THE SECOND CYPRUS PSYCHODRAMA SYMPOSIUM
In Memoriam of Prof. Ali Babaoglu
PSYCHODRAMA AND TRANSGENERATIONAL
TRANSMISSION of EMOTIONAL LEGACY
MARCH 16-18, 2012
PSYCHODRAMA AS DIALOGUE WITH THE ENEMY:
HEALING THE TRANS-GENERATIONAL TRANSMISSION
OF THE HOLOCAUST TRAUMA
First I want to thank The Cyprus Mental Health Institute and especially Dr. Ebru Cakici for inviting me from Israel to give this lecture. This invitation by you is a sign of recognition of the professional work I am doing for many years. It is my honor and pleasure to be here with you and share with you my thoughts and feelings regarding my experience leading psychodrama as a way of healing the emotional wounds of the Holocaust trauma. I am going to tell you something of myself being a member of the Second Generation to survivors of war trauma. I will also tell you about the use of Psychodrama in my work creating dialogues between enemies, between Jews and Germans and between Israelis and Palestinians.
Before the Second World War there were over 8 million Jews in Europe. During the war nearly 6 million were killed. The remaining 2 million, the survivors, continue their life with trauma. For some of them the post war experiences were as damaging as their wartime experiences. They were unable to return to their homes, many became “displaced persons” waiting in refugee camps, sometimes for years, for permission to emigrate from Europe. In many cases they had suffered great losses, including spouses, children or the entire family. Many got married in what is called:”marriages of despair” (Danieli, 1985) Most of them felt that no one else could understand them.
“Trauma overwhelms our psychological defense mechanisms, takes on a life of its own in our unconscious memory, and, with considerable delay, causes persistent, unexpected, and incomprehensible psychological distress” (Kansteiner, 2004) After so many years, the Holocaust still dominates the home of survivors and their families. Memory haunts the home, conditioning survivors’ thoughts, their behavior, and their responses to their families. But their children and grandchildren continue to live under the Holocaust’ emotional legacy. For many Holocaust families the Holocaust has not ended. Kellermann, a well known Israeli Psychologist describes these long term psychological effects as an atom bomb that disperses its radioactive fallout in distant places, often a long time after the actual explosion. The Holocaust continues to contaminate everyone who was exposed to it in one way or another. Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and writer said:”time does not heal all wounds; there are those that remain painfully open”(1978,p.222). Holocaust survivor Jean Amery (1980) said: “He who is tortured remains forever tortured; he can never again feel at home in the world. The humiliation of extermination cannot be blotted out. Faith in humanity, raced by the first slap across the face, can never be recovered”
Over the many years of life-threatening persecution and profound humiliation, Holocaust victims constructed a new, interior world of utter desolation. The traumatic reality destroyed a basic trust in humanity. Just as the survivors suffered from what is known as “survivor syndrome”, their children showed symptoms and psychiatric features that bear the striking resemblance to this “survivor syndrome”. Emotional survival under such traumatic conditions depends on the victim cutting off his emotions, encapsulating them. The individual more or less numbs himself to escape becoming overwhelmed by horror. This protective mechanism is nearly impossible to remove, and it takes its toll. What remains is an “empty circle” (D. Laub, 1998) that permanently impairs sensibility and empathy in survivors and in others – including their own children.
Many of the survivors hoped and dreamed of protecting their children from knowledge about their terrible experiences and they wrapped themselves in a “veil of secrecy,” an individual and collective defence mechanism (J. S. Kestenberg, 1995). Many children, the so-called Second Generation, cannot pinpoint when they first learned about the Holocaust. They feel as if they’ve always known, as if they were born into the Holocaust (Y. Hadar, 1991). Children of survivors consume the unspoken horror experienced by their parents “with their mother’s milk,” and to this day they have difficulties assimilating this bitter knowledge.
For the victim, constant exposure to murder and unimaginably inhumane situations translates into a profound sense of humiliation and embarrassment. The victim’s shame over what was done to him was so unbearable that he kept it from himself and his own children. But children nevertheless felt their parents’ hurt and shame. They did not want to heap additional shame on their parents so instead they fantasized a history for their parents. American psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg had a word for such futile attempts to assemble the pieces of one’s parents’ lives: She called it “transposition” (1989).
Since the feelings of shame and mourning over so many dead were overwhelming, exceeding the human capacity for emotion, in the end the dead could not be properly mourned. And so, too, did children of the second generation become a replacement for murdered relatives – they were given the special mission of restoring family pride, of undoing the trauma. It was a mission that they unconsciously accepted but could never fulfil. The trauma was handed down, penetrated into the next generation, then into the third and by now into the fourth.
For many survivors, being well-groomed, full of pride, always concerned with looking pretty, is an important boost to the trampled self-esteem. And so many survivors orient their energy toward the external, toward the creation of a new existence. If the sense of basic trust is destroyed, stability and orientation often are sought in an external world that at least is materially secure. If parents do not respond adequately to a child’s sentiments, the child “covers up” his own emotions and begins to feel estranged. Many members of the second generation compensate for this inherited trauma through high ambition, career success, the search for material security as well as beauty and clothing. To be weak means to be humiliated again; weakness is frightening, for it contains the danger of once again being helpless and powerless. This is why tears were almost forbidden. Israeli psychoanalyst Ilany Kogan (1998) attributed an extraordinary adaptability to the second generation, at the cost of their emotional authenticity and individuation.
