After all that I have read, researched and written about the Holocaust over the past four decades, I considered myself fairly au fait with the subject. I have known a number of survivors, as well as rescuers - starting with my own mother, the Hungarian singer Vali Racz, a Righteous Among the Nations. But I guess there is always something new to learn, and recently I was able to add to my general knowledge of the Holocaust a little-known - and somewhat disturbing - aspect of it.
I was attending a function at the offices of the Board of Deputies, and got into a long conversation with two men who belong to the Child Survivors' Association of Great Britain - part of the broader World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust. The British group is about 100-strong and based throughout the UK. Its members are people who, as young children, experienced Nazi persecution. Some came here on Kindertransports, but most arrived after surviving in ghettos, in hiding or in concentration camps.
One of the men I talked to was originally from Holland and had been hidden by a gentile family in Amsterdam. Even as a small boy, he understood the peril he was in and lived every day with the fear of being discovered, or betrayed.
The other man was an inmate in Belsen between the ages of four and five. Although he, too, was Dutch and had been living in Holland, his mother was British-born and had family in the UK. As a result, he and his mother were imprisoned in a special section of the camp reserved for inmates with Allied connections, who might be useful for prisoner exchanges, so they were treated a little better. He and his mother survived. His father, with no Allied connections, perished.
The members of their association meet regularly to share their experiences and feelings; to some degree they are all psychologically damaged by their past. The Belsen man, for example, said his lifelong difficulty with relating to people who "couldn't possibly comprehend" his past made him unemployable. He felt he had no choice but to start his own business… a successful one, as it turned out.
Then they told me something I found truly shocking: as child survivors they feel less aggrieved by the indifference of non-Jews or even instances of outright antisemitism, than by the way that other - adult - Holocaust survivors callously dismiss their sufferings as "inferior" to their own. In other words, as the men explained, there exists a pecking order of Holocaust suffering and child survivors are deemed to be at the bottom.
This is as absurd as it is sad. Should there not be total solidarity - rather than a sense of competition - among all those who managed by great good fortune or a miracle or a twist of fate to survive the Nazi extermination machine? Of course some starved more than others. Some witnessed more horror, experienced more ill-treatment, lost more family members. But whatever the details of their survival stories, they are bound together by a powerful factor which supersedes their differences:
They and their descendants are living testimony to the failure of the Nazi project. And it is vitally important to avoid rivalry and seek empathy.