Mental Health of Jewish Refugees

Dr Richard Schweizer from One Door Mental Health's blog on Mental Health of Jewish Refugees, 25 Feb 2019.

Mental Health of Jewish Refugees

25 February 2019

I have recently finished reading Viktor Frankl’s account of life in Nazi concentration and death camps. I am also reading Antony Bevor’s excellent account of the Second World War.

Both these texts have raised personal issues for me.

My father’s parents were both sole survivors of the Holocaust. Their respective families were taken to death camps; either shot or gassed. The Shoah – the Hebrew term for the Holocaust – is a historical fact with deep repercussions in my family. I am by far not the only person in Sydney, or Australia, touched by this tragedy. 

I wish to write today about one facet of the Shoah; I wish to write about resilience and strength amongst Jewish refugees in Australia.

The literature on the mental health of Jewish refugees in Australia is not vast but it does suggest some recurrent themes. One is that mental wellness amongst Holocaust survivors is more compromised than it is for other refugees, and significantly more compromised than for Australians living here before the war. This illumination is interesting and one would say far from unexpected. Jewish refugees, particularly later in life, show higher levels of mood disorder, of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and insomnia. Here lies trauma that cannot be erased.

And yet,

Thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Australia, some came before the war but many more came after. These refugees started families and had children. They set up businesses, built homes and made communities. They established synagogues and other community organisations and contributed to the political, economic and cultural life of the nation.

Again, this story is personal; my paternal grandparents came to Australia in 1951 with a 3-year-old child to manage a “motel” that was really a kiosk and a caravan park. They slowly turned this kiosk into a restaurant and for a quarter of a century, they ran it. (You, or your parents, may have heard of it… it was called “Sid’s”, based in Carramar near Liverpool). My grandparents raised my father, supported him, saw him gain an education and become employed, and have a family of his own.

All this, and yet the trauma of the Shoah always lay in the background, often unspoken, but still exerting its influence in the passion with which my grandfather searched again and again for signs of what had happened to his family during the war.

What amazes me is that my grandparents functioned at all; let alone so successfully. And this, too, is reflected in the literature… whilst Jewish refugees had and have higher rates of mental distress, many or most still were able to function relatively effectively in society.

The question I suppose one must ask is how? How did some of the most damaged people, most traumatised people, manage to survive and rebuild their lives? What is the secret to this resilience, to this strength?

Perhaps it came through the support and strength of the Jewish community? Perhaps it is a bias effect – that those who survived the Shoah tended to be the stronger ones? Perhaps it is a testament to the opportunities one could find in a country like Australia?

I do not know the answer to these questions, I only know that I must ask them. What answers I might find, I should hold to my heart.


Dr. Richard Schweizer, Policy Officer at One Door Mental Health  

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