Chaplains share triumphs, travails of aiding survivors

A resident chaplain was making her rounds at the Rose Medical Center in Denver when she was asked to talk with an ailing woman there.

The woman was a Holocaust survivor, and according to her visiting son, had never talked of her wartime experiences, though she seemed to suffer from them.

The son alluded to the possibility that his mother had some dark secret in her past. His estranged father, he said, had once remarked, "If you only knew what I know about your mother, you would have nothing to do with her."

Recounting her story before a small-group session at the 10th annual conference of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains this week, the chaplain, Shoshana Devorah, discussed how she implored the mother to ease her soul and talk of her Holocaust experience. To her and the son's surprise, the mother began to talk. She told Devorah of horrors familiar to many survivors, of losing her family and finally, of being forced to give sexual favors for scraps of bread.

Sensing the woman's shame and guilt, Devorah offered her a Mishabeirach, a blessing for healing, and the mother accepted it.

Devorah explained to the dozen chaplains at the session that she felt it was a real breakthrough for the woman, as well as for her own professional work.

The Burlingame conference, "Refuah Shleimah: Integrating into the Healing Team," focused on blending pastoral care of the ill with medical care. The event, which ran Sunday to Wednesday, attracted about 65 chaplains from around the country, organizers said.

According to many of the chaplains at the small-group session, breakthroughs like the one achieved by Devorah are few and far between. The spiritual counselors, many of them rabbis, took turns talking about the pitfalls and challenges of working with ailing Holocaust survivors.

Rabbi Len Lewy of Los Angeles moderated the group — "Working with Holocaust Survivors: Spiritual Issues" — and offered advice based on his own research and that of others.

While much has been written on the subject, Lewy said there is still much that is overlooked by medical professionals and caregivers who are often ignorant of the unique emotional needs of an infirm survivor.

Illness as well as the death of someone close to them can trigger all kinds of traumas that can be traced back to the Holocaust, he said.

Some of the chaplains cited difficulties understanding the despair of ill survivors, especially those who remained childless after the war.

Rabbi David Glicksman of the Central New Jersey Home for the Aged said he also has trouble understanding the children of ailing survivors. He cited the case of one such woman who never felt like she measured up to the daughter her mother lost in the Holocaust. Yet the mother thought of the living daughter as the light of her life.

Rabbi Shimon Hirschhorn of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx is himself the son of survivors. He told the group that he recently began a support group of survivors at his 1,200-resident facility. While he and one of the resident's adult children have tried to keep the meetings light and conversational, the survivors "go right for the heavy, deep stuff."

"We cannot understand," he pointed out.

Rabbi Oscar Werner of Congregation Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach, Fla., a former chaplain, said he and most of his aging congregants are survivors. While most of his followers are devoted Jews, he is concerned that even professed believers have doubts about God.

Rabbi Miriam Senturia of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center stressed the importance for chaplains working with survivors to raise the issue of God.

"It's important," she said, "to address that white elephant of where was God in all that" horror.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.