Françoise S. Ouzan, Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, the United States, and Israel

, September 3, 2018

Françoise S. Ouzan, Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, the United States, and Israel. Indiana University Press, 2018, 299 pp.

Three-quarters of a century after the liberation of the last camp, as their numbers steadily dwindle, how are former young Holocaust survivors coping? The question pertains both to those who experienced the horror of the camps and to Les enfants caches or “the hidden children” – the name given to the many Jewish infants and children in France whose lives were saved because they found refuge with non-Jewish families or hid with their parents under false identities. Are there marked differences between how these former young survivors fared in the different countries where they attempted to rebuild themselves?

This is the subject explored in Françoise Ouzan’s well-documented and fascinating new study.  French-born Ouzan, who received her PhD in history from the Sorbonne and was associate professor at the University in Reims in France, is currently senior research associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Center of Tel Aviv University. Her timely work comes as two dissimilar but converging trends are emerging. On the one hand, there is talk of “Holocaust fatigue,” with Holocaust research increasingly relegated to learned journals; on the other, validating Holocaust denial is no longer taboo and indeed figures prominently on social media.  

For the purpose of her research Ouzan decided to focus on three countries – France, the United States, and Israel, using her knowledge of French, English, and Hebrew to obtain firsthand narratives from some 40 former child survivors. A further 250 testimonies were scrutinized and served as references, leading to a rather startling and resolutely optimistic discovery:

In the countries in which they have resettled, these survivors have at least three elements in common: they were children or young adults when the war broke out; in its aftermath they achieved some form of professional and social success; and more often than not, they became vocal in the transmission of the memory of the Holocaust. (11)

As Ouzan further observes: “Collectively the narratives presented in this book reflect Jewish efforts to respond to utter destruction. They reveal the voices of the unwanted and their determination to cling to humanity and rebuild the destroyed pillars of culture…. Last but not least, this volume spurs hope in human abilities…” (13).

Yet, Ouzan notes, according to mental health professionals cited by Judith Hemmendinger, a social worker tasked with taking to France a group of 426 Jewish boys who had survived Buchenwald, “these children would never recover, an opinion she shared when she first became aware of the extent of their trauma” (18). France, the first country examined in this study, indeed did not afford survivors a warm welcome. “While Resistance fighters and prisoners of war…were welcomed back, the Jews returning from deportation were looked down upon” (38). Their martyrdom was not acknowledged, and the Buchenwald boys fared no better. “Part of the reluctance to accept them,” Ouzan notes drily, “was due to the fact that it was a period when food was rationed, and these children were foreign citizens. Nevertheless, their stories tell of redemption and success” (43). Several of them would lead extraordinary lives. Meir Lau, at eight years old the youngest Buchenwald child, was to become chief rabbi of Israel; Eli Wiesel was 17. Many would later choose to go to Israel, finding catharsis in fighting for the independence of the fledgling state. Others successfully integrated into French society, often changing their names in the process.  

The story of the “hidden children” is unique to France. “A hidden child may be defined as a young person who was forced to hide his Jewish identity – which, if disclosed, condemned him to death during the Holocaust” (73). Ouzan adds that “although young children could not understand why they had to conceal their Jewish identities, they could perceive that being a Jew entailed exposure to danger” (ibid.). In the immediate postwar period they were not considered survivors. Many felt there was shame attached to their experience, but this did not stop them from achieving prominence in their fields, such as the philosopher Andre Glucksmann or the Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld.

Survivors did not come to America immediately after the war. They had to endure a tortuous path and sometimes a prolonged stay in displaced persons camps and did not reach the United States until the early and sometimes even the late 1950s. Such was the case for Abraham Foxman, who arrived in 1950 at the age of 10 and later became national director of the Anti-Defamation League.  “Adaptation to normal life was not devoid of difficulties and obstacles,” Ouzan remarks (127), and she notes “the recurrence of the choice of psychiatry as a specialization among survivors in every country” (133). Young children in the United States integrated relatively easily and “young Holocaust survivors were grateful to the American educational system for teaching them the skills they needed as well as the American way of life” (145).

For many survivors, however, Israel was the only possible choice. It was the place where they could be Jews and have their own country, even though there was a “high price to pay. It meant the loss of the mother tongue, often the loss of one’s name and a complete change of civilization and culture” (152).  There was, however, what Ouzan calls “the redemptive power of the old-new language from the Hebrew Bible…the healing power of the Hebrew language, learned the hard way during service in the army” (ibid.).

The three concluding chapters of this detailed study focus on more general and contemporary issues.  The first of the chapters, “Jewish Identity, Israel, and the Diaspora,” “echoes contemporary dialectics and debates about the choice of the Diaspora or Israel as a homeland at a time when a new form of antisemitism has been developing since the 1990s, especially in Europe” (179). The second, “Unexpected International Impact of Survivors, “contributes new insights into a group of survivors who had a major impact on the shaping of Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century” (209). The third and last, “An Unbroken Chain?,” expresses a measure of optimism. Each and every story tells a tale of extraordinary resilience and courage. “The survivors’ journeys to self-renewal and to social success have not been smooth, but the difficulties they faced did not prevent them from creating rich lives. Their social achievements are tangible in the three countries examined” (260). 

Perhaps no less important, Françoise Ouzan has given the now elderly survivors one last opportunity to tell their stories and to ensure that they will be preserved for their children and the children of their children.

Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.