Many survivors feel guilty; they unconsciously sense their survival as a betrayal of their murdered family members. They are ashamed of their experience and of the fact that they did not protect their relatives adequately, and failed to rescue them (W.G. Niederland, 1968). But perpetrators and bystanders deny their guilt and reject shame over their appalling deeds. The film by Malte Ludin “Two or Three Things I Know about Him” provides an impressive example of the profound influence of denial and concealment of shame and guilt feelings on relationships between perpetrators and their children. Such children often feel shame and guilt on behalf of their parents. Those feelings trigger silence and also create barriers between children of perpetrators and children of survivors.
“The most important event in my life occurred before I was born” one child of concentration camp survivors has observed. The Holocaust did not end with the liberation of survivors after the collapse of the Third Reich, for the legacy of their suffering extends to a generation that never faced an SS storm troops. Aaron Hass in his book: “In the shadow of the Holocaust-The second generation” tells about himself: “Events that occurred fifty years ago, before my birth, follow me. Stories of those times, images before my eyes, evoke my most intense feelings of anger, fear, and sadness. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, raised me and shaped me…
Growing up meant being constrained often paralyzed, by hearing: ‘How could you do this to me after all I have suffered?’ ”
“Like their parents, children of survivors can have difficulties in modulating their emotions. They may become rageful or they may inhibit their anger…The inability to express hostility toward the parent may result in passivity and internalization of aggression or manifest itself in masochistic and self-destructive behavior” (Bergmann and Jucovy, 1990) the children are often depressive and anxious especially around death and separation. They display apathy, feelings of emptiness and at times lack of emotional involvement.
Halina Birenbaum, a survivor writer who lives in Israel wrote:”The unbelievable past creates emptiness and an abyss. This emptiness, this nothingness creates estrangement. It is from this feeling of being cut off, with all its memories, that the post-Holocaust generation wants to be liberated. They are afraid of this world of destruction. Most of them also wanted to be just like other children; they just wanted to be normal, but that wasn’t possible any longer. So whatever they did, whatever they tried, whatever they strived for
– they remained different. And this kind of “being different” is a form of torture, and creates its own fear. As children, hardly any of them had any idea of what a grandmother or grandfather actually is. Not a single photo remained. Everything was burned, with the people themselves…A child needs support, needs a strong mother. But can a mother be an authoritative figure after all these horrors and humiliations? If that were possible back then, what can a child still believe, on whom can the child depend? To what extent can children of Holocaust survivors empathize with their parents and grasp the extent of the extermination? The Holocaust revealed both the worst and the best in people. Compared to what happened to their parents, their experiences – both the good and bad ones – seem small and insignificant, at least that’s how they feel about it. With their panic and their fear of loss, with their feeling of not belonging, their belief that they will always be shut out of their parents’ inner lives, they feel lost – alone. Often they want to please their persecuted parents, help them forget the terrible things they experienced, protect them. And at the same time they have the natural need to be angry, to separate from their parents, and it is precisely these feelings that they can’t allow themselves to have without feeling guilty and inadequate. This conflict does not resolve itself”
The mechanism of transmission of trauma is multifaceted process. It occurs both indirectly through the influences of early childhood, internalized modeling, socialization and learning and more directly through the communication styles and family interactions. These indirect and unconscious transmission of Holocaust trauma is called “remembering the unknown” (Fresco, 1984) or “the experience of memorial candles” (Wardi, 1992). The result is usually the feeling of the children who need to live in their parents’ Holocaust past (Kogan, 1995)
One of the clearest description of the effects of transgenerational transmission of the trauma from the Holocaust survivors to their children appears in the Barocas’ article: “Wounds of the fathers: the next generation of Holocaust victims”: “The children of survivors show symptoms which would be expected if they actually lived through the Holocaust. The children present a picture of impaired object relations, low self-esteem, narcissistic vulnerability, negative identity formation, personality constriction and considerable affective impairment. They have to deal with the conflictual issue of intrusive images of their parents’ suffering and the association between these images and ideas about their own vulnerability to death. They seem to share an anguished collective memory of the Holocaust in both their dreams and fantasies reflective of recurrent references to their parents’ traumatic experiences. These children wake up at night with terrifying nightmares of the Nazi persecution, with dreams of barbed wire, gas chambers, firing squads, torture, mutilation, escaping from enemy forces and fears of extermination. The children come to feel that the Holocaust is the single most critical event that has affected their lives although it occurred before they were born”. (1979, p.331)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes PTSD :” The essential feature of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stress or involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or another close associate… The symptoms of PTSD may cause disturbances or impairment in social and occupational functioning, as well as other areas of daily living. Such effects, whether diagnosed as full PTSD, or simply problems in mood and adjustment, may have serious impairments not only for the survivors, but also for their children (Barocas & Barocas, 1979).”
