The Holocaust Survivors Who Take Care of Their Own

As the children of the war reach old age, one group of survivors is teaching nursing home workers how to treat a type of trauma that only they can understand.

The Holocaust Survivors Who Take Care of Their Own

Olga Horak, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, knows the Sydney Jewish Museum intimately. Three days a week she arrives in Darlinghurst, a voguish section of the city, at nine a.m. — a full hour early — so that she is guaranteed a parking spot close enough to the museum.

“I can’t walk very far,” Horak says during in an interview in a small, tidy room in her home. In the center is a suitcase-sized coffee table Horak recently scaled to change a lightbulb.

A week later, at the museum, her slate-colored hair is arranged in a chignon and she wears dangly, gold earrings — a small circle perched on a larger one. Despite the cusp-of-summer heat, she is dressed in a three-quarter-sleeved leopard-print dress that ends a few inches below her knees, paired with black pantyhose and black pointed flats.

“I won’t wear shoes without stockings, not even sandals,” she said. Horak comes from a line of precise dressers. Her own mother used to stuff the sleeves of dresses with tissue paper so that they wouldn’t crease on the hanger. “Some traditions from your upbringing just don’t leave you.”

Olga Horak outside of the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Survivors like Horak have been the lifeblood of the Sydney Jewish Museum since it opened in 1992, providing living history lessons to almost 50,000 visitors every year. There are 42 survivors volunteering today. To the photographed atrocities on display, they add their own personal objects from the war as well as stories of cruelty, loss and sometimes serendipity. Horak has taught herself to “overcome certain emotions,” although she will cry when she sees guests crying. But her fundamental role as a survivor is to prevent the museum from calcifying into a sepulchral display of faded genocide, as far removed from the present day as Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The museum has also tasked survivors like Horak with providing a unique educational role: They teach nursing home caregivers to attend to elderly patients experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, creating a unique situation in which those who care for patients with trauma are being led by the traumatized.

In a narrow, windowless room at the museum, Horak gives an account of her harrowing World War II experience to a dozen staff from Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home. The aged care facility spans four campuses in Sydney. Almost all of the 740 residents are Jewish and more than 30 percent are Holocaust survivors. There are approximately 100 beds dedicated to patients with dementia.

Horak’s role today is to acquaint the staff — most of whom are caregivers — with the unique horrors of the Holocaust. Australia has the largest per-capita survivor population outside of Israel, and those who were born during the Second World War are already in their seventies. A paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2011 outlined some of the distinct trauma this group might face as they age: “With cognitive decline, PTSD severity might worsen as repressed memories in the brain are liberated.” The program at Montefiore intends to assist personnel with understanding the specific needs of this dwindling group.

Some potential triggers have already been eliminated. For example, the residents at Montefiore do not wear name tags around their arms in case that brings up memories of being labeled and reduced to a number. The campuses are banned from using yellow for decorations, lest it remind patients of the yellow star that Jews were forced to display during the war. And, in most cases, occupants have their own room and their own bathroom, to ensure that they have dignity, privacy, and don’t recall the cramped living quarters in camps or ghettoes.

Jeannine Lew, the Social Work Manager at Montefiore, has found that patients have idiosyncrasies around food. “One woman made a vow the day that she left Auschwitz. She would never discriminate,” she says, “and never throw out a piece of bread.” Many residents share this mentality and take food from the dining room into their bedroom after their meals, where it often rots. “You have to be very sensitive about removing it,” she says, in case of shaming the survivor. The nursing home also provides baskets of fruit and bread that are available to inhabitants at all hours, to reduce the compulsion to hoard.

But there is always more to learn, and that’s the reason for the course at the museum. It was created by Renée Symonds, a clinical psychologist, who had the idea when her Holocaust-survivor mother was admitted into Montefiore with dementia. She noticed the disturbing combination of sundowning residents and distressed care staff, some of whom have come from countries with their own backgrounds of trauma.

“That combination needed to be thought through,” she says. “The residents’ behavior was so challenging it caused the staff to react in frustration.”

Although they do it readily, speaking about their experiences takes a toll on the volunteers. In 2006, Rony Bognar, the Volunteer Manager at the museum, asked volunteers how they felt about sharing chilling details of their lives with strangers, up to three times a week.

“We expected them to say, ‘We are a bit tired, a bit long in the tooth now, we have been doing it for too long,’” Bognar says. But the guides’ answers were far from blasé. “We were shocked by the responses. One survivor said, ‘Every time I leave here to go home, I drink for the next 24 hours.’ Another said, ‘This is my personal torture chamber, but I can’t keep away.’”

Symonds and Bognar started running focus groups for the guides. The guides learned each other’s stories, of which they only knew portions, and found empathy among the tales of brutality.

“There is a hierarchy of suffering among them,” Sandy Hollis, the Museum’s Education Officer says. “One would tell another that they were in Auschwitz and the other would reply, ‘Oh Auschwitz, you’re so lucky. I was in Mauthausen.’”

These days, meetings take place every two months. “We used to have an agenda, but they threw the agenda out,” Bognar says. The survivors are resistant to therapy and balked at the idea of receiving counseling more than half a century after the Holocaust. “They call these groups ‘hocus focus.’”

