Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

What Do Holocaust Survivors Feel Today Toward Their Perpetrators?

Shalom Robinson, M.D.,* and Sara Metzer, M.S.W.*

The attitudes of victims toward their persecutors have practically not been studied. This issue is scarcely referred to in the psychological, sociological, and criminological literature. We find a reluctance to deal with this topic not only in relation to Holocaust survivors but also in regard to victims of other crimes. In 1994, the authors of this article published a study on this subject. (9)

Historians who deal with the Holocaust period note that the issue of revenge against the Nazis already arose during that time. Desires for revenge can be found in testimonies and memoirs from the period. Yisrael Gutman stresses that most of the survivors felt that they could not indiscriminately harm Germans after the war, and acts of revenge by survivors were only few. (4)

Dina Porat found that most Holocaust survivors felt that to avenge their suffering would be to behave like the Nazis. They said that building the Jewish state was their revenge against Hitler. (7)

In books written by survivors about their life in the camps we find a shift in attitude toward their Nazi captors, starting with feelings of hatred at the beginning of their incarceration that then disappear later in their imprisonment. Elie Cohen describes how his feelings of hatred vanished, probably because of the defense mechanism of repression, when he was sent to Auschwitz from Westerbork concentration camp in Holland. (2)

Elie Wiesel states on the last page of his book Night that upon the liberation from Buchenwald (the last camp where he was incarcerated), nobody thought of revenge. (11)

Primo Levi, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, writes: "that I do not feel hatred against the Germans surprises many " (6)

On the other hand, one finds descriptions of negative feelings in novels on Holocaust themes written by survivors or children of survivors. Throughout entire novels, Aharon Appelfeld (1) and Yotam Reuveny (8) describe feelings and plans for revenge against the perpetrators, and finally the execution of the act of revenge.

In the present study we returned to the issue of Holocaust survivors' attitudes toward their perpetrators. We wanted to examine, a few years after the previous study, their current attitudes at an older age. Child survivors are today aged 60-70. The entire atmosphere in relation to the Holocaust has changed in recent years; interest has increased, and repression of various aspects related to the Holocaust has decreased.

Names of 28 Holocaust survivors who had testified at Yad Vashem during 1996-1999 were randomly taken from this institution's archives. Six of them could not be traced, and two refused to be interviewed. Thus, a total of 20 survivors were interviewed. The interview was based on a questionnaire specially designed for this study. The questionnaire was divided as follows:

1. The period before the Holocaust. In this part, data about parents, siblings, family, and the survivors themselves was collected.

2. The Holocaust period. In this part, information about what happened to the survivors during this period was collected.

3. The period after liberation. This part presented questions about survivors' experiences after liberation and about their absorption in Israel.

4. Questions about what survivors felt toward the perpetrators. This part also included questions about feelings toward the countries where the survivors had lived before and during the war. There were also questions on how feelings had changed toward the Germans and toward the people of the countries where survivors had lived before the war, during the Holocaust, after the war, and at present.

To gauge the intensity of feelings, a scale of 0-7 was used. Seven indicated the strongest feelings, including hatred, anxiety, contempt, indifference, appreciation, envy, positive feelings, anger, and wishes for revenge. In this part of the questionnaire, the feelings appeared in that order, without separating positive and negative feelings.

The same scale of feelings also appeared in the part of the questionnaire on survivors' feelings toward the people of the countries where they had lived before and during the Holocaust. In the interviews they were also asked about special events they could remember from the time of the Holocaust, and also about which members of their family had survived.[Page 1 of 3]

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*Center for Research into the Late Effects of the Holocaust, Jerusalem.

1. Appelfeld, A. The Railway (in Hebrew). Maxwell, Macmillan, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, 1991.
2. Cohen, E. Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp. Norton, New York, 1953.
4. Gutman, Y. In The Nazi Concentration Camps, Gutman, Y., ed. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1984.
6. Levi, P. The Drowned and the Saved. Abacus, London, 1993.
7. Porat, Dina. An Entangled Leadership: The Yishuv and the Holocaust, 1942-1945 (in Hebrew). Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1986.
8. Reuveny, Y. Cuckoo's Square (in Hebrew). Maariv Book Guild, Tel Aviv, 1990.
9. Robinson, S., Rapaport-Bar-Sever, M. and Metzer, S. The Feelings of Holocaust Survivors towards Their Persecutors. Echoes of the Holocaust, 3:9-20, 1994.
11. Wiesel, E. Night. Hill & Wang, New York, 1960.