Homefront hardships vs. surviving genocide

Yet another issue I hadn’t realized Gentile readers may not understand is the issue of how much people on the occupied homefront suffered in comparison to people who were actually in ghettoes and camps. I hadn’t thought that would even be an issue, but apparently it can be.

In Aranka Siegal’s Grace in the Wilderness, the memoir about her life in the early postwar years, there’s a letter from her oldest surviving sister Etu. Etu was in Budapest during the war, and thus avoided the horrors the rest of the family went through. After liberation, she went to Beregszász (now Berehovo, Ukraine) to search for any survivors and reclaim any personal property.

All these people had been so friendly with her mother, yet they gave her the cold shoulder and claimed not to recognize her. The only friendly face was neighbor girl Ica Molnár (Aranka’s friend), who provided a lot of help and information. Etu and her new husband were able to spend a few months in her old family home, though another family had since moved in, and the situation was very tense. All the inside doors had also been ripped out.

Mrs. Molnár complained about how the Gentiles had suffered too, and were still suffering under Soviet occupation. Etu rightly pointed out that these people went through those hardships in their own homes, with their families intact. She was the one who was all alone and had lost almost everything.

People who spent the entire war on the homefront faced rationing, food shortages, waiting in long lines for food, foreign occupation, loved ones being away in the military, bombing raids, sometimes suppression of their national languages and culture. Some people were also taken for foreign labor service, either mandatory or after being caught in a łapanka (roundup) in Poland. Of all the nations under occupation, I do agree Poland probably suffered the most.

They weren’t the ones who had to eat sawdust bread and watery soup full of garbage. They weren’t the ones who never knew if they’d end the day alive. They weren’t the ones who risked being killed for looking at someone the wrong way, doing the wrong thing, or getting any kind of blemish on the body. They weren’t the ones who lost their entire families and had their personal possessions taken away. They never lived a day of their lives in the shadow of the gas chamber.

My next trip to Israel will either be on my own, or with a much more flexible schedule and longer timetable! It’s not fair I was unable to go through the entirety of any of the Yad Vashem exhibits and photograph them when the Shoah/WWII era is one of my areas of historical expertise and a frequent subject of my writing. I really wanted to see the pillars engraved with city names from Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, France, and all the other countries, not just Poland and the former USSR.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense for a normal survivor to listen to an old neighbor’s litany of complaints about homefront suffering, nod, smile, and agree their kinds of suffering were exactly the same. It’s apples to oranges. It’s like saying someone on the Japanese homefront suffered just as much as a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor). That’s pretty insulting to the person with the far more horrific experience.

Bottom line: It’s unrealistic to expect a survivor to sympathize with the homefront suffering of people who in many cases (particularly in Eastern Europe) didn’t do a damn thing to help them when they had the chance, and even actively took part in their persecution. There’s a reason most survivors either refused to be repatriated or didn’t spend the rest of their lives in their old homelands. Most survivors wanted to go to Israel precisely because they’d be surrounded by their own, people who understood exactly what they’d lived through.

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3 comments on “Homefront hardships vs. surviving genocide

  1. Arlee Bird says:

    Those who lived in the United States were very fortunate in comparison to the rest of the world due to our geographical isolation from the war afflicted regions. Everyone in war torn Europe had a different experience and there was a wide range of experience from kind of bad to horrific. Now I guess we’re seeing something similar in parts of Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries. I would not be surprised to see war spread to Europe again within the next decade.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      When I was first learning about the events of the 1940s at eight years old, I asked my mother if Hitler had ever come over to America and committed those kinds of crimes here. She told me that had only been in Europe. We were very fortunate indeed.

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  2. Eden says:

    Agreed that it is unrealistic for a survivor of something like the concentration camps to sympathize with the (admittedly) lesser sufferings of someone who lived in their own homes under and occupation and uses that pain as a cudgel to deny common decency and simple humanitarian kindness in the way you’ve noted (especially in your work).

    That said… I would wish for empathy on BOTH sides. The mind, being what it is, focuses on the individual it is stuck in, and the sufferings that person experiences matter most to it. But.. because that mind has experienced suffering and understands how horrible that suffering is, it should have some realization that pain is pain, loss is loss, fear is fear… and that in the grand scheme of things the mind doesn’t process the matters of degrees–it processes that IT hurts.

    And what would be wonderful (unrealistic, but wonderful) would have been for both sides to look at each other, recognize the loss of their past and say “How could a just G_D allowed this to have happened to you?” to each other. It couldn’t happen, because the pain and loss and fear were too real, too immediate and too demanding for either side.

    And… sadly enough, because survivor guilt. The occupied people KNEW they hadn’t suffered as much, they knew how terrible everything they’d gone through had been and knew that the camp survivors had suffered worse and… they were ashamed, scared, self-loathing. And they lashed out. Does this make what they did right? No. But it’s not a Gentile problem; it’s a human problem. It’s why victim blaming happens, why young women who’ve been raped are killed in some countries even…

    I’m a bit of an idealist. I wish people could move from their suffering to raise each other up… but too often we seem to fall further into “us versus them” corners as we lick our wounds. And I’m afraid we’re going to keep killing each other as long as we continue to do so.

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