Applied Psychology OPUS

Coping During and After the Holocaust: A Case Study of Ludwig Charatan

Jacqueline Yi & Mila Hall

The Holocaust remains one of the most devastating events in recent European history, with over six million Jewish people murdered, including 1.1 million children (Niewyk & Nicosia, 2000). Researchers and scholars across disciplines have worked to understand the psychological impact of this massacre on the survivors. Post-traumatic stress and other negative psychological diagnostic characteristics have been the focus of many psychological studies (e.g., Dekel, Mandl, & Solomon, 2013). However, Lazarus (1999) has suggested that people suffering from PTSD or other forms of psychological distress may reduce their stress by engaging in various forms of coping. Studies have shown that survivors of trauma can develop resilience and can have positive outcomes, including post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi, 1999). After experiencing a traumatic event, survivors may emotionally work through the trauma by developing a sense of coherence and engaging in a search to make meaning around what has happened in their pasts (Frankl, 1963).

The current case study specifically examines the coping strategies of one Jewish Holocaust survivor named Ludwig Charatan, who was born in 1925 in Lvov, Poland. Ludwig experienced life in a Polish ghetto and in Janowska, a Nazi forced labor and concentration camp located in Lvov. Ludwig and his brother lived in the camp for about three months, and they escaped when Ludwig was 17. They joined their parents in hiding thereafter, staying with the relatives of Ludwig’s father’s former work colleague for 14 months.  Ludwig and his family were liberated in 1945. After liberation, they lived in Germany for 4 years. In 1949, he immigrated to the United States at age 24 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. The son of a butcher, Ludwig arrived in the U.S. with a ninth grade education and reluctantly entered the same occupation as his father. His business grew to many butcher shops, one of which he gave to his father. Ludwig married a fellow survivor, Dora, with whom he had two sons. They were married for nearly 60 years before he became a widower at the age of 83.

Currently 90 years old, Ludwig’s life story has been chronicled in a memoir: Eye to Eye (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015). His memoir documents his experiences of significant historical events throughout his youth, particularly the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime. The following case study will focus on how Ludwig coped with his Holocaust experiences and how he adapted to life in the United States post-Holocaust.

Current Study and Methodology

We utilized an intrinsic case study approach, which focuses on the experiences of one individual without seeking to generalize the findings to other populations (Stake, 2000). Ludwig was interviewed twice: once, in 2009 as a part of a larger study of Holocaust survivors (e.g., L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009), and again for the purposes of this case study in December of 2015 (e.g., L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). Both interviews were recorded and transcribed. Our research team used an iterative, cyclical process of analysis, moving between his transcribed responses and his memoir, Eye to Eye (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015), to identify patterns. The transcript of the 2009 interview was independently coded by three team members using constant comparative thematic analysis, in which pieces of data were compared to formulate consensus codes (Glaser, 1978; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The more recent interview in 2015 was conducted with five team members present, using a semi-structured guide, incorporating questions related to post-Holocaust coping and adaptation (e.g., survival, arrival in the U.S., sharing experiences, social networks). The interview was conducted in an informal setting, chosen by Ludwig (i.e., a local diner where he has lunch every day). Each team member was designated to cover two particular areas of the interview. Three team members read the memoir, and discussed potential themes in a consensual coding process. The current case study was reviewed by Ludwig to confirm the accuracy of the qualitative analysis.

During the Holocaust: Coping Strategies

In Ludwig’s descriptions of how he coped with his experiences during the Holocaust, two distinct themes emerged from both interviews and his memoir. The first consisted of a set of personal, internal characteristics such as being a trouble-maker and taking risks. The second theme focused on factors external to him, such as luck and support from other people.

When asked to describe characteristics that contributed to his survival, Ludwig was hesitant at first. He described himself as a “spoiled brat” prior to the war, noting that his “parents had a problem with [him] because [he] was not agreeable to a lot of things” (L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009; L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). He repeatedly described his personality before the war as a trouble-maker. “I was the youngest. I would give my parents hell.” He often compared himself to his siblings, and how different he felt from them; “[I was] very happy to have a sister like that. My brother was a nice boy. Only I was the [...] black sheep” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). Despite the negative implications of describing himself this way, he also noted that this might have “helped [him] in a certain way.” His extraversion and rambunctious personality influenced how he interacted with his parents as a young child, and possibly with others who helped him survive.

