Survivor of the First Degree

by Werner Weinberg

Dr. Weinberg is professor of Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio.

This article appeared in the Christian Century Oct. 10, 1984, p. 922. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Holocaust is a phenomenon that must not be classified with anything else. People will continue to be dumbfounded as to how the Holocaust could have happened, and the fate of the victims will continue to haunt humankind.

I have counted seven separate phases in my personal survivorship of the Holocaust. Some of them overlap. Others have left vestiges throughout several or all of the subsequent phases. Only during the last two have I been made conscious of the fact that a Holocaust survivor is a distinctive kind of person, not just one who underwent a special experience, but almost a person sui generis -- because the Holocaust itself was sui generis.

The phases are: (1) catharsis; (2) self-deceit; (3) enjoying the limelight and sobering up; (4) a time of denied traumas; (5) becoming a resource person; (6) functioning as a “survivor-in-residence”; and (7) the postsurvivor era.

First, catharsis. When I returned to Holland after the war, I strongly felt the need to tell of the enormities I had witnessed as a concentration camp inmate, and I was certainly no exception in that respect. Eyewitness reports filled the newspaper columns and radio programs. Within a few months, returnees had committed their stories to writing, and pamphlets describing the atrocities appeared by the dozens. People were eager to learn from authentic sources the gruesome details of what had been unconfirmed rumors during the war years.

On the other hand, we liberated prisoners needed an audience. Seeing our listeners shudder at the abominations we reported, knowing that they believed us (for the Dutch had learned from their own experience to expect the worst from Teutonic fury), the very triumph of being alive to tell the story -- all these brought some comfort to our shattered egos. This phase of sensationalism was understandably short. The public was soon fed up: they had heard it all. We, too, grew weary of repeating our tale -- but we had not told all of it, not nearly all.

Second, self-deceit. As the pitiable postliberation euphoria faded and we regained some strength, our lives were totally filled with picking up the pieces, the implications of starting life ab ova were not all that different for returnees from the camps than for others who had outlasted the war. Their normal lives, too, had been interrupted (albeit not so radically as ours); they, too, had suffered (albeit not as much as we); they too had lost dear ones (albeit not as many as we). Numbers of burghers who had never left Amsterdam had sustained greater material loss than we. The differences between us seemed to be a matter of degree, not of kind. The common task of reconstruction and rehabilitation became an equalizer. We had to go on living, and that process required the whole person.

But the past had not loosened its grip. It was there in our dreams: sometimes veiled, sometimes making us start and scream. Nor did it leave us in our waking hours. Every activity - -- eating, walking, talking, working -- took place not so much in its given context but rather as a variant of the way things had been in the camp. It was as though camp life continued to be the norm, the freedom variants seemed to lack reality; they were like performances that could be called off at any time.

Yet we thought that we could wean ourselves from the dependency on the camp experience by an act of will and adjustment. An attitude of concentrating on the task at hand and looking ahead to the future, we thought, was bound to produce an inner liberation from the Holocaust and bring about our physical and mental recovery. This period of self-deceit began while we were still in Europe, waiting for our visa. When we emigrated to the United States and started to rebuild our lives from scratch for the third time, the illusion was extended by another few years.

Third, enjoying the limelight and sobering up. By the time a seemingly normal atmosphere of living and working had been achieved, our middle-American neighbors discovered that we had actually experienced the Nazi horror about which they had only heard and read and seen pictures. My wife and I began to receive social invitations, ones of genuine American hospitality to make the stranger welcome, but we were the center of interest. We willingly answered questions about life and death in the concentration camps, but the situation was entirely different from that of the first phase. What had been a catharsis, a compulsion to pour out all that obsessed us, now was a catering to other people who were both curious and sympathetic. Newspaper interviews and lectures with question-and-answer periods for civic organizations and church groups soon followed. We were in the spotlight and it warmed us.

During this period, for the first time we began to hear the question: “How can you bear to talk about the terrible things that happened to you?” There were other escapees from Nazi persecution who steadfastly refused to speak of their experiences, and this difference in attitudes was troublesome to my wife and me. Had they suffered more than we? Were they by nature more reserved? Was their silence the “normal” or the healthier response, compared to our readiness to communicate? Whatever the answer, we considered it our duty, as eyewitnesses, to let the world know about Nazi inhumanity and the sufferings of the Jewish people.

