Who is a Holocaust Survivor?

by Dr Rebecca Clifford

27 Jan 2016

On 27 January each year, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, we commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Since the inception of Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain and throughout much of Europe in the early 2000s, Holocaust survivors have played a central role in the commemorations that take place on and around 27 January. But who exactly is a Holocaust survivor? These days, we take a broad view when we discuss the concept of a ‘survivor’ in this context: all those who, because of their Jewish origins, faced the prospect of murder by the Nazis or their collaborators during the Second World War – but lived – are now seen as survivors. This includes those who lived through the horror of the concentration camps, but also those who survived in ghettos, in hiding, by passing as non-Jews, by joining the partisans – our current understanding of a ‘survivor’ is widely, and rightly, anyone who escaped murder by whatever means possible.

This was not always the case. Jump back to the early post-war decades, and we would find that, where survivors of the genocide were discussed in the public sphere, this nearly uniformly meant camp survivors (the term ‘Holocaust’ itself did not come into widespread usage until the 1970s). It helped that images of the concentration camps, briefly and widely circulated after the Liberation, began slowly to re-enter the public sphere in the 1960s and 1970s. As the Holocaust increasingly became the object of public attention, the concept of the ‘survivor’ was indelibly linked to the concentration camps.

Nor was the act of survival something that many former camp inmates necessarily felt comfortable discussing. Indeed, in the period before the 1960s and 1970s, many survivors found it a source of shame, and often concealed their pasts. As interest in the Holocaust grew from the late 1960s onwards, however, this gradually began to change. What did this mean, then, for those who had survived the Holocaust outside of the camps? In particular, what did it mean for the 11% of Europe’s Jewish children who had avoided murder? Before the 1980s, no child Holocaust survivor would have been called a ‘child survivor’. Children who had lost both their parents in the genocide were often referred to as ‘Jewish war orphans’; for those who still had one or both parents, there was no term to describe the particular experiences of confusion and terror that had so shaped their formative years.

This changed in the early 1980s, and the change can be traced, in part, to a groundbreaking event: the first American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, which took place in Washington DC in 1983, and attracted more than 20,000 survivors and their families. Preparing for the eventual creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened its doors in 1993, organisers took pains to employ a broad view of who a survivor was, inviting not only camp survivors but those who had survived in any number of ways (the USHMM currently defines a survivor as ‘any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945’).

For the hundreds of child survivors who attended the 1983 meeting, the event forced them to weigh up the identity of the survivor – and, for some, to claim it for themselves. Many child survivors who attended recalled feeling an enormous sense of identity conflict at the gathering: were they survivors in their own right? Felice S., then 43 years old, had been deported as an infant from the Baden region of Germany to the internment camp at Gurs in the south of France. Her parents were sent from Gurs to their deaths in Auschwitz; she was hidden by a French peasant family, and then placed in a series of orphanages in the post-war period. She went to the gathering in the hopes of finding others who had lived in care homes for war orphans. Giving a spontaneous interview to one of the volunteers collecting oral testimony at the meeting, Felice seemed to surprise herself by recognizing that that the label ‘Jewish war orphan’ no longer made sense to her. ‘I’m not a survivor, I didn’t go through a camp,’ she stated, but then quickly added ‘but I am a survivor, in my own way: my parents died, my whole family died, everyone is gone.’ She was not alone in this feeling. The testimony, both written and oral, that was gathered at the meeting attests to the power of the event in shifting identities: again and again, child survivors – then in middle age – began to assert that they, too, deserved to be recognized as survivors.

Dr. Rebecca Clifford is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Swansea University. She holds a DPhil in Modern History from the University of Oxford. She is the author of Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy (Oxford University Press, 2013), and is currently working on a book about the post-war lives of child Holocaust survivors, which was funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant.

Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock.com

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