Being a “spoiled brat” and giving his parents “hell” reflected Ludwig’s rebellious spirit as a child (L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009). His rebelliousness and his age, likely enhance his ability to take risks, which contributed to his survival. He “took some chances,” such as smuggling commodities on the black market and making multiple escape attempts from Janowska, but acknowledged that the success of these actions was often out of his control (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015). “It worked for me. Some people did the same thing and they didn’t survive” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). Overall, Ludwig identified three major contributors to his survival during the war: “It involved a lot of nerve, a lot of luck, and help from other people.”

Luck was a recurring theme throughout both of Ludwig’s interviews, as well as his memoir. One incident, which Ludwig recalls in his memoir, is truly emblematic of this (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015). After having escaped from Janowska, Ludwig, his brother, and another young man hid in a cornfield in order to avoid being seen in daylight. Around midday, a farmer approached where they sat. The fact that he was singing a nationalistic, anti-Semitic Ukrainian song indicated to them that he would most likely kill them if he found them. As the man approached, Ludwig, his brother, and the young man discussed their options, and it seemed that the only way they could ensure their safety was to kill him. Moments before the farmer came too close, it began to rain heavily. The farmer left before he could discover them (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015). This is one of many instances in which Ludwig described luck as a powerful external force that contributed to his survival. When asked whether he considered himself to be resilient, he shook his head and said, “Not really, no no. I feel myself very lucky and very happy that I survived and I had a family that worked very hard and everything” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). 

In addition to luck, Ludwig attributed his survival to the social support he received throughout the war. At the end of his memoir is a note titled “Honor Roll,” dedicated to “seventeen righteous Gentiles” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 151), wherein Ludwig thanks all of the people who helped him survive. He says his Christian friends “were very, very helpful, and they put sometimes their life on the line to help me to get a piece of bread or they would let me know that they’re [Nazis] looking for the Jews” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015).

After the Holocaust: Adapting to Life in the U.S.

Ludwig immigrated to the United States in 1949 after having lived in Munich, Germany for three years after liberation (L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009). After a long, tumultuous ship journey across the Atlantic Ocean, he was greeted by his parents, who had only arrived in America a few weeks prior. He then drove to Brooklyn where he still lives today. After having settled into a new country and neighborhood, he received support from two Jewish organizations: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (often abbreviated to Joint) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (otherwise known as HIAS; L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009). In addition to providing financial support, they helped them to “find an apartment and also find work” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). However, he did not require their assistance for long. In his own words, he only needed “some kind of help at the start” from these organizations. With assistance from family and friends who had already settled in the United States, he began to support himself by getting a job in a meat shop.

Luck again played an integral role in how Ludwig coped during the Holocaust and adapted to life in the United States. Getting his first job at a meat shop was a stroke of luck: “I was lucky because I met a guy in the chicken business, and I was hanging around with him for a few weeks. And then I said ‘What he does, I could do too!’” This job helped him gain his footing in Brooklyn. When asked whether he felt as though he had adapted quickly, he responded with a humble, “maybe I was fast, maybe I was lucky” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). No longer needing assistance from Joint or HIAS, he moved forward in what would later become a very successful career in the meat industry. However, he chose to deemphasize his success in order to acknowledge that things “worked out” for him while they didn’t for others. Overall, it seems that his belief that luck led to his survival and adjustment to the United States stems from a slight disbelief that it could be due to anything else. At the end of his memoir, the theme of luck resurfaces, when he thanks all the people who contributed to his incredible tale of survival: “More than anything, though, our survival was possible because the winds of fortune blew into our path so many good people who were willing to risk their lives to save ours” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 144).

