Who is considered a Holocaust survivor?

My parents were both Polish Jews and survived the Holocaust through twists of fate that saved them from the horrors of the Nazi death camps. My father escaped from a ghetto in Belarus to the untamed forest, where he joined partisans carrying out sabotage missions against the Nazis. My mother, meanwhile, fled east from Poland to central Asia with her parents and siblings. For decades after the war, only my father Simcha (Sam) was considered a Holocaust survivor by friends, neighbors and relatives — even by my mother, Leah, despite her own harrowing experiences. Whenever my family would get together, my mother told my father’s story, not hers. Jews who were forced east into the uneasy confines of the Soviet Union were excluded from the conversation about the trauma of genocide. The narrative after the war was the narrative of the partisans and the concentration camps and did not include the suffering of refugees, know as “flight” or “indirect” survivors. Few media depictions, if any, focused on the experience of flight survivors, despite them being the largest group of Jews to outlast the Nazi regime, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Questions about historical memory and the long-lasting effects of trauma have inspired my research and clinical work with survivors and their descendants. In 2019, I told journalist Emanuella Grinberg who wrote about my parents in Smithsonian Magazine, that “anybody who experienced the occupation — whether it for one day or they escaped or hid — if you were endangered as Jews, you were a Holocaust survivor.”

My mother Leah Burstyn, her parents and four siblings fled Wyszków, Poland, as bombs fell in the 1939 German invasion. They headed east, stopping in Bialystok, Poland, for three months, before Soviet authorities deported them.

The Burstyns were among an estimated 750,000 to 780,000 Polish citizens, Jews and gentiles alike, that the Soviet secret police deported to various parts of the Soviet Union between between October 1939 and June 1941. …Deportees labored in the Soviet penalty system of the gulag, working in mines, farms and factories in the Urals, northern Kazakhstan and as far as Siberia. They endured extreme conditions, starvation and disease. The Burstyns ended up in one of these camps in the Urals, spending 13 months there.”1

The war left its mark on Leah, showing up in subtle ways. Having starved on and off for so many years, she was always concerned about food and whether her family had enough to eat. Her experience with frostbite made her hypersensitive to cold weather.

But growing up, I rarely heard these stories; my mother spoke about them with fellow survivors, but not the children. Flight survivors like my mother Leah were thought to have “escaped” the murderous regime, even though she was part of the largest cohort of Eastern European survivors.

Simcha, a soldier in the Polish army, was among an estimated 300,000 Polish Jews who escaped to the Soviet zone within weeks of the invasion. He fled to Soviet-occupied Ilya, Belarus, where he had family. But the Soviet zone was far from a haven. The former Polish citizens and Jewish refugees from other countries were treated as enemies of the state, especially the intelligentsia and educated classes, who were considered a threat to communist rule. Many were arrested and deported to the Soviet Union; others were killed by the Soviet secret police.

Gennady Safonov. Yad Vashem Archives.
Gennady Safonov. Yad Vashem Archives.

Simcha (Sam) Fogelman and Fajwe Solomianski (who changed his name to Shraga Dagani when he came to Israel) reported to Yad Vashem that Gennady Safonov, a Soviet army lieutenant, had found them in the forest in November 1942. The two had escaped from the ghetto in Ilja when the Germans began liquidating it on 7 June 1942. They had been wandering in the forest for several months. Safonov, who eventually became one of the leaders of the partisan unit Narodnyye Mstiteli (People’s Avengers) that operated in the Rudniki forests (south of Vilna), brought them to his partisan unit and thus saved them from dying in the forests during winter.2

My father provided this testimony to Yad Vashem: “Safonov, a Russian lieutenant, was captured by the Germans, but escaped from there and became active in the partisans. We too wanted to join the partisans because the winter of 1942 was coming and it was 40 degrees beyond zero. He was like an angel from heaven. He brought us warm clothes and sometimes bread. After a certain time he helped us to be accepted to the partisan unit.”3

In 1992 at the initiative of Simkha Fogelman and Shraga Degani, Yad Vashem awarded Gennadiy Safonov the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Yad Vashem addresses this question of who is a survivor on their website: “At Yad Vashem, we define Shoah survivors as Jews who lived for any amount of time under Nazi domination, direct or indirect, and survived. This includes French, Bulgarian and Romanian Jews who spent the entire war under anti-Jewish terror regimes but were not all deported, as well as Jews who forcefully left Germany in the late 1930s. No historical definition can be completely satisfactory.”4

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a broad interpretation:

“Any person, Jewish or non-Jewish, who was displaced, persecuted or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social and political policies of the Nazis and they collaborators between 1933 and 1945.”

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Even as a child, it was hard for me to distinguish between my parents’ suffering. As I matured in my profession, I came to disavow the notion of a “hierarchy of suffering.” I feel anybody who experienced the occupation — whether it for one day or they escaped or hid — if you were endangered as Jews, you were a Holocaust survivor.”

See also:

  1. Emanuella Grinberg. How the Definition of Holocaust Survivor Has Changed Since the End of World War II. 1 May 2019. Smithsonian Magazine.
  2. Yad Vashem Archives. The Righteous Among the Nations: Gennady Safonov. Online. https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories/safonov.html
  3. Yad Vashem Archives. Testimony of Sam Fogelman, 1992. Online. https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories/safonov/fogelman-testimony.html
  4. Yad Vashem Archives. Hall of Names, About the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names, FAQs – Names’ Database. Historical Questions: How do you define a Shoah survivor? Yad Vashem Archives. Online. https://www.yadvashem.org/archive/hall-of-names/database/faq.html

Publication Date: 2019
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