Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

Interviewers' Reactions to Holocaust Survivors' Testimony

Aviva Mazor, Yolanda Gampel, Gilit Horwitz

Responses of Therapists Treating Holocaust Survivors
Clinical literature that explores the therapeutic relationship with patients who suffer from a complex post-traumatic syndrome (Herman, 1992) is our main source for describing and classifying the range of responses, self-awareness, and countertransference experienced by therapists during the therapeutic process. As Herman (1992) describes it: "traumatic countertransference ... occurs when the therapist experiences, to a lesser degree, the same terror, rage and despair as the patient." In addition, "The patient's story is bound to revive personal traumatic experiences that the therapist may have suffered" (p. 40).

More specifically, therapists who work with Holocaust survivors experience a painful and long-term psychological "influence," also termed "vicarious traumatization" (McCaan and Pearlman, 1990), which means that the therapist is exposed to unknown, unexpected and unbelievable aspects of the survivor's trauma. Responses which appear in the literature describe intense and prolonged feelings of deep anxiety, shame, guilt, pity, denial, shock, disgust, helplessness, avoidance, mourning, emptiness, hostility and amazement (Barocas and Barocas, 1979; Chodoff, 1980; Dasberg, 1992; De Wind, 1971, 1984; Dreifuss, 1969; Gampel, 1990; Hoppe, 1962; Kestenberg and Gampel, 1983; Kinsler, 1980; Krystal, 1969; Simanuer, 1968).

Danieli (1984, 1985, 1988) conducted an empirical study in the USA regarding therapists' responses in the treatment of survivors and children of survivors. She graded the responses, creating an intensity score, and found the following emotional responses: anger, horror and fear, privileged voyeurism, shame, emotional coping with mass murder, identification, bystander guilt, a perception of the survivors as heroes, mourning and sadness, anxiety, feelings of liberation, and ambivalence towards Jewish identity.

In addition, therapists who were themselves survivors, or children of survivors, felt a compulsion to help, made comparisons between themselves and other survivors, and felt very close to survivors. Gampel (1990) explains this unique response as deriving from "overlapping worlds" which exist between therapists and patients who come from similar backgrounds. Danieli finds these main themes to be a unique process called "transference to the Holocaust" which is characterized by almost total uniformity of emotional response. She maintains that the primary source of these reactions is the Holocaust itself, rather than the individual personalities of therapist and patient.

Dasberg calls this "social countertransference" (1987, 1992), whereby therapists' responses are generated not only in reaction to their patients, but are drawn from the historical and social contexts which influence them.

Tauber's In the Other Chair (in press), describes research with a group of therapists composed of survivors and children of survivors. An in-depth interview of all the therapists sought to explore links between their professional issues and personal histories. Throughout their self-exploration, therapists revealed motives, personal needs, and aspects of their personal biographies that were raised by therapeutic work with Holocaust survivors and their children. The main responses were: blind spots within individual therapy, blurring boundaries in patient-therapist relationships, and disclosure of feelings of anger, rage, and aggression which replicate previous findings. However, the unique, and most revealing aspect of Tauber's study is the therapists' conviction that self-exploration of Holocaust-related aspects of their lives was essential if they were to understand themselves and work with Holocaust survivors. Tauber offers a general model for the training of therapists who work with survivors of other massive social violence, and who themselves belong to the same traumatized social milieu.

The interview situation differs from a therapeutic setting in several crucial components. First, in the interview, the main focus is on reconstruction of experiences, and not on recovery (despite the therapeutic effects of such interviews (Felman, et al, 1992)). Second, the structural relationship between survivor and listener is more symmetrical (i.e. more equal) compared with the asymmetrical relationship between patient and therapist. The interview represents the survivor's story told in the presence of an empathic listener; although the life-story is elicited via questions and personal presence, the interviewer's main role is to listen without intervention. Third, the interview setting is limited to a few meetings, therefore the 'interviewing alliance' is short term. After documentation is accomplished, this kind of relationship is usually ended. Fourth, the interviewer is a listener whose responses throughout the interaction become part of his/her role of bearing witness. In contrast to the therapeutic setting, there are no interpretations based on these inner responses; in fact, the interviewer needs a supportive system where these accumulated responses can be dealt with (Gampel and Mazor, 1994).

Based on this interview setting, one can draw up specific research questions regarding the emotional responses that interviewers reveal when witnessing survivors' traumatic experiences. [Page 2 of 9]

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