The Resiliency of the Survivor: Views of a Child Holocaust Survivor/Psychiatrist
A presentation given at the Pike Conference on “The Holocaust and Its Legacy: Resiliency, Fragility and Restitution of Survivors,” Sunday October 23, 2011 at Hillel House, Boston University.
May 5, 1945 is indelibly etched into my memory. I was not quite five years old on the day of my liberation. Liberation day was not as liberating as it may seem, not for a Jewish child emerging from nearly three years in hiding. I had grown to believe that my Christian rescuers, Albert and Violette Munnik, were my parents and that their daughter, Nora, was my sister. Nevermind that I was a boy with black curly hair in a sea of blondes. They were my family.
However, my parents miraculously survived, each in a different hiding place in The Hague, Holland where I was born on August 5, 1940. The three of us, what was left of our family, were re-united. My father’s and mother’s parents (my grandparents) and their brothers and sisters (my uncles and aunts), had all been murdered.
I was returned to Leo and Emmy Krell. For three years as a hidden child, I had not complained or cried. I knew it was dangerous to do so. But I recognized freedom sufficiently to cry about three years’ worth when I had to leave the Munniks. That was the second time I lost my family, and of course, there had been other separations in the crazy days following receipt of the command to appear for “resettlement to the East.”
I was a child whose sense of security had been ruptured. I had lost my bearings. A fragile beginning. Nor did I know I was a Jew. How could I? Upon return to my parents, I was actually sent to a Catholic school down the block for an entire year. I was the Mother Superior’s favorite, either because I was a good student or perhaps more likely, her best prospect for conversion.
I learned about being Jewish from hearing the stories of survivors who returned via our home. They spoke of Auschwitz and other mysterious places, in Yiddish – ably translated by my second cousin, eight-year-old Milly, who had returned from Switzerland with her parents. We heard things we knew no child should hear and therefore listened all the more attentively.
That was our introduction to Judaism, an unforgettable litany of horrors visited upon Jews that imprinted on our minds. Seemingly from nowhere, I had a Hebrew teacher. Mr. Krakauer came to our home and tried to teach me. While I could learn anything at school, I was unable to absorb Hebrew. I did not know what the problem was. Now I do. How can a depressed child learn from a depressed teacher?
If Hebrew was meant to make me more Jewish, why should I cooperate? So far I had learned only that being a Jew connected with death, for everyone was dead, save one first cousin and Milly. And we were “elderly children;” we had lost the privilege of growing up as children with a childhood.
My cousin remained with his Christian rescuers. He declined our offer to have him live with us. Understandable. Had my parents not returned, I would have remained Robbie Munnik. I once asked my Moeder if she had wanted my parents to die. Her response, “Of course I thought of it. Then you would have been mine. But because I loved you, I wanted them to live.” After the war, I was shared and in Canada they attended both my graduation from medical school and my wedding to Marilyn.
My personal recovery began in 1951 on the day that we left for Canada aboard the Diemerdijk, a freighter with passenger accommodation, via the Panama Canal on a five-week journey to Vancouver. The Auschwitz inmates who worked in the “Kanada compound” at the concentration camp were right. They named the storage place of furs and treasure looted from arriving Jews after the country they knew to have an abundance of food and natural wealth.
To this 10-year-old, the opportunities in Canada were obvious. I hit the ground running, learned English, mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, joined Habonim, and worked my way through university, medical school, internship in Philadelphia, followed by a residency in Psychiatry at Temple and Stanford Universities, and back to Vancouver where I became Professor of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia Medical School.
I barely looked up. The task of being normal when you know you are not is all-encompassing. Shy beyond belief, I was nevertheless the lead in the school play the moment I arrived. Who better to play Franz Schubert than a kid with an accent who could play the piano? Next, I was on stage winning spelling bees. And then, strangely, without electioneering or ever saying anything self-serving, I came to be elected class president, then grade president, a trend that held throughout university where I ended up as the medical school president and representative on the student council. What was this, this ability to be elected without campaign speeches, without self-promotion? At least in part, it was the child survivor in me. Like so many others, I had mastered the art of silence. Silence was the language we learned and silence was the manner in which we communicated. And boisterous behaviour and risk-taking was its cover.
