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

Myths and Taboos among Israeli First- and Second-Generation Psychiatrists in Regard to the Holocaust*

Haim Dasberg, M.D.**

What Is Myth?
There is a well-known Jewish myth that goes as follows: We Jews were liberated from Pharaoh's Egypt after an exile of 400 years. We Jews are commanded to remember this and tell it to our children as if we ourselves had been there too.

Myth is a story, a narrative, a collective memory and, as in this case, has a moral: Diaspora is exile is slavery is bad. Liberation comes through faith and courage. And the prize is: the promised land. While myth implies storytelling and listening, taboo is the avoidance of what cannot be told or touched. Touching taboo is a not-permissible transgression leading to trauma, aggravation of forgotten trauma, or retraumatization.

A modern Jewish and Israeli myth is that of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters' Revolt in 1943. This was the terrible end of another Diaspora on foreign soil, which had also lasted for over 400 years. With desperate courage a handful of heroes preferred death over Defeat and Humiliation; for Israelis this martyrdom became a myth.

In the same time span, in November 1942, General Rommel was to overrun Egypt. The British then would regroup in Iraq and the Jews of Palestine would be left to entrench themselves in the Carmel Mountains until the bitter end, i.e., the "Massada Project."

In the year 73 AD, Roman legions overran the last stronghold of the Jewish insurrection. The defenders of Massada preferred death over defeat and exile. Thus was born the Massada Myth of Desperate Courage.

Israel's second chief of staff and later Professor of Archeology Yigael Yadin unearthed archeological Massada in the 1950s, symbolizing the Israeli determination never to give up. In the fifties in Israel, everyone was waiting for the Second Round of the not-yet-fought-out War of Independence of 1948 against a united Islam.

There was no place in the prevailing national myth in Israel in the fifties for nonheroes. Those who had gone like "sheep to the slaughter" in Europe (and what remained of them) were not respected and were almost treated as taboo, as nontouchable.

Thus, the individual fates of Holocaust survivors were dehumanized: one spoke of sheep, of "human dust," when relating to the formless ones from "there." Alternately, survivors were spoken of as "Ood mutsal mey'eysh," that is, a brand plucked from the fire. (These examples and those that follow are as quoted by T. Segev, 1991.)

Itzhak Greenbaum, the representative of Polish Jews on the presidium of the prestate Jewish Agency, the Palestine Jewish community's governing council, spoke of the necessity to "knead the faceless physiognomy" of those from "there," reshaping them into a human shape, said in bitter contempt and shame.

During the 1940s and '50s, Israelis felt helpless vis-à-vis the Shoah, did not want to hear, felt guilty. Their belief in the new "sabra-superman" was unshakable (Amnon Rubinstein's expression, 1977). After many years, the sabra hero and chronicler of the humor of the Palmach (the fighter-commandos of the kibbutz movement who fought in 1948), divulged his most personal secret: his original name was not Ben-Amotz ("son of courage") but Tehillimsaigar; he was not a native-born, joking Sabra but in fact a sad Polish child survivor.

Yossi Peled, an outstanding and much-admired general, disclosed in a recent interview that in the 1950s he had claimed that his father had perished as a Polish ghetto fighter, while the truth was that he had died in Auschwitz, one of the "sheep" who had gone to slaughter. This is only one example of how myth and taboo can distort.

The change began to become evident after the Eichmann trial in 1962. Chaim Goury, the Palmach's national poet, publicly apologized for his previously negative attitude toward the Holocaust survivors (T. Segev, 1991).

After 1967's Six-Day War and its staggering victory, a general euphoria prevailed. The "Final Solution" to the endless threat to Israel's existence had at last been achieved. It was now the OTHER who had to bear the massive losses. This was indeed a mythic, biblical victory. The disillusionment came as soon as 1973. After the Yom Kippur War, it was again our turn to suffer massive grief and losses. The phantom of the possibility of Israel's annihilation again appeared on the horizon.

In 1982 came the "Peace for Galilee" campaign with our attack on Lebanon, when we had to deal with the slaughtered mothers and babies of Sabra and Shatilla on our doorstep. Our Christian allies in Lebanon brutally mass-murdered Palestinian civilians right under our eyes. This occurred precisely on the holy day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, in 1982.

The "sheep-to-the-slaughter" metaphor now became especially dissonant. This was followed by the endless guerrilla war in Lebanon, the intifada, the suppression of civilians. Then, in 1991, Israelis were forced to wait passively for German-gas-filled Scuds to fall on Israeli population centers as families hid behind plastic-lined windows in their sealed rooms during the Gulf War.

In years following, Israelis were put into the position of constantly waiting passively for yet the next suicide bomb to explode on buses or in the streets, anywhere and anytime. Amid this period of incessant fear and tension, Israel and the world suffered the trauma of the murder of Israel's first sabra-hero prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995, a mythic death, on the threshold of touching the unreachable peace.

These events along with, most recently, anxiety over the peace process and the cultural shakeup during the mass Russian and Ethiopian immigration, all led to the total breakup of the once-monolithic Israeli ideology.

These changes went hand-in-hand with a total reversal and change of image of the Holocaust and its survivors. A change of myth and taboo occurred; hubris ended and antiheroism returned, along with a readiness to listen to and understand even Holocaust survivors. The individual in the concentration camp or the prisoner of war is now the Moral Man. "This is a man," said Primo Levi. A change of myth occurred.[Page 1 of 4]

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*Based on a lecture given at the First Israeli-Polish-German Seminar on "Myths and Taboos" at Jaegellonian University, Krakow, Poland, September 25, 1999. The lecture was presented in honor of Dr. Yossi Haddar, of blessed memory.

**AMCHA, the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support for Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation. Supported by the Joshua Fund.