Holocaust Survivor Psychology

Psychological Dynamics in Aging Survivors of the Holocaust

Author: Dr. Eva Fogelman, Ph.D, Child Development Research

The psychological dynamics of aging survivors of the Holocaust are worthy of inquiry because, indeed, their old age is marred by a massive traumatic historical catastrophe. For some Holocaust survivors, their lives were disrupted not only by barbaric persecution during the German occupation of European countries, but also by oppressive Communist regimes under which some were living after liberation, or by other harsh experiences in the post-Holocaust era.

In general, the aging process, which manifests itself with increasing physical deterioration, slowing down mentally, a barrage of losses, social isolation, and loss of self-worth is exacerbated for individuals who once again are not in control of their own destiny, and who have to adapt to multiple deaths, physical illness, and their own imminent death. The aging Holocaust survivor is often not conscious of the connection between the horrific past and his or her current emotional state, particularly if he or she is surrounded by beauty, love, and financial security.

Holocaust survivors are not a monolithic group. They came from all walks of life in terms of social class, political affiliation, religious beliefs and observance, education, urban versus rural shtetl communities, and extent of relationships with the outside world. Some were children during the years of persecution, while others were parents with young children. The majority who survived were teens and young adults. Few children survived concentration camps; the majority who survived were in hiding. Some survived with families intact, while others were the sole survivors of large extended family. While the duration and severity of persecution varied, depending on where one lived in Europe during the Third Reich from 1933 until 1945, there are nonetheless commonalities in psychological dynamics in the aging process.

In the post-World War II years, the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson aptly described the adult developmental stages Holocaust survivors go through. First, survivors thrust themselves into intimate relations and established new families. Like other adults they slowly moved into the stage of generativity and caring versus stagnation and self-absorption. It is not enough just to create the next generation; the goal becomes to guide the next generation. As survivors age, there is a greater urgency to guide the next generation, not only one’s immediate family, but to reach out to other and teach them about the Holocaust.

This stage is fraught with emotional conflict for aging Holocaust survivors. For the first forty years after liberation, many survivors were subscribed to an unwritten taboo not to talk about the gruesome details of their years in concentration camps, or in ghettos, or in hiding, or escaping, or disguised as non-Jews, or even fighting the Germans. A few survivors ignored this propensity, the “silence,” and spoke incessantly to their children. Here and there survivors wrote memoirs in private, which they did not publish until many years later. Survivors who had children or a spouse who was murdered found themselves keeping their previous lives a secret.

Aging survivors yearn for their children and others to “remember.” But when survivors begin to consider what it is they want remembered, they contemplate the impact of their verbal and non-verbal communication, particularly on their children. When one considers the teachings derived from a personal history replete with racism and genocide, it can lead to lessons that invoke fear of the outside world, such as not to trust anyone outside the immediate family. Survival lessons derived from an extreme situation can have a detrimental impact in normal times. For example, if an aging survivor has an adult child who did not marry, they may feel guilty that the lessons of mistrust that one insisted on teaching have created too much anxiety in the second-generation adult child to consider getting intimate with a stranger. Other survivors may be fixated on teaching about pain and suffering, and may show little tolerance for present-day problems of child. This too can have detrimental feelings to a child who feels she has no right to express her own pain, and the survivor experiences the pain of a lack of closeness to a child.

The next developmental stage¾integrity versus despair¾is when the individual begins to understand that “one’s life is one’s own responsibility” and accepts “significant others” into his or her life. When a survivor cannot do this, despair sets in and sometimes becomes a motivator. Erikson taught us that in the final stage of life, it is a question of sinking into despair or maintaining integrity. Survivors in this stage guide the next generation while validating their own experiences by “bearing witness.” Many in the survivor population know the legacy is a mixed blessing, but it does have integrity, and integrity is imparted to others.

Those survivors who feel motivation to “bear witness” have experienced a progressive channeling of their traumatic past, rather than despair, which leads to a regressive emotional state. Since the mid-1980s, a noticeable proliferation of Holocaust survivor voices has become ever present in the arts, in media, and in the public sphere in general. The opportunity for aging Holocaust survivors’ to “bear witness” became possible because of external factors. The Holocaust survivors’ suffering was validated by leaders of present-day Germany. Even though most Nazi supporters in other German-occupied countries did not assume responsibility for their barbaric actions towards the Jews and other minorities, various forms of media continue to illustrate the victimization. In recent years we have observed the proliferation of films, books, and especially television programs on the Holocaust, including interviews with survivors, coverage of Holocaust commemorations, Holocaust survivor gatherings, and national commemorations of the end of World War II. The new restitutions for those who worked in labor camps, compensation for lost properties and businesses, bank accounts, and insurance policies, although fraught with many complications, have been another symbolic gesture of nations’ publicly acknowledging wrongdoing.

Some Holocaust survivors’ despair is exacerbated because they either did not have children or their children are plagued with emotional or physical problems. While barrenness and problematic children can happen to anyone, for Holocaust survivors, and particularly for women incarcerated in concentration camps, a different level of responsibility is felt by the survivor. There are survivor mothers who fear that their incarceration or persecution was responsible for their child’s infirmities. A few blame their lack of conception on experiments performed on them during their years in concentration camps. There are those who chose not to have children because of fear of what they saw happen to youngsters during the years of German-occupation. The despair is compounded by survivor guilt, which can be relentless in aging Holocaust survivors.

Survivor guilt is exacerbated in aging survivors when they began anew to mourn their murdered family members. A common remark from an aging survivor is: “I haven’t thought about the Holocaust throughout all these years; how come I am thinking about it now?” When survivors are feeling their own imminent death or if loved one or friends are dying, it jolts them into a mourning process. Some never had an opportunity to mourn a mother or father, a brother or sister, a child or spouse. Others were stuck in one of the stages of mourning for these many years.

The five stages of mourning, which are not rigid, move from shock to denial, to a confrontation of what happened, to an overwhelming feeling stage, and ultimately to a search for meaning. When survivors are stuck in the feeling stage, they can be depressed and resist any form of enjoyment or they can be full of rage. Those who are in the confrontation stage are taking trips to Europe to see where they survived. A trip to a concentration camp is part of the mourning process. It is an opportunity to say the memorial prayer (Kaddish). At times aging survivors find themselves as severely depressed. When asked more directly about their losses during the Holocaust, this opportunity enables an unconscious process to be conscious.

Holding onto survivor guilt is sometimes a way of holding onto and connecting with the dead. Denial of living¾refusing to enjoy one’s life¾is a perverse way of remaining close to the dead. When survivors are asked more directly what the dead would want and how they would want to be remembered, the irrational guilt feelings have an opportunity to be transformed into a more life-affirming goal of remembering. For example, the dead would want their heirs to remember what made them happy, how they lived their life, their values, rather than their pain and suffering.

Integrity for aging Holocaust survivors is to embrace a Judaism that is not based on victimology. If one of the goals of aging survivors is to replace some of what has been lost through the destruction of European Jewry, it cannot be a Jewish identity that is perpetuated through victimhood. The rich Jewish culture that was nearly destroyed needs to find expression in future generations. The aging survivors are the link to that which was destroyed and a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

Eva Fogelman, PhD is a psychologist in private practice in New York City.  she is co-director of Child Development Research.  Dr. Fogelman was the co-founder and co-director of Psychotherapy With Generations of the Holocaust and Related Traumas and founding director of Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers (ne Foundation for the Righteous). She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominee Conscience and Courage:  Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust and author and co-producer of the award-winning documentary Breaking the Silence:  The Generation After the Holocaust.

[1] This article was originally printed in Clio’s Psyche December 2008.

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