“Without the explicit knowledge of why their parents were so overly protective, due to the practice of silence regarding the past, children of Holocaust survivors learned to be anxious leading to difficulties in separation and individuation. A frequent assumption in the clinical literature was that a “secondary posttraumatic stress disorder” was being transmitted, suggesting that since many Holocaust survivors suffer from PTSD, their offspring will also suffer from a syndrome of similar dimensions with diminished proportions (Krell, et al., 2004.)
“Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) provides a common language for diagnoses and assessment of trauma victims, including Holocaust survivors. Many of these survivors established post-war families and it is here that we began to witness the possibility of trauma transmission. Parental communication regarding the Holocaust, often characterized by obsessive retelling or all-consuming silence, and strong family ties are implicated in the theoretical literature on trauma transmission. Terms such as vicarious, empathic, and secondary traumatization have been used to describe intergenerational trauma transmission.
“However, though the stories of the past remained silent, implicit messages were generally still conveyed. The child’s lack of understanding of their parent’s struggle was not simply forgotten, but instead, replaced by childhood fantasies depicting atrocities that were, in many cases, more severe than the actual past experience. Therefore, although the intent by parental survivors was to protect their children, maintaining silence and secrecy ultimately lead to an intensification of other troubling areas in family life” (Krell, et al., 2004)
According to Shamai Davidson, in his work titled:”The clinical effects of massive psychic trauma in families of holocaust survivors: “In recent years, increasing numbers of the 2nd generation have been found to be suffering from a wide spectrum of emotional disorders, personality disturbances, and borderline and psychotic states that are clearly related to the long-term effects of massive traumatization in the survivor parents. These effects are manifested in 4 interrelated areas of disturbance within the family— the parents’ mental state, the family atmosphere, interpersonal functioning in the family, and specific distortions in the parent– child interaction. Excessive talking about holocaust experiences to children, or the opposite-lack of communication, avoidance, and denial of these experiences-are patterns frequently found in the children of survivors who seem to be most affected by the massive traumatization of the parents.”
“Survivors who were infants and toddlers during the time of the Holocaust have indicated tremendous difficulty initiating and responding to their intimate relationships. The traumatic loss of a parent, or other significant figures, during childhood is coupled with the inability to express emotions of attachment, such as love, sexuality, friendship, and caring. During the Holocaust, many children lost their parental figures, and thereby lost their image for developing a cohesive identity that had the ability and comprehension to bond with others. Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who treats Holocaust survivors and their children, suggests a second generation ‘complex’ characterized by processes that affect identity, self-esteem, interpersonal interactions and worldview. (Mazor 2004)
Many Holocaust survivors experienced what is known as “sequential traumatization,” which describes the repeated trauma and stress that accumulated before, during, and after the Holocaust (van IJzendoorn, et al., 2003). In order to survive the constant threat to daily living and functioning, many Holocaust survivors were forced to become numb to their own pain and turn away from their emotional responses. The lack of empathy and compassion carried over into their relationships with their spouses and children. While many second generation children noted an understanding that their parents loved them, they perceived an overall lack of compassion and affect in displaying that love, and in sympathy toward their various wants and needs. Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are prominent amongst second generation children” (Krell, et al., 2004.)
Children may have felt responsible for their parent’s sadness or deficiency of emotional support, and would try to please their parents by excelling in the areas of life in which their parents placed value. However, despite accomplishment in any or all of these areas, children of Holocaust survivors often felt unfulfilled due to lack of emotional praise and contact. Many children were unable to understand the paradox of wanting to please their parents, while resenting their lack of affective attachment. Feelings of guilt and anger were often the result, lasting through adulthood and carrying over into other relationships and connections. (Fossion, et al., 2003).
The emotional expression not present in many families of Holocaust survivors may also be tied to the organization and understanding of attachments and relationships. Most Holocaust survivors experienced some form of loss during their struggle; for many that loss came in the form of separation or death of a parent or loved one. Numerous studies have demonstrated a link between the experience of loss by a parent and their attachment relationships with their children. The comprehension of attachment relationships, like those between parent and child, becomes disorganized (Sagi, van IJendoorn, Joels, & Scharf, 2002). The lack of resolution of trauma and loss leads to unresolved mourning by the parent, affecting the bond between parent and child (van IJzendoorn, 1995).
It is interesting to note that “For children of Holocaust survivors, the trauma of their parents may be perceived both as a curse and as a legacy. Some children grow up with terrible anxiety-provoking Holocaust associations that haunt them day and night. Others experience their heritage as a powerful legacy that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in life…The contradictory forces of vulnerability and resilience may be assumed to continue to accompany the Second Generation for their entire life span…tragedy also provided them with adaptive coping ability and with “survival skills”…It is important not to view the Second Generation as a homogenous group, which either suffers from specific psychopathology, or which manifests post-traumatic growth, but to see them as simultaneously struggling with both forces throughout life” (Kellermann, 2008)
Most treatment procedures for the Second Generation include gaining awareness and insight to the roots of their problems, followed by gradual process of working through and re-integration. The therapeutic process includes support, sharing of mutual experiences and encouragement to find free expression of feelings, thoughts and associations which were covered up or depressed. This is done since many of them could not find safe and suitable ways of expression to their unwarranted anger, anxiety and depressions. Individual psychotherapy is usually combined with Expressive Arts Therapies and especially Psychodrama.
