Survivors’ stories

Social work professor studies forgiveness among Holocaust survivors.

Survivors’  stories

The main barracks and rail line remaining at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau Memorial and Museum located outside Oswiecim in southern Poland. More than 125,000 people visited the Auschwitz Memorial last year.

Survivors’ stories

Social work professor studies forgiveness among Holocaust survivors.

Mike Jacobs was just 14 when the Nazis invaded Poland and forced his family into a Jewish ghetto. Later, after they were separated, he learned that his parents, two sisters and two brothers had been murdered in the death camp Treblinka.

Jacobs was transported to Auschwitz and eventually moved to another camp in Austria where he was liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945.

Now founder of the Holocaust Survivors in Dallas and the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies, Jacobs credits hope, belief and positive thinking for keeping him alive through the five and a half years in the death camps.

He was among the Holocaust survivors interviewed by Harriet Cohen, associate professor of social work, for a research study titled “What Older Holocaust Survivors Can Teach Us About Forgiveness,” which she presented at the National Association of Social Workers.

Cohen is also compiling a DVD of the interviews that she hopes to complete by late spring.
“I never give up hope,” Jacobs says. “I never give up my belief. I was always positive I would survive. Those things kept me, and keep me, going.”

Cohen says the 800 known autobiographies, biographies and oral histories of Holocaust survivors largely focus on experiences before, during and  immediately after the Holocaust. She wondered how the survivors fared later in life.

“It seemed important to look at this population to discover how to recover from trauma,” she says. “How do you start life over after losing your family, your community, your way of life?”
Prior to coming to TCU, Cohen spent 26 years as a social work practitioner, including extensive work with older adults. In 2006, she was one of 12 social work professors named a Hartford Faculty Scholar by the Gerontological Society of America, receiving $100,000 to help fund her research.

PhotoShe knew that the population of survivors who remember the Holocaust, now in their 70s and 80s, was declining with each passing day — as was the opportunity to interview and learn from their experiences.

“They are really resilient people who learned ways of overcoming that trauma and I wanted to learn from them,” she says.

What she discovered is that theological and psychological definitions of forgiveness fail to explain the complexity or ambiguity of Holocaust survivors’ responses.

“Our concept of forgiveness is too narrow to encompass the experiences of people who came through the Holocaust,” she says. “We have only one word — ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I forgive you.’ That’s not really adequate to cover the complexity of emotions.”

While some survivors told Cohen they could never forgive the atrocities of the Nazis and their collaborators, others focused on educating future generations so it would never happen again and living each day to the fullest.

“Because at this age anything can happen to you at any time and I’m totally prepared for that,” one survivor told her. “I have lived my life. It’s really, except for the Holocaust and what happened to my family, it has been a good life. Every day is a gift, so you look at things that you thought were important and they’re really not important.”

On the Web:

Contact Harriet Cohen at
Comment about this story at