Forward Thinking

Who Counts as a Holocaust Survivor?

By Jordan Kutzik

  • Print
  • Share Share

At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube

As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.

That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”

Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.

A scholar of the paranormal who is fairly estranged from his Jewish roots, Imich could still recall a few lines of a prayer in Ashkenazi Hebrew, which he had learned in a traditional Cheder. “Boruch Ato Adoneai Aloheinu Meylech Haoylum Ha…” he chanted. About forgetting the next word in the prayer, he later quipped, “Well, it was more than a century ago.”

Imich also vividly recalled the beginning of WWI, his service as a 15-year-old in the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1919 (of which he is the last surviving veteran) and suffering anti-Semitic discrimination as a PhD candidate in the 1920s at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Imich fled the Nazi invasion to then-Soviet Bialystok, where he lived until the Soviets deported him to a gulag for refusing to accept Soviet citizenship. He immigrated to America in 1952.

But whether Imich is a Holocaust survivor depends entirely on whom you ask. He wasn’t in a concentration camp or ghetto like Herz-Sommer, but he did survive for a short time under German occupation and was displaced by the Holocaust.

The Claims Conference for Material Claims Against Germany, as well as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., considers anyone who was displaced or discriminated against by the Nazis or their allies between 1933 and 1945 a survivor. By this broad definition, Imich is certainly a survivor. But under such a definition so was Sigmund Freud, who fled Austria in June of 1938 and died in London in 1939, before the actual genocide of European Jewry began.

A much more conservative definition is provided by leading Holocaust scholar Dr. Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University, who only considers those people who were physically harmed by the Nazis — that is, put in camps or ghettos — to be survivors. Many Jewish organizations take a position somewhere in the middle, while others — like Yad Vashem — have purposefully eschewed coming to an exact definition.

My own personal definition — which I certainly don’t consider authoritative — is any Jewish person who survived in a part of Europe after the onset of WWII that would later fall under Nazi occupation. A friend and colleague of mine considers only those who survived under German occupation as survivors, but counts among their number those like Imich who managed to quickly flee, even those who survived only a matter of hours under German occupation.

The question of who counts as a survivor has led me to have some interesting interactions with survivors. I once spoke to a woman who had escaped from a wartime ghetto after several days and miraculously made it over hundreds of kilometers on foot through German-occupied Ukraine into the USSR. When I called her a Holocaust survivor, she told me that she wasn’t a survivor because she hadn’t survived a camp or a mass shooting. Another woman I spoke to had fled Austria with her parents shortly after the German annexation in 1938. She proudly referred to herself as a Holocaust survivor.

Although I know the opinions of various experts on which of these women is a survivor, I feel that I’m in no position to tell either of them that they are wrong in their personal assessments of their own lives and survival narratives.

In fact, working with Holocaust survivors, I’ve come to the conclusion that outside of very specific legal contexts (like reparation settlements) such a definition probably does more harm than good. Holocaust survivors are already largely defined by what was done to them as a group rather than the multitude of things they have seen and accomplished in their lives as individuals. Further pigeonholing and unnecessarily subdividing them into categories can at times serve to further dehumanize them.

Herz-Sommer was not an extraordinary inspiration because she survived the Holocaust, but because of how she survived — with an eternal optimism that continued into her 11th decade. Imich is extraordinary not because of his survival or even his being a super-centenarian, but because of how he has continued to challenge his mind — by reading and writing and seeking answers to life’s most difficult questions at the age of 111. For both individuals, their wartime experience is one aspect of their lives and not their entire biographies. The same is true of all Holocaust survivors.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: New York, Holocaust, Alice Herz-Sommer

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.