A member of our community has been saying for years that he is Holocaust survivor. In fact he did live in Hungary during the Holocaust, but by all accounts, he was not subjected to any special duress during that period. It seems like this person is engaging in a form of bragging and seeks a special status, even sympathy. Why would someone do that? And what should I do about it?
Befuddled in Bergenfield
I’ll answer your question in two parts. First the factual. The suffering for Jews during the war was less severe in Hungary than in other parts of Europe. It is true that Germany did not occupy Hungary until 1944, late in the war. During the war, however, many Hungarian Jews suffered deprivation, starvation, humiliation, and other atrocities. Every Jew in Europe during WWII suffered trauma, whether they were in concentration camps, hidden, or partisans in the forest. Even those who escaped direct attack might have been traumatized by the loss of loved ones.
The Jews in Hungary were decimated at the end of the war. As many as 450,000 or more Jews were deported to concentration camps, and anti-Semitic laws were enacted. So as a matter of fact, a person living in Budapest through the war can call him or herself a survivor of evil Nazi rule, if that’s what he wants to do.
The Holocaust is a sensitive subject. You have to be careful of your wording and tone when you discuss it, so you do not suggest that anyone who went through it is less of a survivor. True, some people fabricate their experiences, but that’s not widespread.
You need to accept that a wide range of factors goes into how people in that circumstance choose to describe themselves and their personal histories. On one end of the spectrum, some survivors will not speak at all, even to their families and friends, about their experiences.
Your acquaintance seems to be on the other side of the spectrum — speaking out too vocally for your taste and claiming too much about his past. American culture is quite averse to open conceit. Even when the facts and a person’s achievements make it tempting for him or her to claim special merit, it’s not a good idea. And if it is done in the wrong way, it may backfire for someone who claims attention for triumphs over adversity.
On the other hand, Jewish culture is thick with recollections of enslavements, persecutions, and sufferings. Theologians have spent great efforts dealing with the cosmic and narrative meanings of our adversities over the generations.
A familiar refrain that we recognize from the Haggadah proclaims that, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” And we have faith that God redeems us from our sufferings.
Cultural analysts suggest that the survival of the Jews as a collective is strengthened by the sharing of stories of survival in the face of barbaric enemies.
Yet some historians have decried the religious meme of the persecuted and suffering Jew as an overemphasis on the lachrymose side of history. Tearful accounts of the past, they say, deflect us from the reality that while many tragic events have occurred to us as a people, most of Jewish history is positive, not sad, unhappy, mournful, or sorrowful.
Your attention-seeking acquaintance seems to have chosen to personalize our Jewish meme and make himself into a singular symbol of past suffering. While that does not sit well with you, I suggest that you try to abide his attitude. Given the historical and cultural contexts of this situation, there is little that you can or should do about it.
Remember, stories of the past ought to make us wary of the real enemies that are lurking out there to attack us. But be balanced. Stay focused, and find meaning in your own present-day Judaism. Do not be distracted from it by others who dwell overly much on the horrors of our history.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.