not know the answer to that.

On a very personal level, I experienced the following: I shared the hotel room with a woman I did not know before. Almost before we exchanged our names, she told me in which ghetto, labor camp and concentration camp she spent the war years, and then asked me where I had been. When I told her I lived in England during the war, she quickly challenged my right to be at the Gathering. Perhaps she thought I would leave. When she realized I would not leave, she not only challenged my right to be there, but repeatedly told me “to leave.” Unable to reason with her, I finally told her I had a right to be there, simply because I had paid to be there. I added that if my presence was troublesome to her, she should consider making arrangements with the hotel for another room and that I intended to stay. We both remained in the same room, but otherwise went our separate ways. She grudgingly tolerated my presence.

There were two more incidents that deeply troubled me then and still do now. The participants were asked ahead of time to bring small memorial stones to the Gathering, inscribed with the names of their loved ones who perished in the Holocaust. These stones were to be placed for eternity in the Memorial Cave erected for this purpose. The cave is located on the western slope of the Mount of Remembrance, in the midst of the Avenue of the Righteous, where those Christians who helped Jews during the Nazi period are given recognition for their brave deeds.  The cave is a monument to those victims of the Holocaust whose names are perpetuated in it. 

We were given a form to complete, with information about our perished loved ones and a brown paper bag in which to insert the form and the stone. The bags were then handed to attendants, sitting at a table. I was horrified when I saw how each paper bag was uncaringly thrown in a box next to the table. I felt one more time the lives of our loved ones were being tossed away. I offered to help. I wanted to carefully, lovingly place each bag in a box. My offer was not accepted.

As we travelled by bus to the various sites, passing homes and people on the street, I repeatedly heard questions put to the tour guide or bus driver: “Who are these people?”  “Who lives here?” When told these were Jewish people or these were Jewish homes, the questioners exclaimed: “Aren’t they beautiful!”  When told these were Palestinians or Palestinian homes, the response again and again was: “Ugh, aren’t they awful!” To get away from these comments and people, I literally “escaped” one afternoon to the offices of Peace Now, an Israeli organization, then proposing a two-state solution. I felt much like a desert traveler, finding an oasis.

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