HOW THE HOLOCAUST INFORMS TRAUMA FOR ME
|by Dr. Paul Valent
Paul is psychiatrist of 30 years standing and himself a child survivor, who founded and has been President of both the Child Survivors of the Holocaust Group in Melbourne, and the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. He has written three books - Child Survivors of the Holocaust, From Survival to Fulfilment: A Framework for the Life-Trauma Dialectic, and Trauma and Fulfilment Therapy: A Wholist Framework.
I define the Holocaust as the greatest recorded genocide in history. In it are recorded every possible trauma, and their consequences over sixty years and across the generations. The magnitude and thorough recording of its impact makes it a universal informant on other traumas, from individuals to other genocides.
I define trauma as a wound which threatens survival and comprises physical, psychological, spiritual and social components. It disrupts the creative ripening of life. Its consequences include victims remaining apprehensive of the recurrence of events that gave rise to their traumas, and simultaneously, hide the worst of those experiences in the unconscious. Occasionally, the repressed fragments spring into consciousness, causing abnormal responses and behaviour.
The first issue which I will address, and which I have found survivors confront, is whether to delve into oneself, confront one’s traumatic past, and risk unfreezing the pain fixed in the trauma, or to avoid looking into the past. I think that this is a false dichotomy. Most people do both. People unfreeze the past in proportion to their need to find meaning in their traumas, and hope of integrating their lives by reconciling the past with the present.
The next issue is whether the Holocaust can be compared to other traumas. I have found that victims of all traumas find their travails centrally involving, and unique. Attempts to abstract common features from their and others’ traumas may be perceived as unwarranted comparisons of suffering; and lack of recognition of one’s own traumas. Because the Holocaust affected so much of one’s life, it feels particularly universal and sacred. To my mind, it has common features with other traumas and genocides, but as I said, it also serves as an informing template for them.
Even among survivors, the Holocaust is experienced differently, depending on whether the survivor was an adult, or a child at the time, or was a child of such survivors. Adult survivors tend to be preoccupied with continuing survival, at times to the exclusion of their children’s needs. Child survivors’ parents have said, “You were only a child. How could you have suffered?” Parental preoccupation with survival may conflict with needs of children, raised in benign conditions, to maximise their happiness. Some of their children’s quests for satisfactions may seem trivial to survivor parents.
This brings us to the immense obstacles of communicating of trauma. Ruth Wajnryb pointed out that to begin with, there must be a listener with compassionate willingness to hear. For most people, stories of atrocities, pain and suffering are too burdensome to listen to. Secondly, language is an inadequate vehicle to truly convey the subjective states generated by trauma. Thirdly, traumas that are numbed and scattered in the part of the mind, which resists coherence, cannot be conveyed as a coherent story. Lastly, the teller expects the hearer to recognise the true human experience, while the hearer needs to feel they can do something with the story. These obstacles often produce silence of a special kind, particularly between parent survivors and children who had not lived through the trauma causing events. Unbeknown to either, fragments of parental trauma are transmitted to the children, who then become burdened with trauma for which they have no explanation.
To integrate the Holocaust in a meaningful way is hard. For many, the very fact that the Holocaust happened is proof of non-existence of a God with interest in human beings, who applies morality according to human aspirations. Traumas cannot be explained in traditional religious terms as punishments for not keeping the laws, or as some unknown divine purpose, as in the Book of Job. This leads me to contend that morality, altruism and conscience, and even spirituality, do not come from God. Rather, these qualities originate from within, out of intense personal survival and fulfilment issues. Trauma interferes with the correct functioning of these qualities, leading to bizarre moral consequences. For instance, it is often the victim, not the perpetrator who feels guilt for the murdered. Survivors are often weighed down by questions as “Why them, not me? What could I have done to save them?” Such guilt may be chronic, unnecessarily oppressive, and be part of the hidden core of uncommunicable traumas.
