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For One Resident, Survivor’s Guilt Taking Emotional Toll After Tea Fire

Josie Levy Martin, a Holocaust survivor, struggles again with being one of 'the lucky ones' after her and her husband's home was miraculously spared by the blaze.

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Josie Levy Martin stands in the doorway of her home that, mysteriously, was spared by the Tea Fire despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes. Martin, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by a renewed sense of guilt. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

For nearly 24 hours after the Tea Fire ravaged the populous foothills, Josie Levy Martin and her husband, Ed, were among hundreds of families wandering around Santa Barbara, wondering if they were homeless.

Eventually, the Martins learned the unbelievable news: The fire devastated their side of the block on Mount Calvary Road, but had stopped, mysteriously, at their home. Despite the destruction of the cul-de-sac’s six neighboring homes, their yellow-ochre Spanish hacienda was unscathed — not even a singe.

For both, it was a major relief. But for Josie in particular, the joy was short-lived. It didn’t take long for a sense of guilt to settle in — one that, for her, was all too familiar.

Like many people whose homes were spared, Josie began to suffer from a bout of what therapists call “survivor’s guilt.” The term originated from the feelings experienced by many survivors of the Holocaust, but can apply to people wracked with guilt over their escape from any number of traumatic experiences: combat, car accidents, layoffs, natural disasters.

Josie can attest to the validity to the term’s historical origin: her renewed sense of guilt is familiar precisely because she is a Holocaust survivor.

“It’s so random,” she said of the fires, adding that no amount of precaution — watering the roof, clearing the brush — could have spared her home. “It happens because the wind blows one way or another. So much of the Holocaust is like that as well. The amount of luck that enters into these things I think is 75 percent of it. So the survivor’s guilt is very powerful.”

Roberta Ainciart, a retired marriage and family therapist who has been providing free counseling services to Tea Fire victims through the Red Cross, said many residents are suffering from survivor’s guilt.

“Sometimes, that is just as difficult as losing your home,” she said. “You’re in this totally devastated area, and it looks like a war zone, and your neighbors have lost everything, and here you’ve got your home.”

Ainciart said she gives people stricken with survivor’s guilt the same advice as those whose homes are no more: Stay in touch with friends and family; eat right and try to get plenty of sleep; don’t be afraid to talk about the trauma; and, above all, understand that the feelings are normal.

“There are good days and bad days, good memories and bad memories; it’s all to be expected,” she said.

As for Josie, she has experienced the trauma of living in an actual war zone.

In 1944, she was a 6-year-old child living with her parents in France when the Germans invaded. Realizing the gravity of the threat, her parents found a nun at a Catholic school who agreed to take her in. Josie was given a new, non-Jewish-sounding last name — L’Or — and was instructed never to reveal her true identity.

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In an eerie juxtaposition, there’s nothing left of the home next door to the Martins. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
It’s a good thing she didn’t: Her teacher turned out to be a Nazi collaborator. Josie lived at the school for nine months before her parents, who had gone into hiding themselves, returned for her.

Josie, who in 2002 published a memoir on the experience called Never Tell Your Name, said the guilt she experienced from surviving the Holocaust didn’t set in until later in life.

As a teenager living in Los Angeles, her mother would remind her that so many of their relatives had had it worse. One of her aunts had lost her two children, husband and father in the concentration camps; the son of a cousin escaped “from the very mouth of the crematorium of Auschwitz.”

“I was the one in 10 Jewish European children who survived, the ‘lucky ones,’ as my mother intoned,” she writes in the book. But “too often I felt estranged, unworthy, guilty without knowing why or about what.”

This week, as her neighbors began sifting through the ashes of their homes, she again felt like the lucky one. It’s a distinction that can be embarrassing.

When her less-fortunate neighbors drive past, she cringes, unsure whether to wave. Over the weekend, when she and her husband saw their neighbors lay eyes on the smoldering devastation for the first time, the Martins shouted from a distance: “If there’s anything we can do!”

But there was nothing they could do.

For his part, Ed has processed the event differently.

To be sure, when the Martins learned from a police officer that their home was spared, Ed reflected on the bittersweet nature of the news. While they were feeling relief, others so nearby would be under duress.

The overwhelming sensation for him has been closer to thankfulness than guilt. “I continue to be really, really appreciative of the fact that I have a house to eat dinner in,” he said.

Ed attributed their different reactions largely to their radically different upbringings.

Josie lived for a year without parents in an environment of terror, and Ed grew up in a family “where there was never a question about safety and the future.”

His father was a local fundamentalist preacher who instilled in him the maxim: “I know the Lord will make a way for me.” And although Ed said his childhood family’s religious convictions are no longer a part of his own conscious belief system, he said they seem to have contributed to his inherent sense of optimism, and confidence in the future. 

“If we were all the same, think what a miserable thing that would be,” he said.

Conversely, Josie, who has worked as a teacher and a school psychologist, said she — like many wartime survivors — spends a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She said her husband sometimes chided her for packing up a grab-and-go bag after wildfires destroyed many homes in Malibu last year.

“I have moments where I’d like to live in the flats in L.A., in a high rise,” she said. “I was feeling pretty good until this happened.”

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