Aging Holocaust Survivors and Memory
ALEX COHEN, host:
For many Jews, Sunday will be a day to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. For survivors, the day of remembrance known as Yom HaShoah is not an easy time. And as Gloria Hillard reports, the aging process makes this even tougher for some elderly Holocaust survivors.
GLORIA HILLARD: Propelled by a shiny blue walker, Fred Pfessinger is making his rounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Los Angeles.
Mr. FRED PFESSINGER (Resident, Jewish Home for the Aging): Hello, Sarah.
SARAH (Resident, Jewish Home for the Aging): Hello. Hello.
HILLARD: The tall and robust 82-year-old former television repairman and actor makes his way down a pale peach hallway to Room 161.
Mr. PFESSINGER: Oh, it was open.
HILLARD: His is a small room with two twin beds, a small chest of drawers and at least four dozen pictures on the wall. Many are in keepsake frames, collage memories of a life in color.
Mr. PFESSINGER: This one, we went to a boat, to Alaska and Canada.
HILLARD: Only one frame holds aged photos in sepia tone. They are pictures of Fred as a young man. In one, he is maybe 16, playing a violin. There would be no other photos taken the next four years.
Mr. PFESSINGER: I remember the 20th birthday of mine, we're still in camp, and why, I was praying for let me live the 20th birthday. I don't know why it was such a big, big, big thing to me as a kid to live to where I can say I am 20.
HILLARD: Two months after his 20th birthday, Fred was liberated from the Nazi concentration camp. He is one of 65 Holocaust survivors in residence here. Molly Forrest, president of the Jewish home, says the aging process can create special challenges for Holocaust survivors.
Ms. MOLLY FORREST (President, Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging): Some of their memories and the barriers between time of before and today get blurred. When you say to a Holocaust survivor, it's time to go get a shower, it's a different connotation than it is for someone who did not have that experience.
HILLARD: Psychologist Marla Martin(ph) has been counseling Holocaust survivors at the home for 15 years. She says for many, the trauma they endured was never dealt with.
Ms. MARL MARTIN (Psychologist): After the war, they tended to marry, to get jobs, to move on in their life and feel a sense of control. Maybe they've gotten by all these years without ever seeing a therapist or ever taking an anti-depressant, and suddenly they're not in control anymore, and that's when it can hit.
HILLARD: Survivors may experience nightmares or memory flashbacks. Physician Gary Shiller(ph), who treats Holocaust survivors in his practice, says age-related diseases can also trigger emotional responses.
Mr. GARY SHILLER (Physician): When confronting life-threatening illness towards the end of life can have a recrudescence of symptoms, anxiety symptoms, similar to the ones that they might have had immediately after the war, or first-time episodes of anxiety and depression.
HILLARD: At the Jewish Home for the Aging, the focus is on living. There is a synagogue here, and activities are scheduled seven days a week. Fred Pfessinger likes a game of poker and singing in the choir.
Mr. PFESSINGER: I sing in the synagogue chorus since I was six. It was just so natural to me to sing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HILLARD: At 82, he's still able to keep those memories of what he refers to as the camps at bay.
Mr. PFESSINGER: Because I really don't like to talk about it; it just breaks me up. I can't help it. Things come back into mind. What else can I say?
HILLARD: We talk about the color photos taken after the war.
Mr. PFESSINGER: I'm so overwhelmed with happiness of everything. I'm alive, I have a place to live.
Unidentified People: (Singing) I walk down the lane...
HILLARD: And a place to sing.
Unidentified People: (Singing) ...and singing, singing in the rain.
HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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