Two further observations about that period should be mentioned. One is that our invitations to speak about our experiences came almost exclusively from Christian groups; Jews were considerably more guarded -- almost as though they did not want to know. The second observation is that the public appearances were not repeated when we moved after a few years to another middle-American town. As before, we were generously greeted and welcomed as newcomers to the community, but beyond that we were not awarded any special attention and were not encouraged to. talk about past events. In fact, on occasion we had the impression that we were distrusted because of them. I will not attempt to analyze these different manifestations, one of commanding the limelight and the other of being yesterday’s celebrity, during this phase of my survivorship; people and locales differ, and accident and coincidence are determining forces in life.

Fourth, a time of denied traumas. About ten years after the liberation -- our lives having run for some time on a pretty even keel -- I began to experience a variety of physical disabilities as well as mental/emotional afflictions; sometimes the two were difficult to distinguish. A long period of medical treatment ensued, during which some symptoms disappeared, others remained or worsened, and new ones developed. Slowly I came to suspect that I was suffering from the delayed effects of persecution. Quite aside from hard-to-measure traumas such as the drawn-out anticipation of an impending catastrophe, the incarceration itself, the dehumanization, the sustained fear of death, I could point to some very tangible assaults upon my health in the concentration camp. Among them were prolonged starvation and exposure; being worked beyond my endurance and strength; every cut and bruise turning into festering wounds accompanied by high fever; diphtheria, dysentery, hepatitis, and a bout with typhus that very nearly killed me.

I had entered the fourth phase of survivorship, which was characterized perhaps less by the health problems themselves than by the fact that my maladies were not properly ascribed to a post-concentration-camp syndrome. Many years and five or six physicians later, I was actually worse off than at the beginning of that period.

Today I realize that physicians, including those who had themselves been in the camps, were at first totally baffled by the medical consequences of the Holocaust. I also recognize that my expectations of the medical profession were unreasonable. At that time, however, my “failure to respond to treatment” (a phrase which, to me, had an accusatory connotation) was added to the afflictions for which I had sought treatment, and I was devastated. Later on, the special medical situation of survivors was recognized, new therapies were devised, and some physicians even specialized in the phenomenon.

But for me this development occurred too late; I was unwilling to risk yet another disappointment. Slowly I learned to live and function with an unexorcizable piece of the Holocaust within me. My formula for living with that burden was: utilize as much of one’s strength as necessary to keep the inner turmoil subdued and to put up an appearance; the remaining energy will, in most situations, suffice to meet the demands of life. Possibly such a philosophy is in itself a symptom of the postcamp syndrome.

Fifth, becoming a resource person. Two decades had passed by then, and a whole new generation had grown up, some of its members without even any secondhand knowledge about the Holocaust. However, people were still curious enough to ask questions when they met someone who had actually been in a concentration camp. My wife and I experienced such curiosity, for example, when we took vacation group tours. An inescapable chain of events would have us telling about our Holocaust experience even though we no longer wanted to be distinguished by our past suffering and would have preferred to be recognized for whatever we had achieved in spite of it.

Our German accents invariably prompted questions of whether we were “originally from Germany” and how long had we been in the U.S. In answer we felt compelled immediately to volunteer the information that we had been victims of Nazism, in order to dispel any suspicion that we might have been Nazis ourselves. In addition, we had to forestall any spontaneous expression of sympathy with the Nazis by someone in the group, which would have been most embarrassing. I think that it was on such occasions when keeping alive the memory of the Nazi horror began to mean more than the duty of the witness to testify, turning into something of a sacred mission. For then we observed that the horror was in a process of retreating to the back of people’s consciousness, of becoming sanitized, of being adapted to fit schoolbooks. Further, at this stage the people who wanted to hear the facts directly from an eyewitness appeared oblivious of the pain their questions might cause.

There were other settings for our being cast, against our will, in the role of resource persons. In our social circle, where the Holocaust had not normally been a topic of conversation, we frequently began to be asked about our experience. At my college, both students and faculty seemed to have rediscovered the Holocaust, together with the fact that I had been caught up in it. This growing desire to be reminded could well have sprung from a sense of danger inherent in losing the feel for the immediacy of the catastrophe.


