About 200,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today, many of whom were children during the war. They experienced persecution, deportation, selection, forced labor, hunger, torture and loss of families. After the war, these survivors tried to build a normal life in Israel; they worked hard to provide security for their new families. Not everyone succeeded.
60 years after the war, the emotional scars of the survivors are highly visible.
Clinical experience shows that about 40,000 elderly Holocaust survivors still suffer from the late effects of trauma exposure early in life. Some of these survivors struggled with psychological distress in the distant past and remained symptom free for decades only to have a recurrence in late life when they are alone and less busy with work. They now suffer from anxiety, depression and psycho-somatic disorders as well as loneliness and isolation. Elderly survivors are also vulnerable to the military tension in Israel.
While there may be only a small proportion of survivors who presumably suffer from acute mental distress, they are all a population at risk. Many studies have indicated that because of survivors’ inherent vulnerability, latent anxieties surface when they are exposed to stress. Israeli welfare and health services have insufficient professional experience in how to assist survivors and their families.
Because they fear the stigma connected with emotional problems and as a result of years of silence, Holocaust survivors are generally apprehensive about turning to mental health services with their psychiatric problems. In addition, some elderly survivors with special needs feel estranged within the municipal senior citizen clubs. Moreover, they often feel uncomfortable using local community services, such as family, health, and social security. Professionals working in these busy institutions generally lack the necessary understanding and professional experience to provide substantial help. Their relation to Holocaust survivors has been described as “victimo-phobia”, analogous to “geronto-phobia” – the aversion to aged clients, according to Professor Haim Dasberg, one of Amcha’s founders.
Until the mid 1980s, the world related to Holocaust survivors with a kind of “conspiracy of silence.” Nobody talked about the Holocaust and nobody asked about it. Today much of this has changed and there is a general interest in this tragic period of the Jewish people. Youth are traveling to Poland and survivors are invited to schools to talk about their experiences. However, while much of the general attitude towards Holocaust survivors has changed, little attention is given to their special needs in old age: their need for a safe environment in which they can continue to mourn their immense losses and find some peace of mind.
In order to overcome the limitations of the existing services, Amcha was founded in 1987 by a group of devoted Holocaust survivors and mental health professionals, led by the late Manfred Klafter. Aware of the survivors’ distrust of clinical psychiatry, they decided to focus on non-material, psychosocial and largely preventive support, rather than on mental health treatment per se. The goal was to create a framework for mutual aid, memory processing and grief resolution, as well as a place where survivors and their families could feel at home and be understood.
Amcha – The code word that helped survivors identify fellow Jews in war ravaged Europe now stands for another kind of support system: The opportunity for survivors and their families to unburden their hearts and share their life stories with another person.
Amcha has steadily expanded over the past years. Today there are 14 centers that operate throughout the country, and various programs are provided also in many other locations. Over 300 mental health professionals and close to 800 volunteers provide services to almost 14,000 clients.
Amcha has earned a reputation around the world for its work, and the integrity, competence, and professionalism it bring to every project. It has opened its doors to various survivor communities all around Israel and has established state-of-the-art mental health clinics, social support networks and home care services for the aged in these locations. Through its pioneering work, Israel is today filled with psychosocial support centers that offer services specifically for Holocaust survivors, in their own language. During Holocaust Memorial Day, there is a telephone hotline open for everybody and many art and cultural programs that bridge the gap between the survivor and the non-survivor population and between the old and the young. Along with the expertise of its professional staff, the dedication of its volunteers is endless.
Community services that refer clients to Amcha include the rehabilitation services for the disabled, health agencies, family physicians, mental health centers, municipal social service units, Social Security services, old age homes and various other public institutions. In addition, many survivors come by themselves, or with their children.
But their work continues. They have not solved every problem, nor eradicated every danger. The most obvious difficulty is that the age of the survivors is reaching 80 and their physical and emotional health is deteriorating. In addition, the threat of terrorism and violence is real and persistent and this may exacerbate the old war trauma of the survivor. Finally, financial hardship has become very common among the elderly survivors who live only of small pensions.
Amcha is able to meet these challenges confidently, from a position of unprecedented strength. They have the experience, and the resolve, to continue to provide for Holocaust survivors as long as it is needed. With the help of their friends from Israel and abroad, they also hope to continue to receive the resources that make all this work possible.
Note: Aliyah Magazine fully endorses Amcha’s good work and encourages those who know Holocaust survivors living in Israel to make contact with them, and others to support their important work.
Contact Details: http://amcha.org/contact/contactEN.asp
Photo Credit: Reuters