Superstorm Sandy stirs up bad memories
For wartime survivors, scenes of devastation echoed past traumas
Psychologist Irit Felsen said Hurricane Sandy and other horrific current events can trigger new trauma for people who survived the Holocaust.
Photos by Robert Wiener
February 13, 2013
When Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey coast near her home in Barnegat Bay last October, Bari Weissenborn recoiled in horror.
She connected the storm’s devastation with the experiences of her father, who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.
“The unthinkable was in front of you,” she said. “Homes at the beach were ripped apart and thrown into the bay. Heavy sand was everywhere,” she said. “Armed guards and police were everywhere. There were checkpoints every few blocks. I was in a war zone, a hell hole…. The feelings didn’t last long, but enough to bring back the gut-wrenching memories of the Holocaust and the way my father’s family must have felt.”
Weissenborn was one of eight participant who spoke about current calamities and the emotions they dredge up during a Feb. 6 Lunch and Learn meeting of the Holocaust Council of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ at the Aidekman Campus in Whippany.
Irit Felsen, an Israeli-born psychologist who counsels Holocaust survivors, told the survivors that some of their reactions to such tragedies were common among older people who endured terrible ordeals in their youth.
After the meeting, Felsen told NJ Jewish News that “the hurricane was a trigger, not a comparison with the Holocaust. It shows how current events that are problematic, stressful, even traumatic to some degree can trigger prior traumatization that complicates some people’s reactions to the current events.”
Fred Heyman, who was born in Berlin and lost much of his family to the Holocaust before immigrating to the United States in 1946, said his wartime experience helped him deal with the storm’s aftermath.
“It reminded me of the war days and the bombing in Berlin,” said Heyman, who lost heat and electricity at his home in Morris Township during the aftermath of the late October storm. “So I was conditioned for the storm. If it happens again I know what to do. I didn’t get devastated over it.”
Bob Max of Summit related the storm to his captivity as an American soldier taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
“Sandy provided some bad memories of World War II,” he said. “They were revived during Sandy, when we spent two nights at home without heat. My wife and I found a way to survive by taking very hot showers, putting on a double layer of pajamas, and climbing into bed with several layers of blankets…Thank goodness to the army for preparing me.”
It was the Dec. 14 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — not the hurricane — that triggered terrible flashbacks for Ruth Ravina of Montclair, who spent her early childhood in three concentration camps.
Ravina happened to be visiting with her grandchildren in Newton, Mass. She confused the names of the two towns when she heard the news that 26 people — 20 of them children — had been murdered.
She assumed the killings had happened at her grandchildren’s school.
“The Holocaust just came back,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think. I was hysterical…. The thought of being a Holocaust survivor and losing one of my grandchildren…. That was the worst.”
The Sandy Hook school shootings also brought back bitter memories for Nathan Kasdan of Elizabeth, who survived for three years by hiding with others in the woods outside Vilna, Poland.
“I was upset about Newtown,” he said. “I was crying, thinking about someone shooting kids.”
It reminded Kasdan of his own wartime childhood. “Every day you heard, ‘This town was liquidated.’ It meant the Nazis took everyone out in the woods and shot everybody. It brought back to me what they did to our people,” he said tearfully.
Mary Jane Zimbardi of Livingston spoke of a Holocaust survivor she had befriended before and during the storm. “She just could not face life anymore” after the hurricane struck. “She died of over-medication.”
Gina Lanceter of Montclair, who survived by leaping from a train window en route to the concentration camp at Majdanek, was careful to distinguish between the Shoa and natural disasters like Sandy.
“As bad as Sandy was — there was no heat, there was no water, and people lost houses — the heat came back, the houses can be rebuilt,” she said. “But what we went through in the Holocaust cannot be rebuilt anymore.”