Sixth, functioning as “survivor-in-residence.” Slowly, and at first unrecognized, my eyewitness reporting on the Holocaust became formalized. Where I had originally answered questions and occasionally volunteered a memory, I was now asked to lead discussions or address groups. The change in my status was brought about largely by the institutionalizing of the Holocaust, both as a field of academic study and as a fixed day of mourning in the Jewish religious calendar: Yom Hashoah, Day of the Holocaust. It seemed natural that I should be the one to deliver the address on that day, year after year. This was extremely difficult for me, but I would not have had it otherwise.

In the inscrutable ways of language it often occurs that a concept which has not yet sufficiently crystallized acquires a name, and then the name, in turn, obviates continued clarification of the concept. This had happened with the word “Holocaust,” and the process was being repeated with the term “survivor.” In both cases existing language was applied to a specific, recent phenomenon, after which closer definition could be left to future scrutiny. We need to ask: Who exactly is a “survivor” of the “Holocaust”? Only a person who had been one of the skeletons, still breathing when the concentration camps were liberated? Are Jews who lived in hiding during the Nazi years “survivors”? Do, perhaps, all European Jews whom Hitler did not have time to seize constitute “survivors”? What about the Jews who had emigrated? And finally, don’t American Jews -- in fact, world Jewry, whom Hitler surely would have destroyed, had the outcome of the war been different -- also fall into the “survivor” category?

Obviously, there exists a hierarchy of survivors. No corresponding terminology has as yet entered the language, but my conceptualization of such a hierarchy is based on the terminology of the Nazis’ “Nuremberg Laws.” They distinguished between Mischlinge (bastards) “of the first, second, and third degree,” depending on the number of each individual’s Jewish and “Aryan” grandparents (with a few other criteria thrown in). By this analogy I am a “survivor of the first degree,” and therefore, the principle of noblesse oblige applies to me.

Within my general “mission” to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, I began to see as my special task to preserve its reality in my academic environment --  a resolve strengthened by my observation that each new entering class knew less about it. This fact was true of Christian and Jewish students alike. Another reason was the metamorphosis of the Holocaust event into an academic subject, which I followed with uneasiness and distrust. The advent of this phase was marked, for example, by invitations to symposia on the Holocaust “to represent the viewpoint of the survivor.” Then I became what the ‘‘native informant” or ‘‘consultant” is to the linguist: someone born into a given language, uneducated about its structure, history and workings yet useful to the expert for providing raw data.

I feared that the Holocaust would be theorized and depersonalized; perhaps most of all I feared its incorporation as one more instance in the long series of catastrophes in Jewish history, from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the pogroms in Russia. And this “historicization” was occurring while there were still living people able to provide the sense of immediacy that is missing from historical abstraction. I could not help resenting this development, because to my thinking the Holocaust is a phenomenon that must not be incorporated into -- or even classified together with -- anything else.

Another reason for my “mission” centers on the question which has now become a cliché: Can something like the Holocaust ever happen again? Whether one likes it or not (and I do not), the idea of “doing all in one’s power to prevent a recurrence” (another cliché) is, in one form or another, the most frequently cited reason for survivors to tell their tale. I admit to having used it myself occasionally: to give my endeavor a respectable educational appearance, or to frighten my audience into participation. But do I really believe that such an educational effort is effective? Can I conceive that my story, or even those of a few thousand people like me, could prevent another Holocaust?

The answer has to be No, if certain conditions all came together again: (1) an economic and political situation as desperate as it was in Hitler’s Germany; (2) the rise of a new evil genius with Hitler’s demagogic powers; (3) virulent and all-pervading anti-Semitism; (4) repeated use of the “Big Lie” with mastery; and (5) an entire nation’s being stricken by megalomania and arrogance, by the curse of pseudoscience, and by the deadly combination of sentimentality and cruelty. Then humankind could stumble into another Holocaust, no matter how convincingly the horrors of the last are retold.

And yet I continued to feel the obligation of speaking out, of sharing my personal knowledge, of not permitting my listeners to forget. It is quite possible that my motive is irrational, going back to the time when we thought that no Jew would be left alive to tell the story. And I face an unresolved dilemma: the intimation that I might have been spared in order to tell the story collides with the question, “Why me?” I feel I should not be obliged to do anything special in exchange for the fact that I had not perished like the others, since that would only bring into sharp focus the question, “Why them?”

