Major Oral History Charts Views, Hopes and Fears of Holocaust Survivors Now Residing in the U.S.
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Major Oral History Charts Views, Hopes and Fears of Holocaust Survivors Now Residing in the U.S.

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Holocaust survivors in the United States do not share the loss of faith in American government and institutions that their fellow citizens have suffered since Watergate, generally agree that America “is still the land of opportunity, endless opportunity,” but many feel that a disaster similar to the Holocaust could happen to them in this country.

These attitudes were among numerous reactions of Holocaust survivors contained in a two-year oral history study comprising interviews with 250 European Jews and their families in 62 cities across the country. The study was conducted by the American Jewish Committee’s William E. Wiener Oral History Library, under a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be submitted to the Endowment tomorrow at the start of the AJCommittee’s 70th annual meeting at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

The study, which includes more than 1000 hours of taped in-depth interviews, was undertaken in an effort to find out what happened to the survivors who came to the U.S. and to their children and grandchildren, what attitudes they developed as a result of their experiences in Europe and what attitudes they have developed since coming here. For the purpose of the study, a survivor was defined as “any Jew who lived in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1939 and 1945 and who emigrated to the United States by the mid-50s.”


The ages of the survivors vary from those who were teen-agers during the war and are now in their forties, to those in their early eighties. Their occupations run the gamut of employment from blue collar worker to small businessman to professor to city planner.

Among those interviewed were former ghetto dwellers from Eastern Europe; people who lived for years in the forests; people sheltered by non-Jewish families and partisans in rural villages from France to the Soviet Union; Jews who lived out the war passing as non-Jews in their native countries; people who travelled the continent looking for safety; and Jews who survived the Nazi concentration camps. The 250 people interviewed included 88 survivor women, 118 survivor men, and five other adults who are or were married to survivors. The rest were children of survivors.


The condition of the survivors is summed up by the study: “A sense of abnormality characterizes many of the immigrants who came to the United States after the Holocaust. As immigrants they are alienated from native-born Americans. As Jews, they comprise a sub-group which has, usually, little to do with the greater group of immigrants of the same ethnic origin….Many feel an alienation from American Jews whom they often characterize as condescending or aloof….The effects of the Holocaust continue to trouble them.”

The study also quoted some of those interviewed as saying that one of the problems encountered is the lack of common memories, backgrounds and customs between themselves and the friends they have made since coming here. Many recounted “recurrent nightmares” and a “sense of displacement and rootlessness.” Some said they feel they can only trust other survivors. Some replied that they deliberately curtail contacts with other survivors and some related that they have an ambivalence about being Jewish.

According to the study, many also reported that they have stopped telling-Americans about what happened in Europe because they feel that some Americans just do not want to believe it. Still others refuse to acknowledge lasting damage from the Holocaust period, as if refusing “to grant Hitler ‘a posthumous victory.'” the study noted. The study also indicated that the desire for the American way of life was a slowly developing process for many of the Holocaust survivors.


Commenting on the oral history study. Dr. Ronald Berman, chairman of the Endowment, said: “In addition to producing a valuable collection of raw material, the project is an important study of the maxim which the American society has developed for integrating new immigrant groups. It is an important contribution to American oral history, particularly as our nation celebrates its Bicentennial.”

The study was directed by Louis G. Cowan, director of special programs at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, and national chairman of the Wiener Oral History Library. In speaking about the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, who are estimated to number some 60,000 in the United States. Cowan said they “represent the best of the contemporary examples of such an immigrant group, and have provided an excellent collective case history.”

The study report was written by Helen Epstein, associate professor of journalism at New York University, a daughter of two survivors of the Holocaust. Co-advisors for the project were Prof. Sigmund Diamond, historian and former chairman of the sociology department at Columbia University, and Prof. Arthur Mann. Preston and Sterling Professor of history at the University of Chicago. Milton E. Krents is the director of the William E. Wiener Oral History Library, which was established by a grant from the estate of the late William E. Wiener.

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