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Holocaust Remembrance Day: The Remarkable Strength (and Success) of the Survivors

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Nine million Jews lived in Europe in 1939 as World War II erupted. By 1945, six million had been slaughtered. In the most basic arithmetic, three million European Jews managed to escape the Nazi Final Solution. They fled. They hid. They resisted. The survival rate varied greatly from nation to nation, but overall only 33 percent of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied or -dominated Europe survived Hitler's campaign of mass extermination. The survival rate for children was far lower: Seven percent made it through the Holocaust.

On these days of Holocaust remembrance -- Yom HahShoah is Tuesday, April 21 -- we honor the memory of millions who perished. We also pay tribute to those who somehow survived a massive and systematic attack on Jewish existence.

How did the survivors navigate life after genocide? According to conventional wisdom, many suffered from so-called Concentration Camp Survivor Syndrome. They were terribly traumatized and afflicted with serious psychological problems like depression and anxiety.

In 1992, a New York sociologist named William Helmreich turned this conventional wisdom upside down. A professor at the City University of New York, Helmreich traveled across America by plane and automobile to study 170 survivors. He expected to meet men and women who were chronically depressed, anxious, and fearful. To his surprise, he found that most survivors had adapted to their new lives far more successfully than anyone thought.

For instance, despite a lack of higher education, the survivors did very well financially. About 34 percent reported earning more than fifty thousand dollars annually. The key factors, Helmreich concluded, were "hard work and determination, skill and intelligence, luck, and a willingness to take risks." He also found their marriages were more successful and stable. About 83 percent of the survivors were married compared with 61 percent of American Jews of similar age. Only 11 percent of the survivors were divorced compared with 18 percent of American Jews. In terms of mental health and emotional well-being, Helmreich found that survivors made fewer visits to psychotherapists than did American Jews.

"For people who suffered through the camps, simply being able to get up and go to work in the morning would already have been a significant accomplishment," he wrote in his book Against All Odds. "That they did well in their chosen professions and occupations is even more remarkable. The values of perseverance and ambitiousness and optimism that typified so many survivors were clearly ingrained in them before the war began. What is interesting is how much they remained part of their worldview after it ended."

Helmreich theorized that some of the traits that helped them survive the Holocaust -- like flexibility, courage, and intelligence -- may have contributed to their later success. "That they lived to tell the tale was, for most, a matter of chance," he writes. "That they succeeded in rebuilding their lives on American soil was not."

Helmreich's thesis was controversial, and he was attacked for diminishing or discounting the deep psychological damage of the Holocaust. But he rebuts those critiques, noting that the "survivors are permanently scarred by their experiences and deeply so. Nightmares and constant anxiety are the norm in their lives. And that is precisely why their ability to simply lead normal lives -- getting up in the morning, working, raising families, taking vacations, and so forth -- makes the description of them as 'successful,' fully justified."

In his one-on-one interviews and a large-scale random survey of Holocaust survivors, Helmreich identified ten characteristics that accounted for their success in life: flexibility, assertiveness, tenacity, optimism, intelligence, distancing ability, group consciousness, the ability to assimilate the knowledge of their survival, the capacity to find meaning in life, and courage. All of the Holocaust survivors shared some of these qualities, Helmreich tells me. Only some of the survivors possessed all of them.

So I ask: Which of these ten traits is the most important? And by extension, which tools are most critical to survival in everyday situations, not just the extremes of World War II? "The gift of intelligence," he replies. "Thinking quickly. Brains accompanied by common sense." This kind of basic intelligence -- different from book smarts or IQ -- enables people quickly to size up situations, break down and analyze problems, and make good decisions.

Helmreich stresses that the Holocaust survivors were just like the rest of us. They weren't exceptional in any particular way. "The survivors were not supermen," he writes. "They were ordinary individuals before the war, chosen by sheer accident of history to bear witness to one of its most awful periods . . . The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive and of their tremendous capacity for hope. It is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be."