Survivor Guilt

Published: 2012-09-20
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Survivor guilt” has come into popular usage as an irrational complex on the part of those among a very small number of people who, by sheer happenstance, have emerged alive from a disaster that took the lives of many others who seem to have deserved no less (or more) to have survived than the survivors did. Occasionally, for example, a plane crash occurs from which one or perhaps two victims emerge relatively unscathed, while all their fellows perished in the catastrophe. The “survivor” complex plagues them for years after the event, in some cases.

Now and then, though, some sort of more genuine guilt may seem to attach to the fact of survivorship, as in the case of the surviving members of a Uruguayan rugby team who admitted to cannibalism in the process of surviving two months on a remote peak in the Andes where their plane had crashed in 1972. The surviving cannibals were absolved of their “sin” by the Pope, whom both the perpetrators and, presumably, the victims acknowledged as their spiritual shepherd.

A stronger presumption of actual guilt on the part of survivors might attach, say, to adult male survivors of the Titanic sinking in 1912, as they might be suspected of having violated or otherwise evaded the famous stricture supposedly invoked at the time, “Women and children first.” Some male passengers apparently did that, while others are thought to have boarded life boats that were about to depart the sinking vessel with empty seats in them.

And then there are those long-term situations imposed by one hostile group on another, in which a potential for treachery, betrayal, collaboration, or even fouler play might enter the picture. In the annals of human conflict, undoubtedly war provides the greatest number of these situations, especially if they are rated by numbers of either: (a) dead victims, who cannot testify as to what occurred; or (b) survivors, who perforce provide the only narratives available as to what occurred. Neither group, not individually or collectively, is in a position to even understand all of what did happen, quite aside from what might have happened had anyone acted differently from the way they did act.

An intrepid, if possibly naïve, American Jewess of unwonted analytic disposition, Anna Breslaw, writing for the Jewish-edited The Tablet, ventured the irrefutable speculation that some of the few genuine “Holocaust survivors” among those many claiming the vaunted status might, indeed, have survived the perilous times they undoubtedly went through, by way of guile, or even treachery in a few cases.

War veterans are no doubt the most numerous of the groups that fit the description above, including both those who survived and those who, not surviving, never gained the exalted status of veterans. I often wonder how the glories of past victories (and defeats) might be somewhat dimmed if the voices of the dead could be heard on the occasions when the glories are celebrated among the survivors and their putative beneficiaries.

A very special, demographically dwindling group remains in our midst who command, and lately often claim, reverence that is not accorded even to veterans of this (or other) nation’s wars. These are those who claim to have been forced by the National Socialist regime that governed Germany from 1933 to 1945 to leave their homes and properties in Germany for resettlement or labor camps to the east of Germany because they were Jews (or Gypsies), as well as those Jews resident in countries east of Germany who were dragooned into service in Germany’s war-industry plants such as those in Birkenau, Dora-Mittelbau, and over a thousand other locations: “Holocaust survivors,” as they style themselves.

Such persons (the genuine ones among the many claiming such status with no basis in truth) are survivors, if at all, only in the sense that anyone residing in Germany or Austria by the time World War II reached its catastrophic end was a survivor. What they survived was not forced labor (to which many were indeed subjected), but the blanket devastation wreaked by Allied bombers upon the domiciles of the entire populace of their “targets.” Insofar as their survival involved their conscription into forced labor in war-industry factories, such fortunates may as well be designated “veterans” as their less-fortunate predecessors (whose jobs they often took, albeit without pay) were conscripted to go to the front, there to confront the irresistible onslaught of Soviet manpower (also conscripted) and American productivity (conscripted through taxation and monetary legerdemain).

Be all this as it may, all an elderly Jew in America with any sort of claim to European origins need do to command instant respect and credulity among those around him or her, is to invoke the sacred appellation, “Holocaust Survivor.” Once this is done, silence reigns all around, and rapt attention is reflexively granted by all those in attendance, they all having long since been conditioned to render such obeisances upon hearing the Pavlovian Bell.

An intrepid, if possibly naïve, American Jew of unwonted analytic disposition, Anna Breslaw, writing for the Jewish-edited The Tablet, ventured the irrefutable speculation that some of the few genuine “Holocaust survivors” among those many claiming the vaunted status might, indeed, have survived the perilous times they undoubtedly went through, by way of guile, or even treachery in a few cases. She did not trouble her argument with particulars as to how her co-religionists might have collaborated, contrived, betrayed, or otherwise arranged for themselves the favored treatment that enabled them to “survive,” but the force of her argument was sufficient to rouse into action none other than that Centurion of the Sanctity of Holocaust Mythology, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Magazine. He styled Breslaw’s impeccable logic as “ghastly.”

Goldberg advanced the view of what he hopes might still be the dominant view of Jewish and Jewish-conditioned readers of his widely circulated platform. Maybe it is, and maybe The Tablet has got the ear, mind and heart of thoughtful readers of both (or all) publications. Goldberg’s time-worn imprecations bear inspection, as do Breslaw’s rather more-nuanced comments, made, be it noted, in a context rather remote from the ones implied in Goldberg’s tirade.

Breslaw’s well-considered cautions arrive on the American scene at a critical time when real “Holocaust Survivors” have faded from the scene that they never had the temerity to dominate in the first place, but self-qualified “survivors” have taken their place to affect shock and affront at such “disparagements” as Breslaw offers. Real “Holocaust survivors,” keenly aware from genuine experience what moral ambiguity attends the status to which they could lay claim, have always remained reticent in proclaiming the particulars of their experiences, and their acts. Those many who lack this experience, but claim it by implication, let on as though they were blameless both in terms of their incarceration in the first place, but further—and this is the stretch—as to their real deportment while actually incarcerated.

The act can be pulled off only by those innocent of the genuine experience. Those who affect utter innocence in the fates they claim to have experienced may be dismissed as being innocent not only of guilt, but also of the experiences they claim to have had.

As for Goldberg, and his magazine, we may consign them to a category reserved for those liars who propose to benefit from the successes that are yet to be enjoyed by still other liars.

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Author(s) Jett Rucker
Title Survivor Guilt
Sources Smith's Report, No. 193, September 2012, pp. 7f.
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Dates published: 2012-09-20, first posted on CODOH: Sept. 21, 2012, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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