It was less easy for my parents. They tried so hard. They did the best they could. My father told me when I was 14 that we were broke. He became a real estate agent and achieved a modicum of success. My mother remained unhappy. She had a son at age 40, a brother for me with a fifteen-year gap between us. It gave her a second chance to raise me and she burdened him with stories of the war and us. It was like two families living side by side but involving the same cast, a Dutch family and its Canadian variant. Ronnie grew to be 6’3”. And I have height envy. He was affected by the presence of the Shoah in our lives. I saw it. Despite the burden he carried, he raised a fine family.
Were my personal successes a matter of resilience? Perhaps. If resilience also includes a healthy measure of good luck, the good fortune of having great friends, and the early recognition to ultimately rely on no one but myself.
Even though the study of medicine and psychiatry is all-consuming and required an entire decade, the Shoah-related intrusions remained. On a trip through Europe and to Israel in 1961, I attended the Eichmann trial. An elderly aunt took me.
On my way to Israel in 1967 as a young doctor who knew emergency medicine, my volunteerism was cut short by the war. But returning to Israel in 1969, I was hijacked on TWA 840, traveling from Rome to Tel Aviv, by the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). I had a lot of time to think about having been caught a second time. There was also a lot of time to think about being blown up (the hijackers said there was a bomb aboard), or crashing into Tel Aviv as was threatened. As it happened, we landed near Damascus where the front of the plane was blown up. A few harrowing days and we were flown back to Athens from which I flew on to Israel.
In Israel, at the El Al counter, I tried to extend my trip by the three days I had lost. As I explained to the airline representative, I had been hijacked. She helpfully said, “So is that my fault?” The language of silence worked. She took one look at me and decided to offer an extension.
Back in Vancouver, my career as a child and family psychiatrist began with the opening of a university clinic of which I was the director for some 30 years. I also directed the residency training program for 10 years. During that time, something entirely unexpected occurred that determined much of what followed. Holocaust survivors began to bring me their children – children troubled with the entire range of possible disorders including attention-deficit disorder, depressions, learning disabilities. And because of my family-practice orientation, which included thorough interviews with the parents, I began to learn of the reverberations of the Holocaust in these families. Shadows lurked. There appeared to be an influence, a complication additional to the disorders presented. I began to write, hesitantly.
For what little I had read up to the mid-1970’s, the psychiatric literature on the Holocaust was not impressive. In fact, most of it appeared misguided, if not outright insulting. The psychiatrist Kurt Eissler was fighting a lonely battle, exposing the warped approach used by compensation psychiatrists, who were appointed by Germany to evaluate survivors. His anguish resonates in the 1963 title of his article, “The murder of how many of his children must a person be able to endure symptom-free in order to have a normal constitution?” He pointed out the problems inherent in the psychiatry of examinations conducted by German psychiatrists for the purpose of restitution.
In a powerful 1967 article titled “Perverted Psychiatry?” Eissler indicts psychiatric experts appointed by the German consulate who “refused to acknowledge a connection between the victims’ experiences and later mental illness.” He cites several German psychiatric examiners of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Eissler describes the attitude of one Dr. A. through the following case: “This was a woman whose parents, brother, three sisters with their children, husband, and an 8-year-old daughter had been killed during the course of the persecutions; she herself spent years in a ghetto and in several concentration camps and had frequently been beaten to unconsciousness. She complained of depression, anxiety, phobia, feelings of guilt, etc.” Dr. A. denied any connection between these symptoms and the experience of persecution. He included in his report the following sentence: “Despite such grave experiences, of which no one is spared, most people continue their lives and have no chronic depressions.”
I had not thought of survivors in terms of resilience, a common-enough concept emerging in child psychiatry and developmental psychology. My early teens were lived surrounded by Holocaust survivors. They were our community, our social circle. In shul, in front of me stood Anshel Bogner. A broad-shouldered man with an equally broad smile, on Yom Kippur, his shoulders would shake during Kaddish. He was crying for the wife and two children that were murdered. And I would cry with him. I loved him.