Dvora, a young woman, the daughter of both her parents Holocaust survivors, a committed member in my psychodrama therapy groups is a good example of the transmitted trauma. She told us her untold story:” I used to lay awake at night gripped with fear and bathed in sweat, conjuring up visions of what my father went through during the Holocaust. Sometimes I would notice an injured pigeon or cat plodding bleakly down the road and then replace it with my father, imagining him carrying blocks of cement, his frail body plagued with bruises, open wounds, hungry and dreaming of food. I was always the first to jump in to a fight or break up a fight, imagining that it was my father lying on the ground being hit with a club or a stick by a group of Gestapo. Many times I found myself carrying back-breaking suitcases and boxes on a full stomach and telling myself ‘come on, this is nothing, you can handle it, imagine what kind of load your father had to carry on an empty stomach. As a child I heard snippets of stories that would pour forth from my father at random moments, such as at the Fish Grill restaurant once a week where he would order a plain baked potato, eat it slowly and talk about how precious and meaningful this little root vegetable used to be for a starving boy in Auschwitz. My father cannot eat a potato to this day without going back to the camp…At the Friday night table, my father would sometimes drift off as he munched a piece of Challah (a special sweet bread which is baked for the Shabbat’s meal) with his soup and fresh garlic and recount the times when stale moldy bread tasted just as good as the elaborate meal in front of us. How many times had I heard the story about what for him was one of the hardest day of the war, walking through the streets of Debrecen towards the ghetto, the moment came when he had to part ways with his favorite horse, he just let go of the rope and watched the horse stand by the gate loyally until he meandered off. That is one of my most vivid stories that my Father ever told us, I can see all the details as if I was there with him; what he was wearing, what he took with him, what he was thinking, what time of day it was and how the city looked as he made his way towards the walls that marked the last day of freedom. What about everything else? Auschwitz? Beatings? Starving? The gas chambers? The ovens? Being the only one out of his family of 6 (aside from his father who was sent to forced labor in Siberia) to actually make it past the first day of selection and until the last day of liberation? What are the details of those stories? How did he get through that?
The following Psychodrama scene of Dvora left a strong impression on me: Dvora: “Daddy, please tell me, I want to know what you went through?” Daddy: “Oh Dvorka, what do you have to do with the holocaust? It has nothing to do with you. You need to look forward into the future.” Dvorka: “But Daddy, I need to know what happened to you. I need to know how you survived. I need to know about my family, my history and my background because there is nobody else to ask!” Daddy: “Please, leave me alone….if you want to know something, I was happy in Auschwitz, this is how I survived, I could only think about surviving to avenge my family. I used to dream about the day the war would be over and what I would do to the Nazi’s when I got my hands on them. This is what kept me going every day. In life you must be happy, think positive and this is how you survive. Nobody likes to look at a sour face, people like to look at people who are smiling and happy and not people who are depressed. You need to stop thinking so much about the holocaust and think only about your future.”
In the psychodrama session I encouraged her to find a possible way to express her anger and pain. I asked her to talk to two parallel roles of her father, the one she felt so close and wanted to protect and the one which she felt so disappointed at and so angry. I was surprised to see the amount of aggression which she expressed. We had to use special psychodramatic safety measures to make sure she would not hurt the auxiliary ego that played her father. In her psychodrama we went to visit her father in Auschwitz in the time of him being there. It was based on her fantasized history of her father. It was a very moving and powerful Surplus Reality scene. She expressed through tears some of her loneliness and sadness.
A week later she came back to the group and read to us her story which she wrote after her psychodrama for the first time in her life:”So I grew up thinking that the Holocaust, no matter how dreadful some of my father’s stories, was a game of survival of the fittest and that meant keeping fit and stronger than everyone else. This was the key to survival…But, I was never far removed from the pain, I lived with the pain, I ate the pain, I sang the pain, I fell asleep to songs filled with pain and all the very regular mundane activities of everyday were replete with this pain that hung over me like a wool coat in the winter. I remember being a very angry young girl; it’s no wonder with all this madness floating around in my head. And in the 2nd grade when my teacher asked each student in class where their parents went to college? My palms sweating I answered: “My Father went to Auschwitz, he didn’t go to school…Only recently, do I realize the outcome of my childhood in a home where everything was swept under the rug and was just fine. I am a co-dependent. I am with someone who allows me to continue my heritage of pain and denial. He never hits me or anything like that; it’s not that bad…” I dote on my husband as if he is a baby, a child who needs help, needs rescuing, just needs a little help to get better and I am just the one who can help him. I just have the typical problems of a second generation: difficulty initiating relationships, difficulty in romantic relationships, difficulty balancing level of intimacy, difficulty balancing care of self vs. care of others, difficulty expressing anger appropriately, inability to deal with life, without chaos or crisis and overly responsible or irresponsible. All these and more are patterns of what the book calls issues of denial and control. Just as my parents did: denial “I was happy in Auschwitz” and control “All you need to do is look towards your future… I learnt not to believe in my own perceptions or feelings. Because our families deny our reality, we begin to deny it to. And this severely impairs the development of our basic tools for living life and for relating to people and situations. We become unable to know when someone or something in not good for us. The situations and people that others would naturally avoid as dangerous, uncomfortable, do not repel us, because we have no way of evaluating them realistically or self-protectively.”