On the other hand, many survivors do not credit themselves with virtues such as bravery, courage, faith, endurance, generosity and altruism that contributed to their own and others’ survival. They say it was only luck. If we realise how easy it is to die, to survive the harshest of traumas in the Holocaust required abundant exercise of virtues, as well as copious luck. Perhaps above all virtues was love. To be reunited with loved ones was the most important flame maintaining hope and life. When loved ones did not return and other hopes as well were dashed, the pain was often greater than of the Holocaust itself. It then seemed hazardous to love again, and that is why survivors are heroes when they do trust and love again.
How have survivors made sense of meaning of their lives? Replenishing our numbers with children was a defeat of genocide. “Am Israel chai!? (The Jewish people live!”) was given meaning by Israel, its national expression. But pure survival has not been enough for total meaning. The call of the dead was – “Tell the world what happened to us” – for a purpose. The purpose must be that in the telling there is a lesson for Jews, and for other people, at other times, to prevent such catastrophes from happening again. And the telling has continued. Unlike the tragedies of gypsies and homosexuals, which are not well remembered, we have produced a vast collection of testimonies, books and films.
Survivors have striven to make subjective meaning of their experiences, and to still savour joy in their lives. To help this, many have confronted their traumas, internally and externally. For instance, many survivors have revisited the places of Holocaust experiences, often with their children and grandchildren. This helps disjointed memories and emotions to become coherent, communication to be more flowing, for grief to become unfrozen – for respects to be paid to perished loved ones, and unnecessary burdens such as survivor guilt, to be relinquished. The process has allowed child survivors to come out of hiding, relieve their childlike confusion and enjoy their adulthood. Survivors’ children can come to understand their parents’ traumas and the sources of their own scars.
And yet, were the greater lessons of the Holocaust in vain? Seemingly so – since then we have had Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda and the resurgence of Arab anti-Semitism and its European equivalent. The traumas may be continuing. For instance, it has been said that Israelis fight Arabs during the day and Germans at night and it might be the Palestinians are fighting their own traumatic shadows with Israelis. Continued immersion in past traumas makes it more likely for new traumas to come about. So with nations, as with individuals, past traumas need to be fully understood, lessons learnt from this understanding fully digested, and applied to new situations as they arise. Living past traumas as if they were occurring today, thwarts correct appraisal of the context of contemporary crises, and bars the way to realistic resolutions.
Holocaust survivors and survivors of other disasters, such as Australian bushfires, are divided into those who see themselves as in a world apart, for whom their own group’s survival is all that matters. And there are those who see the lessons of the Holocaust and of other suffering to be of universal is all that matters. And there are those who see the lessons of the Holocaust and of other suffering to be of universal significance, useful in dealing with other crises and conflicts. It is of supreme importance that the latter view prevails. Holocaust’s lesson of “Never again!” has to be reinterpreted in a way its survivors may not have anticipated. It cannot just mean “Never again!” for us, but “Never again!” for all. This means that the Holocaust needs to be understood at a deep and ubiquitous human level.
Observing survivor patients, of the Holocaust and of other disasters, I have noted a recurring pattern. First, the survivors expose their wounds for understanding and tending and then they build up their strength. Then, they want others to know that trauma can heal. Near the end of their therapies, in order to give some purpose to their suffering, they ask, how come they were abused? To understand this question requires a leap of imagination of major difficulty. It calls for a degree of empathy with the perpetrator, someone whom one hates and may well wish dead. For instance, the perpetrators may themselves have been abused. The obstacle to understanding is the apprehension that it excuses and justifies the actions of the perpetrator. This is not so. Such understanding has been a start to dealing creatively and efficiently with causes of aggression abuse and atrocities – like domestic violence, sexual violation of children and wartime atrocities.
From experience of history of two thousand years of suffering and with six million recent martyrs, we have resolved never to be victims again. But the volume of suffering may induce us to be the chosen people in an unexpected way. We may extend “Remember what happened to us” to “Remember what happened to us and find out why, and help others not to have to suffer like we are doing.” Ultimately, we may offer the world tools to understand the process by which innocent people are victimised, and teach its prevention. The application of the many lessons arising from the Holocaust and the insights thereby gained, may contribute to war becoming an historical dinosaur, like the plague.