Issue 5, Spring 2015

“Recovering from Genocidal Trauma” by Myra Giberovitch: A Book Review

An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors by Myra Giberovitch

Judith Hassan OBE
Special Advisor
Therapeutic Services for Survivors and Refugees of War Trauma (Jewish Care)

Myra Giberovitch

Myra Giberovitch, an experienced social worker, has devoted 25 years of her life looking into the face of death through the eyes of the Holocaust survivors with whom she has been working.  It takes immense courage and strength to do so.  Her book is a vital record of the long and often difficult road she has traveled with survivors, learning how they live with the long-term impact of their severe trauma and developing, together with them, positive and meaningful therapeutic responses. At its core, the book brings hope and encouragement to those working specifically with Holocaust survivors, as well as others working with survivors of different genocides. Myra’s vision, passion and determination, as well as her compassion for the survivors, are clearly evident.

The book is divided into five parts, beginning with a look at the historical context for the author’s work, to detailing her specific therapeutic model, and, later, offering a practical guide to help those working in the complex field of trauma treatment.  Throughout her book, Ms. Giberovitch brings a balanced view, always looking at both sides of an argument, giving excellent references to appropriate literature, but not shying away from giving her own standpoint. At the core of everything she writes is the integrity of the survivors.

From the beginning of her book, she strongly challenges the post-war perception of survivors, held by medical and other professionals, who described them collectively as pathetic victims who had been irreparably damaged by their experiences in the Holocaust.  In contrast, Ms. Giberovitch makes clear her own views, based on her academic knowledge, her personal experience as a child of survivors, as well as her professional understanding of survivors having worked with them, emphasizing the survivors’ inner strengths, resilience, as well as their coping and adaptive behavior.

Myra’s aim is to de-pathologize and challenge the psychiatric labels attached to former victims.  At the same time, she does not minimize the on-going impact of their traumatic past.  She recognizes that recovery is never complete.

Myra wisely cautions against generalizations and over-simplifications of survivors’ behavior into symptoms and syndromes.  She illustrates her point by looking at the current diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).   Myra sees PTSD as only one way of responding to traumatic experience, and underlines the fact that it is not an inevitable outcome of severe or prolonged trauma.

In my work with Holocaust survivors, I would concur with Myra’s finding that such psychiatric classifications, on the whole, do little to give survivors a sense of being believed or understood.  Myra acknowledges that some survivors may suffer from depression, often compounded by the re-emergence of traumatic memories as they age, their increasing practical and health problems, as well as their increasing social isolation.  However, Myra later emphasizes, as I do, that this is a normal reaction to the very abnormal experiences the survivors have gone through.

In her search for understanding, Myra considers a variety of theories. She focuses, for example, on very interesting research in neuroscience, looking at the effects of prolonged trauma on the brain. Ultimately, however, Myra sees empathic listening as the key tool in reaching out and connecting to survivors, many of whom may still be fearful to trust after their experiences under the Nazis.  She sees the survivors as individuals, each with their own life experiences.  She details the environmental factors that may assist survivors to cope in later life and give meaning to their survival, such as speaking at public forums about their experiences and educating others about the Holocaust.  Her therapeutic aim is to enable survivors to live side by side with their traumatic memories, not forgetting them, but feeling less overwhelmed by them.

Myra looks at the impact of other genocides as well, but she is clear about stressing the particularity of the Holocaust.  Her deep commitment to Holocaust survivors is clear as she lists the issues that are unique to them.  She speaks on behalf of survivors and gives them a voice through the many case illustrations interwoven into the text. She could perhaps have widened the book’s view of different Holocaust experiences to include those of hidden children, partisans, those living under false papers, or the Kindertransport, all of whom also had their human rights taken away from them by the Nazis, and later experienced the re-emergence of traumatic memory.

I believe that Part 111 of the book, “Survivor Services and Programs,” demonstrates Myra’s clear and unequivocal belief in what she calls “strengths-based practice (P126),” which forms the bedrock of her therapeutic model.  The essence of her therapeutic work rests on the concept of empowerment and its link to recovery.  Myra stresses that it is the survivors’ inner resources and abilities that guide her work in meeting their needs.  She shifts the focus towards looking at what survivors have achieved in their lives, how they have coped with other traumas in life, and what they continue to contribute today.

Myra does not just pay lip service to empowerment.  In order to ensure that survivors feel empowered in the therapeutic work, Myra has had to tenaciously question some of her traditional therapeutic practices, and adapt them to the changing needs of the survivors.  For example, to build up trust with survivors who may have lost trust in others during the Holocaust, she sometimes needs to relate to them more informally compared to other groups with whom she worked.  She also learned that she may need to give certain personal information about her own connection to the Holocaust.

Myra demonstrates a deep understanding of the need to re-balance the power relationship between the survivor and the person reaching out to them.  The purpose of this is to try to minimize the survivor’s fear of authority, emanating from their experiences under the Nazis.  She also shows flexibility in her careful use of the therapeutic boundary, not using it as a defense against getting close to the survivors, but at the same time recognizing its usefulness as a tool against over-identification and burn out. In these ways and countless others, Myra reveals a willingness to travel on unfamiliar pathways to achieve therapeutic responses that are useful to the survivors.  She underlines how supervision and support of staff are essential in monitoring the impact of this complex work.