Horak spoke during an event marking UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Liberation of Auschwitz at the Sydney Jewish Museum in January 2018.

In November, the museum turned 25 years old. Horak was interviewed to mark the anniversary with a speech about her experience of working at the museum. The reporter asked, “‘How do you feel talking about what happened? Surely it must help you?’” Horak recounts, growing increasingly agitated.

“They presume that if you go to a psychiatrist, if you go to counseling, it helps. I don’t think so, I don’t think any psychiatrist who gets thousands of dollars to pay for his couch — or whatever — can help me.”

Despite her skepticism about the therapeutic value of talk, Horak still needs to be heard. In the meeting with the aged care staff, she stands behind a red chair, which was provided for her to sit in, and folds her hands over its back.

“I come from Czechoslovakia,” she says. “I’m a product of a country which doesn’t exist anymore.”

Horak was born in Bratislava in 1926. By the time she was a teenager, the Nuremberg Laws had come into effect and she was forced to abandon her schooling and wear a yellow star on her clothes. In 1942, the fascist guards began “collecting” single Jews born prior to 1925. Horak’s sister Judith belonged to this cohort.

“Have you ever heard of people being collected?” Horak asks the room. “What would you collect? You collect things. But not people.”

The remaining members of her family crossed the border and hid in Hungary, until the situation there grew untenable. They returned to Bratislava and managed to remain concealed until August 1944, when a neighbor betrayed them to the Nazi authorities.

“Have you ever heard of Auschwitz?” she asks the room. Almost everyone shakes their head.

“Is it a German word?” asks one of the caregivers.

Horak describes the cattle car: “It was meant for eight horses, maybe 40 people — standing, but there were around a hundred of us.” She talks about the music playing, the barking dogs, about being separated from her father, who she never saw again, by the casual wag of a guard’s finger.

Then she speaks of being a 17-year-old girl. The humiliation of being stripped, shaved, stared at, and inspected by Dr. Mengele. “My mother and I were healthy and sent to the right.” Those who were sent to the left were gassed.

To this day she is uncomfortable undressing in front of doctors. This mistrust of the medical establishment is common among survivors.

“When we ask a lot of our survivors here how they are feeling, they say they are healthy, they are strong,” says Hollis. “We have a survivor who is 97 years old. Even when he has the flu, he will still come in.”

Two years ago, Horak’s shoe caught on a step at the museum, causing her to trip and fall, breaking two bones. She walked out of the museum and into her car, drove herself home and called an ambulance to the hospital. When a geriatrician attended to her she was livid.

“He introduced himself and I said, ‘Thank you for visiting. You do not visit me as a geriatric; you visit me as a patient with two fractures.’ They handle you in a different manner when you are old. They think we are all in la la land. We are not.”

Horak attributes her survival to having her mother by her side in the camps.

“There were no mothers with children in Auschwitz,” she says. “It was unheard of.”

In winter, the pair were consigned to labor in the German village of Kurzbah and eventually led on a death march to Bergen-Belsen where they lingered for months. On the 15th of April, 1945, there were no guards to take roll call. It was over.

Horak was sick with typhoid, typhus, infested with lice and weighed just 64 pounds. The British set up a makeshift registry in a tent, where Horak and her mother received “Displaced Person” cards. Horak’s mother collapsed and died almost immediately after being classified. Her name is not listed among the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims.

By this stage, Horak was ill and apathetic; she tried to keep warm with a blanket that had been abandoned by a Nazi warden. Camp prisoners had been forced to knit it using their own hair. For a long time it was one of her only possessions, and it went with her as she moved from one hospital to the next. When she recovered, she left it at a friend’s house, who kept it under her mattress for decades. At Horak’s request it was sent to Australia and eventually became one of the museum’s artifacts.

As concentration camp survivors age, nursing homes are getting an influx of survivors who were children during the Holocaust. They have a separate set of triggers. In camps, children who were not killed on entry were generally separated from their parents, with no farewell or explanation, and hidden.

Horak reflected looks at an exhibit displaying artifacts that once belonged to her, including a blanket made out of hair, one of the only things she possessed after liberation.

“The adult survivors came from intact families, so they had stable backgrounds. But the child survivors come from fragmented families,” Symonds says.

Francine Lazarus, a child survivor who was seven when the war ended, gave her testimony at one of these training days. She spent much of her childhood hidden with strangers, non-Jews who were willing to pretend she was a distant relative. When she had her own children the concept of playful interaction was foreign. She engaged with her grandchildren by teaching them the rules of chess.

The desire to pass on their firsthand stories is what keeps the survivors coming back to the museum.

“I am exhausted after these talks,” Horak says. “In the morning, I take my blood pressure medication and I’m O.K., but when I get home I collapse.” She will do it until the museum asks her to stop, or “until Dr. Alzheimer’s comes knocking.”

“Soon we will be relegated to a few paragraphs in a textbook, we will be just a bunch of strange names that are hard to pronounce.

“Everyone is sick of us talking, telling the same stories. They think they know.

“They will never know.”