Although he experienced successes in his immigration to the U.S., Ludwig also faced several difficulties post-Holocaust; specifically, Ludwig considers learning English as the number one challenge to adapting to life in America. Throughout both interviews, he frequently described his experiences of initially arriving in America as “tough,” “hard,” and “complicated,” because he didn’t have a grasp on the language (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). Soon after liberation, while living in Germany, Ludwig had an export cattle business shipping meat to different places. He felt the need to “work really hard to make a good living” and establish himself as a successful businessman in America. He says, “Little by little you learn, and I got two businesses. And it was pretty good!” Ludwig ran chicken stores and meat markets in Brooklyn for 38 years after immigrating to the U.S.

Despite the language barrier, Ludwig did not consider himself as inferior to English speakers. He recalls a humorous story about hiring five young, American men who were discharged from the army. “We got really friendly, I couldn’t understand too much English, but you know, we talked. And one of the guys, he say, ‘Take a look…[we] just got off the ship, and we’re American boys, [but] we’re working for him!’ I say ‘Yeah, you’re right. But you’re all stupid, that’s why I’m smart, and that’s why you’re working for me” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). This anecdote demonstrates Ludwig’s confidence in his ability to succeed in the U.S. In his book, Ludwig writes that he embodied a “proud, defiant spirit” that was advantageous to his survival (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 144). For example, he explains, “Some European people feel bad because they have an accent. I don’t feel bad, you see. I’m too proud of a person. Maybe that helped me to survive!”

In addition to the language, Ludwig felt that he needed to “learn how to be an American” and become a “part of the great melting pot.” While referring to the general experience of U.S. immigrants, Ludwig states, “Little by little, you have to adjust, and it takes time...You learn to cope with it” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). Ludwig attributes his relatively “fast” adjustment to American culture to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He states, “If you’re a Holocaust survivor, you’ve got to be able to adjust to everything.” He describes his problems transitioning to life in the U.S. as “easier,” compared to his “life-threatening” horrors of suffering through the Holocaust.

Ludwig compared his experiences during the Holocaust to struggles he faced later in life, after liberation. “If you go through such a hard time, small things don’t seem to be big at all” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). When asked about the social support he received from other survivors after he arrived in the United States, he mentioned that when first arriving, “most Holocaust survivors [stuck] with Holocaust survivors.” As time has worn on, many of his survivor friends have unfortunately passed away; “A lot of them are gone already. But I still have a few Holocaust friends.” Their conversations have drifted away from the topic of their wartime experiences. “We all know already the stories [...] This to survivors is old news.”

Ludwig notes that he received support from many other family members after their arrival in Brooklyn. “I had a very, very good family,” he states. “Beautiful family that were very helpful” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). This certainly helped to ease his transition to living in the United States. They provided a place for him to stay “for many weeks” and “did whatever [they] need for us.” Becoming a part of the local community and forming friendships also was a source of social support. He attended synagogue every now and then, mostly because it was “a social thing.” However, he also met diverse groups of people outside of the Jewish community. He identified “with Jewish people, with non-Jewish people. With everybody. That’s the greatest thing about America.” It became apparent during our interview that Ludwig was a very sociable, charismatic man. His friends sat at the table next to ours, chiming in every now and then, occasionally making jokes. The waitresses knew his name and order, providing us with obvious clues as to how much he had become a prominent figure within his community.

Ludwig’s late wife, Dora, provided support post-Holocaust. “We saw things the same way, believed in the same things, shared the same lives. We belonged together, completed each other. Lou and Dora. Dora and Lou. A single entity. She’s been dead for six years at the time of this writing, and yet I talk to her every day” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 139). Dora had a vastly different experience from Ludwig when sharing her story. When she first came to the United States, one of her new American-born friends told her not to talk about the Holocaust. “It’s too disturbing. [...] We don’t want to hear about it,” this woman told Dora (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 148). For years after they immigrated to the United States, Dora stayed silent. As a result, she and Ludwig did not discuss their experiences very much at home. However, this changed when they visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in the early 1990’s, where she began to reflect on her life during the Second World War (L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009). 