The empowerment process can also be seen in the way that Myra works in partnership with survivors and constantly consults with them.  In practice, this dynamic can be seen in how Myra involves survivors in the Advisory Management Committee of the Drop-In Centre, which she established and developed. She encourages the survivors’ feedback, always checking whether the services reflect what they want.  Empowerment is at the core of encouraging survivors to choose which therapeutic options they feel will help them – survivors are put in the driving seat in making these decisions, rather than them being prescribed by professional “experts.” A life force seems to be released through this change of emphasis, one in which survivors are seen as teachers and contributors, rather than merely recipients of services.

In my experience, integrating these changes into practice, as well as keeping survivors at the forefront in making therapeutic decisions, is not the easiest way to manage a service, though it is essential to do so when working with those who have been at the mercy of others.  It can be an isolating task for the manager.  Myra openly writes about how difficult it can be to keep the therapeutic vision for the service in focus.  There were times when she faced rejection and lack of support from organizations and the community in which she works. One senses the enormous pressure she experienced when she had to comply with the organizational decision to have a centre for survivors within a generalized community centre, rather than a stand-alone service.  She realized that flexibility on her part was needed to allow the survivors’ drop-in service to be established, and hence, she had to compromise and work with what was possible.

I believe that each therapeutic model is different and is very much linked to the constraints of funding, the infrastructure available, the numbers of survivors using the specialized services, and the country in which the work takes place. In my work with survivors and as founder of the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in London, I have seen how a stand-alone building helps to reinforce the survivors’ distinct identity, enabling them to feel like “insiders,”  as well as allowing them as displaced people to put down roots and create a home from home.  Not having to share with other services also means that survivors can drop in more frequently, especially as they become increasingly frail.

There are many obstacles along the way in developing these specialized services, and Myra willingly and generously shares some of them in the hope that this will help others working in this field. As professionals it is vital that we share our ideas and learn from each other at this crucial time in the lives of survivors. It was good to see in Myra’s book (p.135) how my work at the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in London offered a blueprint for the development of the services she describes, particularly the Drop-In Centre. In my experience, it is also an important survival strategy for organizations working with survivors to empower each other, working across organizational boundaries, nationally and internationally, in order to ensure the survivors’ are heard and adequately cared for. I would have been interested to know more about other survivor organizations in Canada and how they respond to aging survivors.

The most powerful and uplifting part of Myra’s writing relates to the Drop-In Centre.   With its emphasis on mutual support, belonging, community and identity, the Drop-In Centre offers what Myra describes as an “incubator for personal growth and healing (p.178).” Through its program, she enables survivors to “attain mastery and control over responses triggered by their environment as they work through their losses (p.P180).”  She recognizes that talking about the past is only appropriate for those who can and wish to speak.  The social and cultural program, developed in partnership with the survivors in the Centre, offers a wide range of options through which survivors may find some relief from their traumatic memories.   She maximizes opportunities for laughter, as well as tears to co-exist.  Survivors also share commemorative events, such as those on Yom Hashoah. They record their testimonies, including positive aspects of their lives, as well as their traumatic eye witness accounts.  Myra understands that the survivors’ educational role is paramount to their sense of meaning in life, and she encourages them to pursue this vital activity.

As survivors grow older there are particular end-of-life issues. Helping aging survivors maintain their independence as long as possible by providing support services at home not only offers realistic alternatives to institutional care, but also helps to minimise their fears of being incarcerated again as they were in the death camps.   Myra looks in detail at the possible triggers for the re-emergence of traumatic memory in later life, such as periods of ill health, retirement and bereavement.  She offers clear, practical and informative advice on how to respond in ways that contain the survivors re-emerging fears.  She also offers excellent guidelines to facilitators in other settings, such as social and health services.  She alerts them of the dangers of assuming they know how to respond based on their past work experience.  She gently guides them in how to deal with contentious issues and how to listen in non–judgmental ways to survivors.

Having trained and worked as a social worker, Myra understands the practical as well as the emotional and spiritual needs of survivors as they get closer to the end of life.  She encourages the use of what she calls “an eclectic toolbox of conventional and non-conventional approaches (p.P226),” including complimentary medicine, movement therapies and touch massage.  Her wide-ranging approach led to the establishment of the Survivor Assistance Office, to supplement the work of the Drop-In Centre. The book clearly reflects how its author leaves no stone unturned in her quest to bring comfort and hope to the survivors with whom she is working.

Myra also sees the end of life as an opportunity to help survivors transmit their past memories and life histories to future generations, especially to young people.  Her imaginative intergenerational programs help give the survivors a sense that they will not be forgotten when they die.  In my experience, this helps survivors let go of life more peacefully.  Dealing with the survivors’ legacy is a crucial aspect of the Centre’s work.

Myra concludes that recovering from genocidal trauma is a slow and often long-term process.  Throughout her book, Myra shows that there are no short cuts to healing.  The wounds never fully heal, but they do not have to fester as before. For so many years Myra has been providing a safe and caring environment to survivors.  At the core of her work is her humanity and her positive belief that change is possible, no matter how late in life. I have no doubt that there are many survivors who feel their lives have been enriched from the services Myra has created over so many years.  For others, they may feel that these services helped save them from the abyss of despair when their traumatic memories returned.   I would strongly recommend this uplifting book as essential reading for anyone working with survivors of genocidal trauma. Her inspirational work documented in this book gives her the recognition she richly deserves.


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