Passover is known as the holiday of freedom. Even in Israel in the year 2014, the topic of freedom is very relevant. Among the Israeli population are around 500 former POWs, for whom the story of the Passover hits close to home: the loss of freedom, the enduring despair and finally, the arrival in a safe land. But, the former POWs have discovered that that is only the beginning of the road to real freedom
The story of Passover talks about the journey of the Hebrews to freedom: years of wandering with uncertainty, in which their determination and faith were put to the test time and again. This motif is evident even when talking about freedom in the modern era: former POWs who were caught by the enemy during one of Israel’s wars and were released to their borders after a period of time. But it is actually when it seems like the storm has passed with their arrival in a safe land, that the former POWs discover the challenges of a dramatic transition from slavery to freedom.
For POWs, returning to a routine life in their home country is quite often unbearable and strong faith is required to break free from the experiences of the past. “Even in situations in which people feel the most threatened and uncertain, an inner mechanism to stay alive exists. This inner mechanism makes you want to keep living, even in the hardest of situations”, explains Colonel (res.) Itamar, a former aircrew member and Head of the Psychology Department of the IAF and today the head psychologist at the National Association of Trauma Victims.
In 1991, Professor Zahava Salomon, who won the Israel-Prize for her research on social work, conducted research, the results of which caught the attention of many people in Israel. Her research intended to assess the psychological, physical and functional state of people who had fallen into captivity during the “Yom Kippur” War in 1973.The research determined that the psychological damage and post-traumatic stress of the former POWs was significant and that the treatment they received was sporadic and incomplete.
“In captivity, the POWs experienced constant threats, both psychological and physical in nature. This is an experience of perpetual uncertainty”, explains Colonel (res.) Itamar. “One of the problems they encounter is the survival mechanism. In captivity, it is an emotional detachment that allows someone to survive in a situation like that. Several years later, the mind can react to threats in a similar way, without the person being aware of it. Once the person recognizes and acknowledges the damage, he is on the path to recovery”.
In Israel, there are around 500 IDF soldiers who were in enemy captivity and overall in the history of Israeli wars, there have been around 1,500 women and men in captivity. With the publication of Professor Salomon’s research, awareness for the psychological distress of former Israeli POWs was raised: following the publication, the association “Awake At Night” was founded in 1998, with the goal of organizing IDF soldiers who at one point had been POWs and encouraging assistance and advocating for recognition of their situation on the part of the State.
“The association, ‘Awake At Night’, serves a support system that takes different forms: economic support, social support and psychological support”, says Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Uri Shahak, a fighter pilot in the IAF who returned from captivity and who heads the association. “But, an equally-important goal is to create recognition and appreciation of psychological disability of former POWs on the part of the State. Recognizing and granting legitimacy to people who have been psychologically harmed is of immense importance for former POWs and represents a significant part of their rehabilitation”.
The association runs workshops for the families of the former POWs and runs support groups and even provides its members with medical and economic assistance. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of captivity to someone who wasn’t there. On the other hand, as far as I’m concerned, sharing is important to the healing process”, adds Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Uri. “The change that has taken place since the founding of the organization has been great: we chose life. We chose to live with psychological distress”.