A Holocaust survivor identifies with the pain of both sides in the Israel-Hamas war
Last week, the International Court of Justice issued a preliminary ruling that the charge brought by South Africa that Israel is guilty of genocide in Gaza is "plausible." The court called on Israel to take all measures to prevent the killing of civilians in the Palestinian enclave.
As expected, the court's decision is controversial, with both those in favor and those expressing disapproval.
It's not the first time that a direct or indirect reference to the Holocaust has surfaced since the war began after Hamas struck southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages. The day of the attack has been described as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
In late September, days before the Hamas attack, we interviewed Estelle Laughlin, a Holocaust survivor, about a study that examined whether social connections improved the odds of someone surviving a concentration camp like Auschwitz. According to the authors, the answer was yes, but by the smallest of margins.
We got back in touch with Laughlin this month to ask her how, as someone who lived through the Nazi genocide, she reacts to this current crisis — and the suffering on both sides.
From the ghetto to Lublin-Majdanek
In the fall of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Laughlin was 10 years old. She and her family were among the 400,000 Jews who were soon forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto.
Despite fierce acts of resistance, including the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that her father helped to organize, most of the Jews there were unable to save themselves from the Nazi extermination campaign. Laughlin, her older sister and her mother were transported in cattle cars to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp in the spring of 1943 and later to two other forced labor camps, all within Poland. The Soviets liberated her months before World War II officially ended. However, "my father — and nearly everyone I knew and loved — were murdered," she says. "No one came to our rescue, no country let us in. As a result, 6 million of my people were gassed in concentration camps."
To Laughlin, Israel has represented the one safe harbor in the world for Jews who've been persecuted for generations. "History is proof why the existence of Israel is essential," she says. "I think the conscience of the world owes the Jewish people the safety of having their own country."
Indeed, a few of her friends — fellow survivors — moved to Israel after World War II. She has some family there too.
But now she feels that October 7 has endangered that refuge.
Laughlin doesn't remember how she first learned of the events of October 7, when Hamas launched its deadly attack against Israel. But that difficult day haunts her. "Once you have [endured] a dramatic experience like the Holocaust," says Laughlin, "some part of [it] stays with you all your life." The attack by Hamas and ensuing war reawakened in her a decades-old sadness that human cruelty still burns strongly in the world.
Laughlin says she identifies with Israel and the Jews whose lives were threatened or taken. But the stories and images of Palestinian suffering and loss that have poured out of Gaza feel eerily familiar to her, too. "To me, they are human beings like I am a human being," she says. "I want the best for them as I want the best for us."
"All life is sacred," she continues. "And it's unfortunate that human beings have to feel threatened for generations for no good reason. It's devastating."
Pelted with pebbles
Laughlin sees the Hamas attack as the latest eruption in a historic current of violence directed against Jews. "We contribute to the good of all humanity," she says, "and yet we are so often persecuted."
Laughlin says that as a young woman, her mother was chased out of Belarus for being Jewish. And yet she told Laughlin that the Russians were "a suffering people."
"And I couldn't understand," she says, "how could she have sympathy for somebody who chased her out of her little shtetl?" Somehow, her mother identified with the suffering of those who'd imposed suffering upon her. "And that amazed me."
When Laughlin was a schoolgirl in Warsaw, children regularly pelted her and the other Jewish kids with pebbles. "We were so frightened," she recalls. "The antisemitism was right in front of me — it was so visceral."
Then came the German and Soviet occupation of Poland, the ghetto and worse. To the Nazis, "we had no value as human beings," she says.
As Laughlin tells it, in those most difficult of times, her community of Jewish people found ways of supporting one another. "We recognized the sanctity of simple moments with friends — that was our sustenance," she says.
For Laughlin, besides luck, it was her mother and sister who helped her make it out of the camps alive. "We were like one organism," she recalls. "The people in our barrack called us the three monkeys in a very affectionate way because we would pick the lice from each other's heads to relieve the itching. In order to survive a hell like a ghetto or concentration camp, you had to have something to hold onto. So you hold onto memories, you hold onto love. I doubt that my mother, my sister or I would have survived without the other."
"Love maintained us," she says.
One day at the concentration camp in Majdanek, Laughlin spotted her sister's name on a list. She and her sister and mom had a pact — if one of them was to be sent to the crematorium, all three would go together.
"So my mother and I, we traded places with two women who were on the list who hoped to see another sunrise," she says. "And the following day, my mother and I went with my sister, absolutely sure that we are being marched to the crematorium."
Instead, they were taken to work at an ammunition factory in a forced labor camp.
Ultimately, in 1947, two years after they were liberated, Laughlin, her sister, and mother all made it to the U.S. And she says she survived with an enduring sense of compassion and love for humanity, including for the Germans. "Without those values, survival would be hardly meaningful," she says.
To Laughlin, Israel has represented the one safe harbor in the world for Jews who've been persecuted throughout their history. Indeed, a few of her friends — fellow survivors — moved to Israel after the war. She has some family there too.
But now she feels that October 7 has endangered that refuge. Laughlin says the Hamas attack was directed at Jews, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the more than 200 hostages being taken into Gaza. The events set in motion by that day have shaken "the security of my people, of my children, of my grandchildren," she says. Laughlin's cousins who live in Israel have told her how frightened they've felt these last several months.
Feeling the pain of Palestinians
Over that same time period, Laughlin has also been watching and reading the news coming out of Gaza. The enclave has been devastated by Israel's military response — the leveling of buildings, the displacement of nearly two million people, soaring rates of starvation and disease and the deaths of more than 26,000 Palestinians.
Laughlin says she's holding the Jewish pain of this war alongside the Palestinian pain. "When the dignity of any human being is diminished, the dignity of all humanity is diminished," she says. "Not only in relationship to my community but to any community of innocent people being attacked."
When Laughlin considers the Palestinians living in Gaza, she says, "I identify with their plight ... with their isolation that the rest of the world keeps on going on as though nothing happened, and their world is crumbling."
"I feel their pain," she adds. "I know their insecurity. I think suffering needs witness."
As a measure of self-protection, one she's unintentionally honed in the decades since her childhood in Poland, she bears witness with empathy but "with a distance."
Laughlin has a metaphor for the intractability of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. "I guess it's like when you see somebody hitting their head against the wall. And you say, 'It hurts — why don't you stop?'"
"I am an old woman," Laughlin reflects. "I wanted to leave this planet, this Earth, a better place than I found it. It's sad to see that people are still so self-destructive. We live in the 21st century. We accumulated so much knowledge, but our values are still Stone Age. We have not learned to control our emotions."
She longs for a better way forward. "There are two people claiming the same piece of land, and that's a problem," she says. "Somehow, they'll have to work it out. I hope that they will use [their] better instincts [of] compassion and reason. I have faith that there are bright, well-meaning, resourceful people — both among the Arabs and among the Jews in Israel. And that they will listen to their wiser parts, [their] kinder parts... and find a resolution."
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