To my right, a few seats over, sat Boris Wydra, the father of Eva Hoffman, who wrote “Lost in Translation,” “Shtetl,” “With Such Knowledge.” A little further over was Leon Kahn, with whom I had a special relationship. Leon, a Lithuanian partisan, witnessed the murder of his entire town from his hiding place overlooking the cemetery. He and Yaffa Eliach were childhood friends. Yaffa became a noted Holocaust historian and created the tower of photos of her shtetl’s murdered inhabitants at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Leon wrote a book, “No Time for Tears.” And to the other side were Leon Kaufman, who was on Shindler’s List along with his wife Esther, and Sid Eibshutz, who survived the Lodz Ghetto. These people filled my life with their presence, and although I came to know more details of their experiences much later, none fit the descriptions I read in the post-war literature in the language of psychopathology as used by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. They were said to be consumed with anger, to have social and sexual impairment, to live in denial, to be resistant to psychotherapeutic treatment.
I knew they were deeply wounded, sheltering from outsiders their deepest preoccupations, but the manner in which they moved in the world had a measure of dignity and of considerable good-natured humour. Not so dignified was the psychiatric literature, seemingly a full frontal attack on people who had endured the longest sustained series of traumas over many years with no chance of escape or relief short of death. The inability of mental health professionals to understand and empathize was reflected in their observations. Instead of revising the language of psychology they retained archaic concepts inappropriate to the degree of torment inflicted. And if survivors did not speak it was not properly attributed to fear of not being understood or because of the failure to find words to describe what happened; no, it was labelled denial. Sadly, it was the denial exercised by the therapists, too guilty or too afraid of what they might hear and knew they could not bear – and certainly not treat. In the therapeutic context, if you ask the question, the answer commits you to try to assist. Better not to ask, better not to step into that abyss.
While the postwar decades focused on the psychopathology of the victims, relatively little was done to examine the process of recovery. Did any Holocaust survivors recover? And if so, how? While large-scale demographic studies revealed few or no differences in a cohort of survivors versus non-survivors, those of us who have interviewed hundreds of survivors for various reasons and under a wide variety of circumstances know that each carries his or her own particular burden of memories. The right combination of triggers may release unwanted thoughts, even behaviours, but mostly they are actively suppressed in favour of more normal activities. William B. Helmreich’s study is aptly titled, “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America.” The sources of his information were 170 in-depth interviews with survivors. And my source comprises in part the 120 audio-visual testimonies I made in a documentation project started in 1979, plus my contact with survivors for psychiatric care and those with whom I have shared life and community.
All are precious examples of surviving after survival, the utilization of the ability to compartmentalize their personal tragedies as separate from the life to be lived. But sometimes the one intrudes upon the other.
As happy as my mother was to join us for Shabbat and be with her children and grandchildren, she also saw who was missing from that table. It is the fate of the survivor to be reminded of their extensive losses at otherwise happy events.
I cannot claim to have successfully treated a Holocaust survivor. There is no cure. I can claim to have listened well and to have tried to be unafraid to ask certain questions. I can also claim that all I have learned is from them.
Here is how I learned the meaning of restitution. A very depressed survivor was sent to me after one day in a psychiatric ward. He told me he would gladly see me but the basement hospital ward reminded him of mine shafts in which he was a slave labourer. So he walked out. He agreed to see me but also insisted that if he wanted to kill himself, I not interfere. “Don’t try to stop me.” he said. I heard his story and he had earned the right to decide his fate. So we continued. Part of the work to be done involved assisting him to fill out complicated forms to apply for compensation from a German government program. It took about two years of correspondence, correcting forms, answering questions that I thought were highly insensitive in light of his suffering, to finally achieve a failure in view of what I had hoped to achieve. I received for him a cheque in the amount of $1,300.