I am coming back to myself and to my own story. Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors. I was born in 1948 in a Displaced People camp in south Germany. When I was one year old my family moved to Israel. My traumatized parents had lost everything. They each lost their total families, had been uprooted from their homes; and had spent a few years being tortured and starved while working as slaves, for 16 hours a day. Growing up in such a family was very painful for me. It was a survival experience. My parents were alive but in a lot of ways they were dead. They never talked about their suffering and loss but the silence was loud and painful. It was a silence born of feeling overwhelmed, and of being destroyed inside. When they were singing they also cried. Every sign of life carried in it the memory of the void, the longing for family members who would never come back. They were themselves lost children, full of unexpressed sadness, rage and despair. Out of this lonely place grew the need to Most of the time I felt as if I am a memorial candle. On the anniversary of a person’s death we light a candle to remember them with. My existence reminded my parents of those who died. This is one of the major reasons why later I chose to become a psychodramatist. Psychodrama allows you to be noticed, to come to the stage and present yourself and say:” here I am, look at me, I am important, I am me, I am alive. So now I can look back and say that being a psychodrama therapist and trainer is my way of staying alive, my way of not dying in this violent, aggressive, full of wars world.
This is not just my personal story. This is the hidden story of the Second Generation. This is the story which was never told. This is a screaming story, a crying story. We are the memorial candles. We are those who could never speak up, since we were busy trying to protect our parents. We tried to prevent them from further pain beyond their suffering in the past. In many families of Holocaust survivors, silence took over as a way of dealing with feelings of pain, shame and humiliations. Today the silence is broken. We, the children, do what our parents could not do. All these years we felt that no one is listening or being able to listen to us. We were also educated that expression of emotions is a sign of weakness. The main story, the important one, was the survivor’s story. We were only bridges trying to keep our sanity over troubled water. And our stories are full with colorful feelings, pain, rage, anger, frustration and aggression which were inflicted on us without any reason, arbitrarily.
We lost our childhood. We could not experience the joy of playing. We escaped into our imagination. We are trying desperately to make meaning in this destroyed world. We live in a constant inner war; in an inner conflict, weather to reveal the truth or stay with the mask on. We are also survivors. We are also victims of war. We were not there but the Holocaust affected us too. We were flooded with our parent’s emotions; with their memories and their experiences. Many of us still dream nightmares and are busy with the question of what our parents could not tell us. Our role, while growing up, was to rescue our families and compensate for our parents’ suffering. Many of us were named after relatives who were murdered. This created in many the sensation of being dead while being alive. We all experience difficulty in departing and in termination. Still the experience is an unavoidable meeting with bereavement of the past which stays unprocessed and an emotional unfinished business.
We, the Second Generation, incorporate into our inner world the roles of both the victim and the aggressor. At times we create inner enemies. Like our parents, some of us have difficulty enjoying life. The danger is around the corner. Who knows when a new disaster will fall upon us? Till the present we carry inside uncontrolled anger, guilt and shame. We feel vulnerable and fragile. We are sensitive people walking at times on a thin line. The world is perceived by many of us as hostile, oppressive and threatening. The wounds are still open. The scars are long term and the pain is being transmitted from generation to generation. The traces of the past appear in the present; in everyday life; in the inner lives. The Holocaust is not over. It is an ongoing process which affects the third and the fourth generation.
But in spite of everything, we have built new lives. We have continued the “choosing life” project. We rehabilitated ourselves. We have created new families. We won under difficult, at times in impossible conditions. We succeeded to recreate trust in people and in the world. We brought back hope for the next generations. Many of us were able to take off our masks and discover the truth. We have learnt to feel. We already know that if we are able to feel the pain, we can also feel joy.
My parents were shuttered, deformed souls, trying to keep their head above water. They even did not have power to hate. But it was obvious that I would never go to Germany. Germany, Germans were out of the question. It was a taboo. It was the enemy.
My experience was that my parents, like many other Holocaust survivors, were involved in what is called: “Conspiracy of Silence”. This term was first coined by Dr. Yael Danieli, (1998) clinical psychologist and victimologist. Director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children in New York and senior representative for the UN International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
She says: “Survivors’ war accounts were too horrifying for most people to hear. Compounding their psychic pain, survivors also encountered the held myth that they had participated in their own destiny by “going like sheep to the slaughter” and the suspicion that they had performed immoral acts in order to survive. The silence imposed by a world that did not want to hear them intensified their sense of isolation, loneliness, and mistrust of society. In bitterness and despair, many decided there was no one they could talk to about their trauma except, perhaps, other survivors or members of their newly formed families. The “conspiracy of silence” was almost an agreement of “you don’t listen, I don’t tell.” Some survivors also chose not to talk about their experiences with their children because they wanted their kids to have a “normal” life.”
