Holocaust continues to take toll Trauma: A portion of Israel's survivors have had to be institutionalized as the horrors they lived through have overwhelmed them.

Sun Journal

September 13, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Jessica Lazar of The Sun's Jerusalem bureau contributed to this article.

BAT YAM, Israel -- The trauma of the Holocaust finally caught up with Gisella 15 years ago on an apartment balcony. She was a middle-aged woman then, widowed and the mother of an Israeli army veteran who had two children of his own.

A friend accused Gisella of stealing money from the apartment they shared. Gisella denied it, but the woman persisted in badgering her. In a rage, Gisella grabbed the woman, hoisted her up by the ankles and dropped her from the third-floor balcony, seriously injuring her.

The incident landed Gisella in a state mental-health hospital outside Tel Aviv. Now 73, slightly stooped and hobbling, she belongs to a little known group of Holocaust survivors in Israel -- those in mental institutions.

They number about 1,017, according to Israeli health officials. Some were hospitalized soon after their arrival in Israel. Others, like Gisella, managed to marry, work and raise families in spite of their experiences -- only to succumb later in life to the demons of the past.

Some mistake the psychiatric wards of the present for the ghetto hide-outs, labor camps and Nazi laboratories of their youth.

The hospital patients represent a fraction of the 360,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, most of whom overcame devastating personal loss to lead productive lives. They are a haunting reminder of the Nazi legacy and Israel's conflicted attitude toward the survivors who arrived here a half-century ago.

This is a country that sets aside an annual Day of Remembrance, vowing never to forget the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. And yet, the survivors who arrived in the early days of the state received a less-than-sympathetic reception from a society that sought to distance itself from the image of Jew as victim.

The 120 Holocaust survivors among the patients at the Yehuda Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam are in the waning days of their lives. About half entered the hospital as retirees, homemakers, grandmothers. They lived as other Israelis did, according to the physicians caring for them, until a death, the loss of a job or some other event triggered a psychic break.

"The most unique feature of their psychosis is related to the experience of the Holocaust," says Dr. Yoram Barak, chief of Abarbanel's psycho-geriatric ward. "A patient, 50 years after the Holocaust, can still refuse to sleep in his room because he thinks gas will be injected from the ceiling."

Barak wears an earring and the buzz-cut hairstyle common among young Israeli men. "I'm often mistaken as a Nazi officer on the ward by the more paranoid patients," he says.

A documentary about these Holocaust survivors aired earlier this year on Israeli television. The film, "The Last Transfer," and a report in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv focused public attention on these survivors and the conditions in which they live.

While lawmakers review state funding for institutionalized Holocaust survivors, the patients at Abarbanel struggle with their delusions, paranoia and depression. They are identified here by their first names, at the request of hospital administrators, to protect patient privacy.

To calm her nerves, Gisella works. Filing papers. Folding laundry. Making beds. Work, as the Nazi adage went, makes you free.

"I wish I could do more," says Gisella, whose violent mood swings have been tempered with medication. "I can't sit without working. I have nerves. I have energy. It helps my health. It's hard for me that I can't work more."

Gisella came to Israel at age 23. She had escaped from a Nazi work camp in Romania and fled to Russia. While working there as a nurse, she shot and killed a Russian soldier who tried to rape her. She ran again, traveling on foot to Bucharest. She arrived there as her family was being rounded up.

"My sisters and brother died. They went into the fire," she says haltingly.

After the war, Gisella married and made her way to Israel, where she worked as a cleaning lady and raised a son. Unlike others at Abarbanel, she had a close relationship with her only child, who died recently. She is often visited by her two grandchildren.

Yaacov, 62, worked most of his life in Israel's defense industry. He was admitted to the hospital six years ago after his retirement.

Clear-eyed and lucid, Yaacov flatters three women visitors. He discusses the effort to retrieve assets of Holocaust victims from Swiss banks. He speaks frankly about witnessing his father's death in Poland and about his confinement at Abarbanel.

"I worked a long time in the flight industry -- 15 years," says Yaacov, who does clerical jobs on the ward. "Then suddenly my nervous system started acting up. I have golden hands. My head is plugged up. The doctors told me, the computer in your head doesn't work." As a visitor leaves, he snaps to attention and salutes.

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