I called him. My voice faltered. I was practically in tears. “I failed you, they awarded you $1,300.” He came to see me, beaming. I apologized again. He reassured me that I did not understand. He was elated. It was his first victory, ever. The compensation was incidental to the confirmation that he had been wronged. He said, “They acknowledged that I was there. They committed an injustice and admitted it. I won.” He helped me understand the meaning of achieving personal justice.
Some years later, I too pursued compensation from Holland, but not out of need. I had decided that they had stolen so much that it was unfair to let them keep it all. I was interviewed in Canada by a representative of the Dutch government claims office. Amazingly, after recounting the fact that I had never known my grandparents, aunts or uncles and been moved from home to home, separated from my parents, this representative said, “Well, my husband [a Dutch youngster of a Christian family] suffered too [of hunger] and he never asked for anything.”
What could I say? That after her husband was fed, his entirely family was there for him? That life on May 5, 1945 resumed with relatively few repercussions? I said nothing. Silence, my comfort zone. As part of the process I was to see a psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation. I picked one, a Vancouver-based psychologist whose work with deprived children I admired. I had seen a video of him with a young patient we shared.
I went for my two- hour assessment without trepidation. I was in my mid-fifties, a successful professor, with a beautiful family, and a good reputation as a community leader (Chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress-Pacific Region, co-founder in 1976 of the Symposium on the Holocaust for high school students, one of North America’s first A/V documentation programs, the builder of a local Holocaust memorial and founder of the Vancouver Holocaust education centre). I was the picture of success. I opened my mouth to say, “I was born in The Hague, Holland and – .” Then I cried for about an hour before I could continue. We live close to the margin. I stayed in therapy for the next three years. The Dutch government reimbursed me for the cost of my therapist, a hollow victory indeed.
I am reasonably certain that survivors were done a great disservice in the first few decades after liberation. They were viewed as flawed characters, sometimes assumed to be psychopaths (after all, who else could survive but those without conscience). There was an inversion of reality with the focus on the victims and what they did or did not do, rather than on the perpetrators. One needs know only what my long time friend Rudolf Vrba, of blessed memory, told me one day. Rudi was one of five prisoners to escape Auschwitz. He, with his friend Alfred Wetzler, in April 1944 wrote the Vrba-Wetzler report, known as the Auschwitz protocols, that were meant to be widely distributed as a warning to Hungarian Jews, who were yet to be deported. Rudi knew Auschwitz well. “Robert,” he said one day, “Everything was permissible.” Think about that – a universe where for the perpetrators everything was permissible and for the victims, nothing.
Is it possible that everyone studied the victims in order to better understand the perpetrators?
Yet it turns out, that when all is said and done, the survivors have indeed done well against all odds.
The biases prevailed until psychiatrists, sometimes themselves survivors, forced a re-evaluation. A more rational approach to the unrelenting traumatic consequences of massive psychic trauma was evident in the early work of two child Holocaust survivors who became psychiatrists, Emmanuel Tanay and Dori Laub. Anna Ornstein, herself an Auschwitz survivor, in her paper “Survival and Recovery” describes the evolution of the survivor syndrome as a credible “diagnosis” for conditions that simply did not look like other diagnostic categories but reminds the reader that it is not itself a disease. And she recognizes how our insights into psychopathology, pathogenesis and symptom formation by far exceed “our failure to understand how recovery – in and outside of the therapeutic situation – may occur.”
So in the mid-1980s, there was a change in the persistently negative view of the survivor. And like other major Jewish events, it required the biblical 40 years.
Sara Moskovitz first drew attention to an entirely neglected group of Holocaust survivors – the children. She conducted a study of 24 children from Terezin brought to Lingfield, England for their recovery. Her 1983 book, “Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives” focused on the manner in which these children were coping nearly 40 years later. And Judith Hemmendinger described the Buchenwald Boys, 426 of approximately 1,000 children and adolescents discovered there, who were taken to Ėcouis near Paris for their recovery. Judith was in charge of the nearly 90 boys in the chateau of Ambloy. Her particular charges were those who returned to kashruth and to the traditions of their childhood.