In trying to cope, survivors created families that tended to exibit at least four adaptational identity styles:victim families,fighter families,numb families and families of “those who made it”. The last two often kept their trauma to themselves. Home life was characterized by lack of both emotional expression and natural phisical contact and by passive silent. Why did they stay silent? Many times survivors are sole survivors of their previous family. Many lost a spouse and children during the war and you cannot fully recover from losing your children in front of your eyes and not being able to do anything about it. The children participated in creating this silent out of fears to get in touch with pain and being too frighten to imagine what could have led to such lifelessness in their parents. Some of the Second Generation suffer from diminished spontaneity. Mutual protection is another reason for silence.They often adapted by numbing themselves.
The home of survivors with a dominant “victim” identity, which is common among concentration camp survivors, was characterized by pervasive depression, worry, and mistrust. Joy and self-fulfillment were viewed as luxuries. Fear of the outside world-of the inevitable next Holocaust-led to clinging within the family. Children were taught to distrust people, especially authority figures, outside the family circle.
Because a wrong decision often meant death during the war, children in such families would often act as if every decision was a matter of life or death. Parents also exercised guilt as a means of control and of keeping adult children from questioning them about their war experience, expressing anger toward them, or “burdening” them with their own pain. Keenly sensitive to their parents’ suffering, the children of these survivors frequently entered the helping professions. The children consciously or umconsociously absorbed their parents’ Holocaust experience as their own. The survivors transmited to their children a sense of the conditions under which they had survived the war. Many children of survivors have internalized Holocaust images and hense simultaniously live in two different times(1942 and the present) .
When survivers and their families were able to gain awareness of how their lives have been shaped by their post-Holocaust adaptation styles,they are better prepared to move forward toward self-actualization and can help stop transmission of pathology to the next generations. The main goal of this pychotherapeutic process is to reach a psychological liberation and freedom from the trauma of victimization. This can be done by learning to break the walls of silence. This liberation can be reached when survivors and their offspring can learn to acknowledge, accept, and integrate their and their parents’ experiences into their own lives-that is, confronting and incorporating aspects of extraordinary human existence that would not be normally encountered under everyday circumstances. Over time, a fuller understanding of victimization experiences leads to gaining the ability to develop a realistic perspective of what happened, including the impersonality of the events.
Impersonality means the ability of survivors to no longer view themselves and humanity solely on the basis of what personally happened to them during the war. For example, having been helpless does not mean that one is a helpless person; having witnessed or experienced evil does not mean that the world as a whole is evil; having been betrayed does not mean that betrayal is an overriding human behavior; having been victimized does not necessarily mean that one has to live one’s life in constant readiness for its reenactment; having been treated as dispensable does not mean that one is worthless; and taking the painful risk of bearing witness does not mean that the world will listen, learn, change, or become a better place.
Recovery also involves a continuous and consistent unraveling and transcending of an individual’s or a family’s particular adaptational style, moving instead in the direction of liberation and self-actualization. Many survivors and their offspring found participating in groups helpful because they could share with others concerns and feelings that would be very difficult to confront alone. Children of survivors have also benefitted from researching the factual events of their parents’ experiences, especially if their parents didn’t speak about the Holocaust or passed on only selective, fragmented accounts.
This pathway to recovery in not unique to Holocaust survivor families.This pathway has been found to be beneficial by survivors and children of survivors of other massive traumata, such as the genocide of the Armenians; the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia; and the ongoing genocidal processes in the Sudan. This is true also for veterans of wars and children of perpetrators.
In all these situations we’ve found that the conspiracy of silence after trauma is not only a new traumatic factor but often determines whether the survivors and the next generations will succeed or fail in the immense task of reestablishing themselves as equal, well members of society with dignity, despite their traumatic history. Of crucial importance is the empathetic reception of their communities and societies after trauma and tragedy. Society needs to commit to providing measures of acknowledgement, apology, and reparative justice (including compensation, restitution and rehabilitation, commemoration and education), so the trauma history becomes a shared rather than a stigmatizing history. The mourning, too, needs to be shared by all, rather than suffered alone by the survivors. And individual nations as well as the international community have to create mechanisms for monitoring, conflict resolution, and intervention to prevent future cycles of traumatization.
In order to better understand and relate to survivors of war trauma and their families we need to encourage them to stop the silence as a way of survival, we need to encourage them to find safe ways to tell their untold stories. We have to listen to them, despite your fear of the terrible things we might hear. To listen without judgment. To forsake this opportunity is not only to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence and thereby re-victimize the survivors, but to deprive ourselves of historic memory that connects us with our own and our people’s history, and allows us to learn from it. Take the time. We will be forever enriched and grateful for it.
In 1984, 28 years ago, I was invited to come to Germany to lead a psychodrama workshop for young Jewish and Germans people dealing with the Holocaust. In order to overcome my fear and resistance to go to Germany I made a special trip into Germany. This trip was like a trip into me. I was flooded with emotions. While driving I remember many times the urge to turn around and drive back. I forced myself to continue and to encounter what I was so afraid of. Many of my childhood dreams and nightmares came back to me. I fantasized that I am going to be tortured and burnt alive. I cried but continued this trip knowing already that the enemy is not around me but inside. People were very kind to me, but I did not trust them. I asked myself how these German people here can be so cruel.
