My thesis was designed to shed light on the numerous ways in which a small group of forty three orphaned Holocaust survivors adapted to their new lives in Australia, whilst keeping their preferred Jewish practices. I have attempted to explain the reasons for their choices in doing so. The majority abandoned their belief in the existence of God but felt obliged to keep, preserve and manifest a Jewish identity. This was achieved by celebrating some Jewish traditions. A few retained both belief in God and Jewish practices.
All interviewees were born between 1927 and 1932. They originated from seven European countries and came from homes where the degree of Jewish observance varied. They survived the Holocaust whether incarcerated, in hiding or rescued by early Kindertransporte.
The education and schooling of all the interviewees had been disrupted as a consequence of the Holocaust. A few continued their studies and completed tertiary education at university or technical college. The remainder embarked on acquiring various skills, which eventually assisted them in their occupation. My research demonstrates that the level of education or professional skills bear no correlation to the level of religiosity.
The interviewees who came from acculturated backgrounds, continued with corresponding Jewish practices in their adult years. Belief in God had played no major role in the lives of their parents. However, practice of certain rituals had been integrated into their Jewish identity. Transporting these rhythms to Australia caused no difficulty for these interviewees in their post-war lives.
A considerable transformation of Jewish rites and rituals occurred amongst the interviewees, who came from shtetls. Their previous unswerving belief in God had been challenged, so that it was either weakened or, in many cases, vanished. The adherence to Jewish traditions and laws had diminished. Many relinquished observation of the laws of kashrut. The Sabbath was no longer observed and revered as it had been in the pre-war years. The contrast of such entrenched Jewish traditions from shtetl lives to suburban life in Australia in the 1950s was too great.
A significant difference emerged within the group of six interviewees, who kept their belief in God. Their backgrounds were Modern Orthodox. They came from larger towns or cities in three countries. Education had played a crucial part in their early life. Learning, in conjunction with adherence to religious traditions and laws had shaped their childhood and upbringing. The retention of faith and Orthodox traditions correlated with their love of learning. Modern Orthodox practices could be more easily maintained than the traditions followed in shtetls.
All forty three interviewees kept their Jewish identity in one form or another. As Jewish identity can be explained in terms of religiosity, ethnicity, culture and nationalism, this continuity was possible. Survivors, who lost their belief in God, were able to continue with Jewish rituals, traditions and life cycle events as part of their ethnicity or culture.
There is no doubt that for the large majority of the interviewees, the Holocaust affected their religious life. Losing their parents and siblings as a result of the Holocaust shattered their beliefs and resulted in an abandonment of their previously held beliefs and trust in God. As a consequence, changes occurred in their Jewish identity. They considered themselves as Jews, without adhering to any religious form. However, they were not prepared to relinquish all traces of Jewish identity. The memories of their lost families proved too treasured to allow them to abandon all Jewish ties.
It is my conclusion that the rhythms of Jewish life constituted a defining factor in the re-building of their shattered lives after the Holocaust. They provided a framework which allowed and maintained the continuity of Jewish existence, their belief in God and Jewish rites and rituals. For those interviewees who abandoned their belief in God, Jewish rites and rituals served to provide identification with Jewish peoplehood and culture. However, many of the teenage survivors practised these rhythms and rituals in a secular/cultural manner, rather than emanating from a belief in God. These reactions reflect the complexity of Jewish identity in the modern and post modern world.