At Ėcouis the boys were gathered and told they would not recover. Amongst that gathering were Israel Meir Lau, nicknamed Lulek, the future Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel; his older brother, Naftali Lavie, who served as Israeli Consul to New York; Kalman Kalikstein, a physicist who worked with Einstein; other rabbis, physicians, medical hospital directors, businessmen, and of course, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.
It is crucial to the examination of resilience to distinguish between the older survivors who had memories of a warm home life, of Jewish traditions, of the family Shabbat and High Holy Days and who could use these memories upon which to build a new life, as compared with those too young to have vivid recollections of their formative years and little or no recall of established traditions or Jewish learning.
While it is possible to argue that the older survivor suffered more acutely due to their cognitive awareness of their suffering, their chances to rebuild were enhanced by their recall of a model to emulate. Children were considered to have suffered less by virtue of their assumed compromised ability to remember. This turns out to be wrong. Children have plenty of memories borne of severe trauma; however, they are fragmented and seldom sequential. But they may lack the memories that can serve as building blocks to a new life. As a consequence, child Holocaust survivors faced a series of obstacles not encountered by the adult survivors.
For example, while adult survivors built social lives within the community of survivors and talked with each other of their experiences, children built their lives with their new communities and kept totally quiet about their experiences. Since most survived in hiding, in effect, they continued in hiding. To some degree, this contributed to a sense of fragility and vulnerability. The hidden children remained hidden until well into the 1980s, and in 1991 a small group of us succeeded to gather about 1,500 child survivors at a meeting in New York City. For most, it was the beginning of a process of healing that went beyond the relentless effort to cope with life, alone. And indeed, there had been a number of child Holocaust survivors struggling with the meaning of it all. Samuel Oliner, Professor of Sociology at Humboldt University in California, had undertaken a massive study of the altruistic personality in the 1970s and 1980s in an effort to determine the characteristics of persons who rescued Jews at risk to their lives. His book, “The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe” was published in 1988. He himself was hidden in Poland. Professor Ervin Staub wrote a truly seminal work, “The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence” in 1989. He survived as a child in Budapest. Peter Suedfeld, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, examined issues of coping and resilience based on survivor testimony gathered in Vancouver. Peter survived in the Budapest ghetto with his father. His mother was murdered in Auschwitz. And Robert Melson wrote “Revolution and Genocide,” discussing the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. He survived on false papers in Poland.
The contributions of those who survived as children reflect not only a need to understand their survival but also to contribute knowledge to the field of Holocaust studies as well as serving those who have become victims of contemporary genocides. One result is the recognition of the concepts of resilience and post-traumatic growth.
The 2006 paper in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry by Ervin Staub and Johanna Vollhardt reflects current trends in its title, “Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping After Victimization and Other Trauma.” There exists a growing literature on growth borne of trauma despite the dispiriting consequences of that trauma.
For the most part, survivors have proved faithful to memory and inspired the building of memorials, the creation of meaningful centres of Holocaust education, drawn lessons from their experiences as a warning to future generations, engaged in research and writing to further knowledge about the Shoah, prepared a generation of new teachers including those drawn from the second generation, and are living proof of a resilience that defies the vast majority of dire predictions of their vulnerabilities and of assumed psychopathology. Vulnerable, yes; yet the majority have succeeded to live life as survivors, not victims.
Eissler, Kurt R. (May 1967). Perverted Psychiatry? American Journal of Psychiatry, 123(11), 1352-1358.
Helmreich, William B. (1996). Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
Hemmendinger, Judith & Krell, Robert (2000). The Children of Buchenwald: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Postwar Live,s Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House.
Melson, Robert (1992). Revolution and Genocide: The Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Moskovitz, Sara (1983). Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives, New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Oliner, Samuel P. & Oliner, P.M. (1988). The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, New York: The Free Press.
Ornstein, Anna (1985). Survival and Recovery. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, (1) 99-130.
Staub, Ervin (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press.
Staub, Ervin and Vollhardt, J. (2008). Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping after Victimization and Other Trauma, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(3) p. 267-280.