Out of this dilemma grew a rather weak rationalization. I like to think that living means having a task, and by surviving the Holocaust I was provided with both life and a task. However, in a way I admire and envy those survivors who do not speak out. Their silence demonstrates that the unspeakable has remained unspeakable, while my discourses might make it appear as though the unfathomable enormity could be reduced to finite proportions.

In the course of time my role as a survivor became well structured. The field of “survivorship” became something of a specialty in addition to my official academic discipline. Indeed I began to publish memoirs and essays dealing with the Holocaust. At all times, though, I remained conscious of the fact that I was not a ‘‘Holocaust scholar,’’ and I began, with honest self-irony, to refer to myself as the “survivor-in-residence.” Strangely, this seldom evoked mirth.

Seventh, the postsurvivor era. In reassessing my status I have come, not at all surprisingly, to the conclusion that whatever real or imagined function I was fulfilling as a survivor has run its course, and that indeed the era of the survivor is drawing to a close. I can discern six reasons.

1. The Holocaust, whether or not sui generis, was a single event. How long after any historic catastrophe, Jewish or general, have its survivors been around to tell their story and claim special status? In each case the day came when nobody wanted to listen to them anymore, and another day came when the last of them had vanished. In this respect, the Holocaust is not different from other catastrophes.

2. Ever since the end of World War II, one frightful event has followed another. Economic, sociological, military, technical and natural catastrophes are the order of the day. The earth’s resources are being exhausted or despoiled; old-time morality has become a laughing matter and crime rules the streets; people lose sleep worrying about their jobs, their life’s savings, their marriage, their children. The fear of a nuclear war is an ever-present reality. Further, everybody is fully occupied with living his or her own day-to-day life. Is it fair of me to expect that people sustain a genuine interest in the Holocaust, which happened long ago?

3. When witnesses to an event have given their testimony and been cross-examined -- even repeatedly and in all courts of appeal -- their role as witnesses is played out. They disappear in the milling crowd, and their part in the event is over.

4. The academic discipline of Holocaust studies has progressed well beyond the stage of collecting eyewitness reports, long since entering the phase of analysis, abstraction and the drawing of conclusions. To that community of scholars a still-living survivor has become supernumerary. Any further repetitions, variations, illustrations only delay the classifying, indexing and evaluating of phenomena whose outward circumstances and effects on the victim have been stated ad nauseam.

5. In general, a continuance of the survivor era is not a question so much of how the public views the survivor as of how the survivor sees his or her own role in relation to the public. There are people to whom the word “Holocaust” mainly signifies a certain genre of TV shows, movies or reading matter, featuring violence and horror. In relation to them, survivors must feel that their experience scarcely carries any meaning.

There are others, especially young people, who see in the Holocaust a massive failure of humankind, causing in them feelings of sadness, anger or guilt. Badly shaken, they comprehend that there can be no true understanding nor a guarantee of nonrepetition, and they keep wrestling for meaning. They need to know how it really was, and I am one who can tell them. A survivor’s response to these people will depend on his or her own sensitivities. My feeling is that I must be gentle with them, for they, too, are in a sense victims, but I cannot tell them the truth and spare them at the same time. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to be a living reminder to them, since that entails burdening their consciences with my disturbing knowledge.

6. I must conclude that the era of the survivor has come to an end when the few thousands of us who are still around and still aching must observe that it has been possible for a vicious revisionist movement to spring up, which denies that there ever was a Holocaust. It produces a literature and finds followers and, despite such nonsuspect witnesses as the liberating armies, can openly fling the obscenity of “The Great Hoax” in a survivor’s face.

The “vision” I once had in Bergen-Belsen that decades our monstrous experience would have become one of many historical episodes has already turned out to be trite -- and it could not have been otherwise. There is a time for everything, but only its own time. Certainly the Holocaust will not be forgotten. People will continue to be dumbfounded as to how it could have happened, and the fate of the victims will continue to haunt humankind.

And the surviving survivors -- what should they do? The Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik suggested an answer after Kishinev, the pogrom of 1903 in which 49 Jews were slain:

And you, man what are you still doing here?

Up and flee to the wilderness!

Carry with you there the cup of grief,

Tear there your soul into little shreds.

And feed your heart to your impotent wrath.

There shed your big tears on the naked rock,

Let out your bitter roar,

It soon will be lost in the storm.