I remembered my father words before going to this journey:” when you go there ask the Germans not why they did what they did, but why they had so much pleasure and joy killing me and my family and my people? How could they burn children when they are still alive and enjoy it so much? I saw it with my own eyes many times. They were not drunk. They were young men possessed and committed to evil” I tried to talk with the Germans about the Holocaust but no one wanted to talk about it. I hated them. I hated the denial, hated the way they were pushing these painful feeling under the carpet. In some strange way they, the Germans, reminded me of my own parents who were doing the same thing: investing in silence.
Since then I go few times a year to Germany. I am involved in ongoing educational teaching project in German high schools where I share my family experience as survivors and my experience as second generation. I have them encounter the Holocaust through the arts: by drawing, writing stories, psychodrama activities, sociodramas and exchange of dialogue letters with young Israelis. I come there to share and to listen. I do not blame them, or put guilt feelings on them, or criticize them. I am always surprised how little they know and how easy is to distort historical truth.
I am also involved in a project called:” Traces of the Holocaust in the Present”. I do this together with Hilde Goett who is a psychodrama therapist and trainer coming from the enemy side. The participants are offspring of Holocaust survivors and of Nazis. This work is offered especially to second and third generation descendants of victims and perpetrators.
The Second World War and the Holocaust is a story of cruelty and infliction of pain and suffering which left scars on both the victims and the persecutors sides. It is a long lasting process and it has traces in the present. In our work we aim to give the participants a chance to confront the Holocaust without judgment, criticism or blaming.
The purpose of our joint work is to break the silence, gain better understanding and to recognize the moral, social and personal implications that the Holocaust left us with. In these workshops we explore spontaneous, expressive and creative ways of dealing with the relationship of the persecutor-victim roles within each of us and in the society. As a result the participants can learn to face their own history more authentically.
The active work through the body allows an immediate safe opening of the inner emotional world and an encounter with the truth which lies within. The theatrical and psychodramatic stage allows the group members to present and share their real history in a true and genuine manner. They can share their memories, experiences, fantasies and feelings by giving voice to the suffering. And be heard. It gives them an opportunity to win in the struggle against anonymity by telling and acting their stories and by breaking the family and social process of silencing.
The fact that we come from the opposite sides of the Holocaust is unique and special. We bring with us the story and the legacy of our families. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. Hilde Goett was born in Romania 1953 and is from a family which was a member of the German minority in Romania. She was discriminated against by the Romanians as a “fascist child” since both her grandparents served in the Nazi army. And as well her grandmother was deported to Siberia by the communist regime.
In the psychodrama groups that we started to lead together, we shared the same goals. We had the same drive to teach people how to respect the other, how to listen to the story, the narrative of the other – the “different” one. Our purpose is not to reach reconciliation but rather teach the Germans and the Jews and others who attended the workshops to be witnesses to the unique personal way the participants express their feelings and share their stories with the group.
One of the things the two conflict groups frequently have in common is the silence, even if the motives for this are different on the respective sides. In the perpetrator families it is mainly the fear of persecution and condemnation which leads to silence about what occurred. In the victim families it is the sadness over murdered family members, the victims’ shame of such extreme humiliation and the desire in all family members to protect each other from further pain.
Another thing in common is the terrible effect of family secrets. This is mirrored again in the fantasies of the descendants, which can be expressed in many different forms. In this way descendants of the victims pose questions about the guilt of survival, such as: What did the survivors do in order to survive? Whereas the descendants of the perpetrators ask questions of their own potential guilt, such as: what would I have done in the same situation?
For us the aim is establishing a dialogue through the encounters between both sides. We let the subjective truth of the respective sides be represented on stage with all the sorrow, mourning, shame, despair, horror, rage and feelings of guilt this entails. Thus a bridge is built connecting the fate of the participants with the family histories of the opposing sides.
We use sociodrama as a dialogue for dealing with the burden of trauma stemming from incidents of the previous generations. As a rule, the trauma of the Nazi period has not been personally or directly experienced by participants in our workshops. They are not survivors of the Holocaust and are not Nazi perpetrators, but the children, grandchildren and family members. In short, we deal with Trans-generational trauma.
Trans-generational trauma is simply the inheritance or passing on of trauma from generation to generation. This topic has been increasingly discussed in the last 20 years. Researchers have increased their focus on the second generation of Holocaust survivors, due to the sufferings and emotional problems which they have. In the first scientific work on the subject there was an astonishingly high agreement concerning the unusual nature and high degree of emotional problems, which were very similar to descriptions from the survivors themselves. Case portrayals and psychotherapy reports on the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or of those suffering from trauma clearly verify that the passing on of trauma from generation to generation is a serious problem. The diagnostic criteria of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from war trauma are frequently fulfilled, although the person has no personal experience of war.
We start out with the premise that the experience of violence sits tightly in the body where it has found its place and it is physically felt. The body- and the encounter- exercises which we offer help make this possible and also help establish real contact between the participants in the group. The silence in the families weighs so heavily on them that they feel the need to find a new voice. Others want to comprehend the sorrow, despair and mourning of the family which seems to have no apparent end.
