Resilience: One Family's Story—and Lessons for Business and Society

Resilience is a word that has gotten a lot of play lately. In a world that has us spending more and more time bracing for what might be coming, it's something we're starting to think we maybe should have more of.

This article in Harvard Business Review talks about resilience in terms of getting back up after being knocked down. They say that "this will be a key to survival in a world where 'surprises are the new normal.'”

The Huairou Commission, a women's disaster relief organization, defines resilience as “the capacity of a community to organize itself to reduce the impact of disasters by protecting lives, homes, assets, basic services and infrastructure.”

Then there are cultural dimensions. Some have suggested that indigenous cultures are inherently more resilient. Have the modern conveniences of life made us soft, lazy and totally dependent on relatively fragile technology, thus more vulnerable to shocks? What can we learn from indigenous cultures about resiliency to make life safer for us and for them? Questions like these are being are being studied at places such as the Center for American Indian Resilience at the University of Arizona and at the Australian Indigenous Resiliency Project, particularly with respect to public health concerns.

Psychology Today describes it in terms of the ability to remain calm in the face of disaster.

Scientists are also studying the biological roots of resilience, trying to understand why some people can recover from trauma better than others. They have identified a neuropeptide marker Y, and a gene involved in hormonal feedback loops.

Jill Klein is a psychologist who teaches marketing at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Growing up, she was strongly influenced by the fact that her father, two aunts and her grandmother were all Holocaust survivors, having been taken from their home and shipped off to Auschwitz in 1944. Her grandfather, Herman, was sent to the gas chamber upon his arrival.

She has written a meticulous account of their experiences based hundreds of hours of interviews as well as the diaries kept by her two aunts, who were young women at the time. She also did a great deal of independent research to put their subjective accounts into an historical context. The result is the fine memoir entitled We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz.

The book opens with the family living a life that any of us could be living today, with the same everyday joys and concerns, when they are suddenly swept into a nightmare that only a great deal of resilience and an even greater amount of luck allowed them to survive.

Jill’s father Gene, who is now 86, has been giving talks about his experience for years, to all kinds of groups. He started by visiting high schools, since that was the age he was when all this occurred.

Since resilience has become such a hot topic for businesses, communities and individuals, Jill realized that she could combine her presentations with her father’s. Now the two of them lecture together.

I spoke with Gene and Jill by phone about the book and about resilience.

Justmeans: So, Jill, as a psychologist, what do you talk about when you talk about resilience and how does your father’s experience fit into this?

Jill Klein: The research on resilience tells us a couple of things: not everyone has the same amount of innate resilience, but also, that resilience can be learned.

JM: How can resilience be learned?

JK: Think of it in terms of coping strategies.

JM: Did your father use coping strategies?

JK: Yes.

JM: Such as?

JK: For him it was a matter of breaking the challenge into smaller pieces. Just focus on getting through one day at a time. Make it through the day, then get through the night. Then go on to the next day. Don’t think about the fact that this could go on for years. My father set a purpose for himself: to live to see his family again and spare them the pain of losing him.

JM: So is that what got him through?

JK: Mostly it was luck, actually. Not just at the initial selection, as the majority of those coming off the trains were sent immediately to the gas chambers, but also in the weeks and months that followed, though personal resilience did play a role there as well.

JM: I’m thinking of this idea that is popular now, that says you create your own reality, that you attract experiences to yourself. How does this line up with what the research says?

JK: Quite well. Actually, the research says that a key to resiliency is what we say to ourselves about what is happening to us. That’s the crux of it. The story we tell ourselves about what is happening can also be a predictor of how damaged we are when we come out of it. The more resilient point of view sees the problem as temporary, whether it’s an illness, a financial setback or the ending of an important relationship. When I present the research, I break it into five categories: flexible thinking, social support, positive emotion, break it down, and have a goal.

The book shows how her father uses each of these to get through that extremely challenging time, as the following passage shows. Gene, who was still a teenager at the time, was known by his family as Gabi.

“As he continued to lose weight and felt himself becoming weaker, Gabi began to fear that he too would soon be just another body in striped pajamas carried from a tent, Yet, he was determined not to die. He saw his struggle to survive as a battle he was fighting with the SS….If he stayed alive, then he won.”

His goal was to survive, and his positive emotion was his determination. In other sections of the book, he showed his flexibility, social support and his focus on taking one day at a time.

As Jill handed the phone over to her father, she described him as still “very sharp and very fit.” It was amazing for me to be speaking to the man, who just the night before, I’d been reading about as he went through a frightening ordeal.

JM: So, Mr. Klein, what motivates you to keep telling your story?

Gene Klein: It’s important to keep this story alive, so that people won’t forget.

JM: Just last night I was reading about you as a terrified teenager. Do you still dream about it? Do you get nightmares?

GK: I am one of the small percentage of holocaust survivors for whom the nightmares disappeared after returning home.

JM: So what did you do what you were finally freed?

GK:  I promised myself that I wanted to get as much out of life as possible and enjoy it, and not to dwell on the past.

JM: So what happened to the family, once you were released?

GK: On the train that took us to Auschwitz, my father told my sisters the address of our uncle who lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He made them keep repeating it, so they would not forget?

JM: So did they remember? Did you go there?

GK: Yes and no. I went there with one of my sisters. My mother and other sister were going to follow us soon after, but when the Soviet Union annexed Hungary, they were trapped inside the border. We did not see them again for 25 years.

JM: Did you go and visit them?

GK: No, they came and visited us with permission from Premier Khrushchev, but that is another story.

JM: One last question, what is the title of the book referring to?

GK: It means that when we got off the train at Auschwitz, we were sent right away to the showers. We were the lucky ones. We’d been selected as laborers, so out of our showers came water. The others were not so lucky. They got gas.

Image courtesy of Jill Klein