After living in the U.S. for decades, Ludwig was asked on multiple occasions to speak about the Holocaust. For example, when his grandson, Jimmy, was 12 years old, he requested that Ludwig speak to his entire school. While Ludwig agreed to participate, he expressed that it was very difficult to speak to such a large crowd. To this day, he does not feel comfortable speaking about the Holocaust voluntarily, specifically because he becomes “too emotional.” He states, “It’s not nice to talk about the Holocaust.” However, Ludwig said that, when he does elect to share his story, the experience has generally been a rewarding one that has helped him cope with life post-Holocaust. He is concerned with leaving a tangible legacy for future generations in his family to remember him by. Ludwig explained that publishing Eye to Eye has been a particularly meaningful experience; he says, “If I [don’t] sell one book, it wouldn’t matter to me. I want my children, my great grandchildren to read that book and to know…[where their] great great great grandfather and grandparents come from” (L. Charatan, personal communication, December 5, 2015). 

Ludwig also shares his story in order to make a positive impact on the world. Because of his experiences during wartime, he often finds himself “losing trust” in humanity; the Holocaust taught him “how people could be mean” and commit “unbelievable” acts. He is “troubled” by the “dangerous” state of many places in the world today, and he believes that reminding people about the Holocaust has the power to help prevent future atrocities. Ludwig declared, “Every Holocaust survivor should say whatever he knows, because this is something that history will carry forever...This is something that shouldn’t be put under the carpet. And young people should learn and should see, just like any other histories being told.”

A significant part of Ludwig’s mission to share his experiences involved testifying against Nazi war criminal Fritz Gebauer. Ludwig was the only individual in the trial who could directly speak to some of Gebauer’s most horrendous crimes, including the senseless execution of his sister alongside 1,250 other factory workers. He expresses great satisfaction for “baring [Gebauer’s] filthy truth to the world.” Through publishing official accounts of the testimony in Eye to Eye, Ludwig hopes that his story “awakens and re-awakens the reader to the depths of evil to which human beings are capable of sinking...and to inspire and renew the eternal drive to defeat it” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 143).


Ludwig attributes several significant personal changes to the Holocaust. “Once the Holocaust become a different person instantly.” He went from living a comfortable life in Poland as a young, spoiled boy to living in constant fear and anxiety, just trying to “get through the day” and protect his family. As a result of suffering during wartime, Ludwig frequently explains that he was forced to “grow up overnight”. He sought to only be helpful to his parents from then on and never cause any further problems for them. 

When Ludwig came to America, he was a “different, changed boy”, ready to adjust to life in a new country and cope with what seemed to be relatively “small problems” compared to his experiences in the war (L. Charatan, personal communication, January 5, 2009). Ludwig spent many years keeping busy, “having a business to run, a family to raise, a life to live” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 3). Throughout his post-Holocaust life however, Ludwig always fought to preserve his story of survival and always kept sight of his life’s purpose. “A common call among our suffering people was, ‘If you survive, tell the world what happened here.’” (Charatan & Capotorto, 2015, p. 98). At the beginning of his memoir, Ludwig states that it took “so long to chronicle [his] experiences”, but that his determination to remember and make others remember the Holocaust never wavered. The tenacity and courage involved in recounting his story are true markers of Ludwig’s post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi, 1999). He has coped with his past by developing a purpose; to educate the world about his experiences, in an effort to curtail the re-emergence of intolerance. In writing this case study, the Holocaust Survivor research team also hopes to fulfill Ludwig’s mission and provide a psychological perspective from this important moment in history. As Ludwig and other survivors near the end of their lives, we believe that it has become more important than ever to share their stories of great hardship and resilience. Our team aspires for this case study to reach younger generations of scholars and serve as a remembrance of the unique story of Ludwig Charatan. 

Authors’ Note

The authors would like to thank Dr. Lisa Suzuki for her tremendous guidance and expertise, without which this project would not have been completed. The authors would like to recognize Elisa Kim, Gurjinder Singh, and Meredithe Talibon for their help throughout the research process. The authors would also like to thank Dr. Mary Brabeck for her support in reviewing this case study. Finally, the authors would like to extend their deepest gratitude to Ludwig Charatan, who took the time to share his incredible story with the Holocaust Survivor research team. 

Mr. Charatan’s name and photo are released with his permission.


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