For mentally ill survivors, Holocaust lives on

PARDES HANNA, Israel (AP) — Some patients refuse to shower because it reminds them of the gas chambers. Others hoard meat in pillow cases because they fear going hungry.

At the Shaar Menashe Mental Health Center in northern Israel, it’s as though the Holocaust never ended.

As Israel on Sunday night begins its annual 24 hours of remembrance of the Nazi genocide, the focus is on the 6 million Jews murdered and on the survivors who built new lives in the Jewish state.

Much less is ever said about the survivors for whom mental illness is part of the Holocaust’s legacy.

At Shaar Menashe, patients remain frozen in time. Even today, 65 years after the end of World War II, there are sometimes screams of “The Nazis are coming!”

“These are the forgotten people. These are the ones who have been left behind, the people who have fallen between the cracks,” said Rachel Tiram, the facility’s longtime social worker.

Even among survivors with sanity intact, it can take decades to open up about their experiences. Here, most of the patients still won’t speak. They are introverted and unresponsive. They mumble and shake uncontrollably, slump in front of blank TV screens and look aimlessly into the distance while sucking hard on cigarettes.

The details of their haunted pasts are sketchy and emerge only from hints in their behavior.

Meir Moskowitz, 81, endured pogroms and days inside a cramped cattle car in his native Romania. His body still quivers. During five hours in the company of visitors, he spoke just one word: “Germania.”

Arieh Bleier, a gentle, 87-year-old Hungarian with deep, sullen eyes, survived the Mauthausen concentration camp. His parents and brother perished in Auschwitz. When asked about World War II, he looked away and shook his head.

For most of these survivors, reminiscing is impossible.

“It’s hard to talk about it, very hard,” said Devora Amiel, 78 and toothless, her speech slurred by a tongue puffed up from medication. She escaped a Polish ghetto, was taken in by a Christian family, and later grew up in an orphanage. She never found out what happened to her family.

“After you go through it, it’s hard to tell,” she said. “You can only scream about it.”

Most survivors in Israel went on to live productive lives, and their ranks include politicians, authors and Nobel Prize laureates. But for decades after becoming a state, Israel tended to look for role models among the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising rather than Jews meekly filing into cattle cars and gas chambers.

Survivors driven insane by their experiences ended up in ordinary institutions which were not always a good fit; for instance, they had to wear pajamas, which reminded them of concentration camp inmates’ uniforms. Sometimes the children and grandchildren of patients were simply told they had died in the Holocaust.

Only in 1998 did Israel build three homes for survivors, starting with Shaar Menashe.

Today about 220,000 survivors are still alive in Israel. About 200 are in Shaar Menashe and the other two homes.

Some have lived in mental institutions since their liberation, while others developed mental illness late in life.

Alexander Grinshpoon, director of Shaar Menashe, said all survivors have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the roughly 80 in his care are men and women who could not overcome their wartime traumas, perhaps because their suffering was so profound, or because they were predisposed to mental illness – or maybe because their minds simply crashed under the weight of their experiences.

Grinshpoon said research has shown that those who have experienced emotional trauma are five times more likely to develop serious mental illnesses. Holocaust survivors, he said, have a higher rate of suicide.

Eighty percent have trouble sleeping and two-thirds suffer from emotional distress, according to a survey commissioned by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.

The foundation’s chairman, Zeev Factor, is an Auschwitz survivor. He says he has been able to maintain his sanity by focusing on the present but still suffers in his dreams. “I sometimes wake up from them covered in sweat from head to toe,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for mental patients anywhere to believe the world is coming to an end. But for these patients whose world really did come apart, paranoia is well-founded.

Tiram, the social worker, spoke of an elderly woman in Shaar Menashe who constantly fears the police are coming for her.

“This is something that really happened to her. It’s not something that she is making up,” Tiram said. “Each time they go to sleep, they go back to the Holocaust, to reliving their childhood.”

Grinshpoon said most patients have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and their stories are often unreliable. One man says he was a fighter pilot during World War II, another says he’s a ninja. A third is convinced he’s an Arab and says he hates Jews. One thinks she is still in Europe and is shocked to see an elderly woman in the mirror.

At Shaar Menashe, patients are not required to wear pajamas. They have lawns, arts and crafts lessons and a workshops with pets. Some have developed hobbies, cultivated friendships and even reconnected with children and grandchildren. Many of the volunteers working here are survivors themselves.

Still, the shadow of death camps, crematoria, deportations and gas chambers is never far away.

Said Factor, of the benefit foundation: “They live in this world and in that world at the same time.”

© 2010 The Associated Press