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

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Leo Eitinger, 1912-1996
Holocaust Victim and Pioneer Researcher

Leo Eitinger - Holocaust victim and pioneer researcher in psycho-traumatology - passed away October 15, 1996, nearly 84 years old. He was born on December 12, 1912, in Lomnice in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire as the youngest of six children in a Jewish family. After high school, he studied philosophy and then medicine, graduating in Brno in 1937.

Because of the increasing tension in the area, Eitinger emigrated to Norway on a Nansen passport. He was formally appointed to a public medical position by the King's Council a few days before the German attack on Norway, which resulted in a five-year occupation.

Nazi authorities withdrew his license in December 1940, due to his Jewish descent, after which he earned his bread as a sawmill laborer until he was betrayed and arrested in March 1942. He got to know several prisons and camps in Norway, before being sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp in February 1943. Toward the end of the war he was transferred to Buchenwald. In Auschwitz, Eitinger served in the camp hospital where one of his patients was a young boy, Elie Wiesel. When meeting by chance many years later they entered into a warm, lifelong friendship.

After the war, Eitinger returned to Norway and started specializing in psychiatry, advancing to associate professor in 1956. In 1966 he was appointed professor of psychiatry and director of the Psychiatric Clinic, University of Oslo, a position he held till his retirement in 1983.

Leo Eitinger was a true scientist and a prolific writer. In 1955, he wrote a thesis on stress in military service which was awarded the King's Gold Medal. His doctoral dissertation in 1958 dealt with psychiatric analyses of refugees in Norway, a topic which he was especially well qualified to handle.

He is regarded as one of the founders of victimology, the study of the effects of aggression upon the victim. Whereas other researchers at that time studied the psychology of the aggressor, Eitinger's research focused upon the effects of victimization.

Leo Eitinger's greatest achievement was in his meticulous studies of "Concentration Camp Survivors in Norway and Israel" (1964), and "Mortality and Morbidity after Excessive Stress" (1973). Eitinger and his collaborators found that the Concentration Camp Syndrome, first described by Danish researchers after World War II, was correlated with the severity and duration of the concentration camp experiences, and not related to the patient's premorbid personality. Despite his own grueling experiences, Leo Eitinger managed to keep an objective distance from his research material. This rigid scientific attitude contributed to giving his results credibility at a time when it was nearly axiomatic that in order to develop a chronic psychiatric disorder some form of personal premorbid vulnerability had to be present. This evidence for the effects of excessive stress was a major breakthrough in the understanding of postdisaster morbidity, and contributed greatly to defining posttraumatic stress syndromes, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and enduring personality change after catastrophic experience. These diagnoses helped war victims to gain acceptance for their war-related illnesses and greatly simplified the procedures for awarding war disability pensions.

As professor emeritus, Leo Eitinger continued researching and writing uninterruptedly for 13 years, until a few weeks before his death. In later years he was increasingly engaged in studies of coping processes. His writing went well beyond medical science in that he engaged in public debate on a variety of subjects including racism and the fate of minorities. His work was appreciated in the form of a variety of awards and honors. As late as 1996, his "Concentration Camp Survivors" was cited by the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies as one of the most significant works in the trauma field in this century. He was awarded the World Veterans Federation's Prize (1995) for his unrelenting work for war veterans.

His prominence as a full-fledged Norwegian citizen was manifested by his appointment as Commander of the Royal Norwegian St. Olav Order, awarded him by the king of Norway for his great contribution to medical science.

Through his research, lectures, writings and guidance, Leo Eitinger played a major role in training new generations of psychiatrists, and laid important building stones in the European tradition of psychiatric research.

Prof. Lars Weisaeth, M.D., Oslo

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