Holocaust survivor recounts personal journey, childhood trauma

Holocaust Survivor Dr. Ludwik Szymanski speaks at an event titled "A Conversation with a Holocaust Survivor" in ASEAN Auditorium on Feb. 19. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

Holocaust survivor Ludwik Szymanski visited Tufts on Wednesday evening, retelling his life story which began with his family surviving the Holocaust in his native Poland to his eventual career as a pediatric psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School.

The Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity partnered with Tufts Hillel to host Szymanski for his talk in the ASEAN Auditorium of the Cabot Intercultural Center, which counted about 70 people in attendance, including University President Anthony Monaco.

The event began with opening remarks from ZBT Vice President Sean Moushegian, a junior, and ZBT President Omar Badr.

“Now more than ever before, here more than anywhere else, we — Tufts University — need to have an event like this one to remind ourselves there’s no room for bigotry or hate when trying to maintain a safe and peaceful community,” Badr, a junior, said.

Badr later explained that the event is part of a series to increase inclusivity and promote connections between the Greek life community and the rest of Tufts.

“I’ve been trying to find ways to bridge that [disconnect],” Badr said. “One of them was opening up a heritage event … I definitely think that’s a step in the right direction.”

Before answering dozens of questions from the audience in a conversation moderated by ZBT Heritage Chair Sam Rabinowitz, Szymanski outlined his life journey that began with a Jewish middle-class upbringing in Wloclawek, Poland.

Szymanski recalled that one of the first policies of antisemitic discrimination the Nazis imposed in 1939 following their annexation of Western Poland, where he lived at the time, was to ban Jewish people from walking on the sidewalk.

“It was a very clever psychological ruse, because who was walking on the street, on the roadway? Nobody, except for horses,” he said. “This was part of the global design they had that Jews were not humans, really.”

At about eight years old, Szymanski escaped with his immediate family to German-occupied Warsaw. He recalled how his family survived by “hiding in plain sight,” narrowly avoiding detection by looking and acting like the rest of the predominantly Catholic Polish population of Warsaw.

“You might imagine how difficult it was, because [if] you were going out to any place, you never knew if your family …  would be still there,” Szymanski said. “Or if [my father] went out, I never knew if he [was] coming back.”

After the war ended and his immediate family reunited in their hometown, Szymanski reflected on the difficulty adapting to life in post-war Poland.

“From a large family, that we had hundreds of neighbors, thousands of Jews, hardly anybody came back,” he said. “Clearly, I was out of the war, but there was still my own private war.”

Frustrated with institutional antisemitism in Poland, Syzmanski immigrated to Israel to complete his studies to become a doctor. Without any knowledge of Hebrew, however, he was forced to learn quickly during his first five months in the country.

“When you are young, when you are in a place that nobody speaks to you in any language but Hebrew, you learn it fast,” he said. “It was really fun.”

He added that interacting with native Israelis as a Holocaust survivor was different than his interactions in Poland or elsewhere, even given the civil unrest and violence frequent at the time.

“They were sympathetic, but they treated you not as a victim, they treated you as one of them,” he said. “But, you felt that you were killed, if you were killed, not because you are Jewish but because you are Israeli.”

After a brief career as a medic in the Israel Defense Forces and as the personal physician to Israel President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, he decided to immigrate again to the United States in order to study pediatric psychiatry, which wasn’t a field available in Israel.

Szymanski later attributed his interest in pediatric psychiatry, and the empathy he employed in his practice, to the abrupt abbreviation the Holocaust imposed on his childhood.

“It started probably having your antenna very sensitive, because you’re afraid someone recognizes you are Jewish. Now, have you learned to recognize what people want to say? Or, how do they feel about you without them saying,” he said. “I think that that sensitivity I learned during the war, and then I found out it was essentially part of psychiatrists’ tools.”

Szymanski is now an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director emeritus of psychiatry at Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

In response to a later audience question, Szymanski refuted explicit comparisons between current events and the Holocaust.

“The special thing about the Holocaust is that is the only [time] I could think about that there was a government-sponsored project that took a very long time, well-prepared or well-organized, using all industrial might to get rid of Jews or certain groups, not just from Germany or in Poland, but all over the world,” he said.

He also observed that his experience as a Jewish person and Holocaust survivor is much different in the United States than in Poland, due to the history of immigration to the United States.

“In this country, nobody is 100% American. Everybody came from someplace and they lived here because they accepted the culture and the language. So you’re just like everybody else,” he said. “The only differences are when and where from your ancestors came.”

To stem the tide of rising antisemitism in the U.S., especially in light of antisemitic incidents at Tufts in February and September last year, Szymanski urged students to embrace their identity and share it actively with others, though others may still harbor antisemitic views.

“You may be often baited by some other people. Don’t spend your time … defending yourself and telling them that what they feel is wrong,” Szymanski said. “Ask them to defend their own wrong ideas and prove it to you. And they usually cannot.”