April 30, 2003
Holocaust Survivors Gather for Fun
"Who's from Dorohoi?" asked Shmuel David, referring to the town in Romania where he was born and survived the Holocaust as a child.
"I am," said Betty Guzman, who was 16 years old when she was sent to the ghetto.
Last year David, 73, and Guzman, 80, discovered that they had been neighbors whose sisters attended school together. While that moment solidified their friendship, they don't really discuss the Holocaust all that much.
"We don't talk about it," Guzman told The Journal the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day. "It's more nostalgia."
"But we talk about our families, and it's just nice to get together with him. I feel like he's my brother," Guzman said of her weekly meetings with David at Cafe Europa, a social meeting place for Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv that was modeled on the same program in Los Angeles, both funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (and run by Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles).
Every week some 300 people in Tel Aviv and 80 in Los Angeles gather to dance, sing, eat and socialize. Unlike other institutions and programs geared toward helping survivors with their physical and emotional problems, Cafe Europa's approach stands out in that it brings survivors together not for the express purpose of remembering, but gives them a chance to forget.
"We want to see each other, discuss our kids, to dance, and we feel like we're 20 years old," Guzman said. "In our homes, we remember; in our hearts, we remember. Here we all want to forget. We have families now. We want to be reminded of the good. What we went through? Que sera sera."
Guzman and the hundreds of others who attend Cafe Europa in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles might provide a key to what differentiates a "successful" and "unsuccessful" survivor, i.e., one who can overcome the experience and one who can't.
The therapeutic community is now -- especially after Sept. 11 -- grappling with that very issue, of whether reliving trauma by discussing it, analyzing it, reliving it, is really the best way to move on. In a February 23 New York Times Magazine article called "Repress Yourself," author Lauren Slater cites research from Israel and America showing that trauma victims are often better off engaging in productive, healing activities rather than therapy and reliving their experiences. One woman started a trauma center for this express purpose
"At the center, there is a kitchen full of utensils, so women can stir and chop instead of sitting and talking, a computer room where women can type up resumes and query letters and, maybe best of all, an attic full of professional clothes so if a job interview is landed, the woman can don a second skin, a sleek suit, a pair of pumps. It's exhilarating."
This, in part, is the theory of Cafe Europa. But why bother creating a social group for survivors if they're not going to focus on their experiences?
"They create a community," said Chani Luski, a Tel Aviv social worker given the mandate to start the Tel Aviv club last year with some $15,000 in seed money from the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv partnership. At first, Luski thought she'd have to convince people to come to the group, but after the first meeting, when 55 people attended, they quickly opened a second club in Tel Aviv.
"Even though it's fun and games here, there's a special feeling like that saying, 'A stranger wouldn't understand.' It's a place for someone who was there," she said.
Luski added that sometimes they discuss their stories with the social workers and each other, but it's mostly social. So much so that there are people who'd like to meet more than once a week, and they have formed little cliques, often by their country of origin.
And sometimes it's necessary to remember. Cafe Europa in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles each held services for the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In Los Angeles, some 50 Adat Ari El Day School fifth-grade students met with about 80 Los Angeles Cafe Europa participants and members of The Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership steering committee. (Adat Ariel is partnered with Nitzanim school in Tel Aviv, where students are pen pals).
In Tel Aviv, dozens of people gathered in an old-age home auditorium lent to Cafe Europa.
Six survivors from different countries -- Libya, Greece, France, Romania, Poland and Hungary -- lit candles in memory of their families, communities and others who died in the Holocaust. Songs and poems were sprinkled throughout.
One Warsaw Ghetto survivor prefaced his singing performance, by asking the audience, "Who saw 'The Pianist?'" "My children told me not to go see it, but I couldn't resist. I took my wife, and I felt like I was in the ghetto. The pianist played a tune that everyone sang in the ghetto."
He told the group that it took him days to remember the words, but finally he did, and then he proceeded to belt out the jaunty tune, as others in the room started to sing along, sporadically at first, and then heartily, remembering.
Dr. Natan Durstman, a psychologist from AMCHA, the Israeli organization that deals with the psychological needs of Holocaust survivors, spoke about his personal thoughts on the need for a national day of mourning.
Durstman was a child of the Holocaust, and said he was jealous of older survivors [like those in the room], who have memories of their families, their hometowns, of life before the war, and who they are in general.
"I'm jealous of your memories -- you have a story about this aunt or that uncle -- and I can't say that, because I don't know.
"What is 6 million?" Durstman asked. "This story is more minor: It's my father, my mother, my two sisters. But I don't know the names of my family -- I don't know if it was 50 people or what. But this holiday is not for the 6 million, it's for my parents; my sisters, Fanny and Yenny, because no one remembers them besides me."
Looking at all the survivors gathered at tables eating cake and drinking coffee, Durstman said he could give no greater meaning to the experience, but reminded everyone why there were here at Cafe Europa and in general: "You cannot despair. It's so easy to be depressed. So easy to give up and not move on. But we didn't do that. We didn't do that."
"We had a minimal hope, and even if we did not believe, we held on to that hope, and what I learned is that sometimes life is a gift, and sometimes it's an obligation -- in the end, you can't give up, and you can't go into a depression," he said. "Not only do you have to live, but you have to keep hoping, as it is written in the Torah, 'Choose life so that you and your children can live.'"