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Survivor's Guilt: Covid, The Holocaust, and Sinai

May 11, 2021 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Channeling the potential guilt by embracing a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Now that the global pandemic appears to be visibly abating thanks to the wonders of worldwide vaccination, psychologists and mental health experts are alerting us to a significant post-traumatic stress disorder that is making its presence felt.

Strangely enough it is affecting a number of people who were lucky enough to be spared the horrors of the millions who perished together with those who endured the unspeakable torture of a plague that showed no mercy to its victims.

For those of us, myself included, who somehow through the grace of God were not stricken by Covid 19 even as we daily took note of the loss of friends and family, there is another reality that is making its presence known. As Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, put it: “When tragedy hits those closest to us but leaves us unscathed, some of us thank our lucky stars, but others feel guilty. 'Why not me?' we ask. 'Why was I spared and they weren’t?' These statements are the hallmarks of an unofficial but very real phenomenon called survivor guilt.

“When an individual believes they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event where others have died or otherwise succumbed, survivor guilt takes hold. It can manifest across the spectrum, from bittersweet feelings to all-out despair. Most commonly, survivor guilt occurs after a large-scale catastrophe (like battlefield deaths or plane crashes) – or a contemporary pandemic.”

Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said survivor's guilt often masks deeper, more painful feelings. She believes making ourselves feel responsible for a loss is a way of asserting control over random situations. That could apply whether someone is thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died or something more personal, such as the loss of a parent or spouse.

"While guilt is uncomfortable, it is less uncomfortable than mourning, and grieving, and feeling sad," said Hendriksen, who has written about survivor's guilt for Psychology Today.

Why was I chosen by God to be granted more life?”

There is however one powerful and extremely productive way of not only coping with survivor guilt but transforming it from psychological disorder to beneficial blessing. “What really helps,” Hendrickson said, “is to emphasize positive, constructive activities.” Survivor’s guilt is best alleviated by ensuring that the survivor’s life is subsequently filled with meaning and purpose, providing a personally satisfying answer if not to the question of why someone else died but at least to the more personal sense of wonder, “But why was I chosen by God to be granted more life?”

I have spoken to countless Holocaust survivors. One of the most perplexing problems an extremely large number of them have shared with me concerns the existential reality of their having been selected, as many of them put it, “by God or by incredible chance” to so often have been spared from moments of certain death. Studies show that those who have best adjusted to a personal resolution of this quandary concerning the reason for their having been granted the gift of life is their commitment to turning their unexpected reward of years into meaningful achievements – of families, of accomplishments, of personal legacies of value to their loved ones as well as to the Jewish people.

I do not believe it is coincidence that the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the state of Israel was founded in 1948, when the potential “survivor’s guilt” of survivors served as a powerful spur to “survivors’ achievements.” The creation of a Jewish homeland was partly in response by those who could have felt guilt for their survival but chose to instead to dedicate their lives to justification for the divine decision to grant them life.

Survivor’s guilt transformed into blessing has an ancient precedent.

The very fact that you survived places an obligation upon you to make the rest of your lives meaningful – to live with hope, with purpose and with divine commitment.

If national tragedy – the inexplicable death of some and the survival of others – is the source of the American Psychological Association’s listed “survivor’s guilt syndrome”, the Jewish people in biblical times certainly had many examples during their servitude in Egypt. Innocent male babies were cast to their death into the Nile. Infants were used in place of mortar to build the bricks of the pyramids. Hebrew slaves were often killed.

It was the survivors of the Egyptian Holocaust who came to Sinai. They were the ones who accepted the Torah – on the day celebrated to this very time every year as the holiday of Shavuot.

The message of the Ten Commandments is clear: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The very fact that you survived places an obligation upon you to make the rest of your lives meaningful – to live with hope, with purpose and with divine commitment.

That is why Shavuot follows Passover. And that is why the collective response of all of us who were spared from the horrors of Covid-19 must replace any vestige of survivor’s guilt with an enhanced devotion to the universal truths of Sinai.


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