Jewish participant take part by mourning over murdered members of their family, enraged about the perpetrators who have burdened them with this sorrow. The participants who come from families of perpetrators have different wishes. They would often like to choke the family history, are fighting the shame and feelings of guilt and often cannot distinguish between the personal and the collective guilt. They would like to have a better understanding of themselves and their families and break loose from their identification as perpetrator. Some also hope for forgiveness or reconciliation.
The participants who are baptised Christians and have a partly Jewish background, or who come from a family which has experienced persecution for political or religious reasons, or because of their sexual orientation, are also torn with the question of their identity and affiliation. We regard them as coming from “mixed families” because they share the experiences of both sides.
One thing they all have in common is that they are seen as “traitors” to their families. They betray the taboo of silence and confront the family with its troubled past. Generally the individual persons or groups who are made “scapegoats” because they want to talk about what happened and how they feel are regarded as the cause of disaster and accidents. The so-called scapegoats are burdened with the fear, the shame and the guilt and they wear the blame for all the sins of the family, the community and the world. Generally speaking our groups are made up of scapegoats from all sides of the conflict: victims, perpetrators and mixed families.
We also take week-long groups to Auschwitz-Birkenau. While we are in Auschwitz we work psychodramatically but we also include a process of creating individual rituals. These rituals are carried out in Birkenau Death Camp with the help of the group. These sociodramatic rituals have a therapeutic effect, a kind of psycho-social healing. One of the most difficult experiences of Holocaust survivors and their descendants is not having a real concrete grave to mourn their dead. The rituals create a new opportunity of re-burying my dead. The rituals offer meaning and a sort of closure to the events of the past. Some of these rituals became theater performances including movement and singing. The rituals give voice, form to emotions which do not have clear words and they acknowledge the suffering of the “other side”. In this way they give hope, a sense of belonging and a relief from being alone, anonymous and overwhelmed with the enormity of the Holocaust.
The encounter between Holocaust survivors and their perpetrators is most of the times painful or even impossible. The generation after and even the grandchildren are taking the risk to meet and confront one another in a safe way, working deeply on this theme in front of others in the group, especially from the other side. We are now responsible for ensuring that history does not repeat itself. We accept the group from the opposite side and look for a new way, through encounters and dialogue, where the wounds can be suffered, mourned and then be healed. Seeing this pain as an essential part of a person’s life can lead to a clear decision never to cause anybody else such hurt and to realise a different, respectful and meaningful relationship with other people.
As leaders we are aware in our work of the danger of creating false closeness which can lead to premature reconciliation or forgiveness. We do not aim to reach reconciliation, but at times it happens spontaneously and naturally, in a step by step, long and slow process. We can now look back into our history as psychodrama directors coming from opposite side of the Holocaust that we succeeded to create a safe place of expression, to create trust, a sense of belonging and exchange fear, hatred and prejudice with a real encounter and dialogue. In the 20 years we have worked together we have developed a system of encounters and dialogue filled with mutual acceptance, respect, recognition and love. We sincerely hope to carry on this work in the future.
In my Psychodrama work between Israelis and Palestinians I use the same concepts coming from my experience with the Holocaust. In this project we meet together in East Jerusalem to have joint psychodrama training. This includes some introduction warm up evenings of sharing food and dancing together to both Israeli and Palestinian music which usually breaks the resistance. During the psychodrama sessions they are not allowed to get into political arguments but to share their subjective stories and express their feelings without judging or criticizing the story of the other side. We do not bring peace through this work, but we create a chance to listen to the story of the other and having a dialogue which is so rare and needed in the Middle East. Peace is not the lack of conflicts. It is the ability to live with the conflicts.
In my dialogue work with Israelis and Palestinians I find myself in the same difficult position being in between as a psychodrama therapist and trainer. I am coming from one side of the conflict and yet I have to take the impossible role of being neutral and not leaning to one side or another. So for the past 18 years I am disguised as a woman and smuggled into the West Bank Palestinian Territory where Israelis are not allowed to visit. I give myself to the hands of members of a FATAH terrorist group so I can go around the Israeli Army Check Points into the land of the enemy, the opposite side. What is amazing and heart breaking for me again and again is the trust which exists between me and them. At times I feel I am doing the impossible and taking big risks doing this job. On top of that not many people around me accept and support me for doing it. Many times I endanger myself. But I am not afraid. Being a witness to the personal painful stories being portrait on the psychodrama stage and the tears, screams and joy are my reward.
We live in a world of changes, full of conflicts, wars and political and social uprising. Wars and conflict affect us much longer than their actual time. We live with the emotional results. The emotional results of trauma are present in our inner lives and affect our behavior. We live with trauma which goes on from generation to generation. Facing this, many of us are speechless and unwillingly chose the rescue of silence. Silencing forces want to repress and control the secrets, the untold stories, the difficult memories. But silence is an accumulating process. It creates emotional and bodily blocks. At times this silence come out of being overwhelmed, out of fear, not knowing, or even as a form of denial.
We live still in the midst of great collective silence. I am sure that even here in Cyprus some of the wounds from past or present conflicts and wars are still untouched or denied. Silence is also an experience of many of the Cyprus people. We need to raise our voice, to break the strong tradition of silence. We need to tell the stories which we never told, the stories we were not allowed to tell. We need to free ourselves from slavery, submission and collaboration with the tradition and power of silence.
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