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Understanding Survivors
Challenges That May Elicit Difficult Memories
Environmental Factor and Potential Triggers
Communication with Survivors

Challenges That May Elicit Difficult Memories
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Challenges that May Elicit Difficult Memories - Sandi Pelly, B.A.

In order to understand Survivors, one must accept that a true understanding is impossible. We cannot fathom the horrors and losses that Survivors have endured but we can and are obligated to listen and support them in the telling. We can try to understand what they have experienced and how they have internalized those experiences and coped in the years that followed the War. As each story is unique and each person is different, there are no comprehensive sets of rules or guidelines to follow when caring for aging Survivors. Yet certain vulnerabilities and attitudes shared by many Survivors may help sensitize those who care for them in later life.

"Best practice" means being aware of as many potential concerns as possible in order to knowingly and sensitively respond to an individual. In order to listen well, the following should be kept in mind:

Vulnerability to loss and illness: Holocaust Survivors may be particularly vulnerable to experiences that are often part of the aging process, such as loss, separation, illness or institutionalization. Because there was no opportunity to grieve or mourn during these catastrophic years, an experience of extreme stress may elicit volcanic feelings of the past and produce complicated problems.
Need to "bear witness": Many Holocaust Survivors have a strong need to "bear witness." As eyewitnesses to an unbelievable chapter in human history, Survivors want to make sure that the Holocaust is never forgotten, and that future generations know about it in ways that are not distorted. Many are frustrated when the media commercialize, popularize, trivialize or inappropriately universalize the Holocaust. You may encounter Survivors who feel that "bearing witness" is threatening or intrusive. As part of their coping mechanisms, many Survivors have constructed the narrative of their War Years in a manner that generates the least pain. They may have chosen to keep silent, or just share aspects of their experiences, and have no desire to share their story now. In as much as we should honour a Survivor's need to bear witness and document personal testimonials, we should also honour a Survivor's need to avoid doing so. In both instances, individuals may change their minds as they age, and regardless of directive, we should be supportive.

Absence of kin: Aging Survivors without kin - family and close friends - may be a group at risk and thus need increased community supports. These individuals are truly alone in the world, since their contemporary Survivor friends who constituted their "new" families after the War have either passed on or also coping with aging and loss.