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

Confronting Memory in the Psychotherapy of Child Survivors of the Holocaust

Robert Krell, M.D.*

Childhood memory, its recall and accuracy in later life, remains a topic of controversy. Theories of traumatic memory derive from studies such as that of Terr, (1) who states that "behavioral memories of trauma remain quite accurate and true to the events that stimulated them." How memory is suppressed, whether or not repression exists, and under what circumstances early memories can be recovered, remain matters for debate and research. (2,3) The recent memoir Fragments, (4) a recounting of the experiences of a child survivor of the Holocaust from ages 3 to 7, has been exposed as fiction. (5) How childhood events are recalled and interpreted in later life remains suspect. Nevertheless, I have memories as do many of my child-survivor patients. And they must not be dismissed lightly.

Some of my earliest memories are quite vivid. At age 2, I was placed in hiding with a Dutch Christian family in The Hague, Holland, where I was born in 1940. It was August 1942 and I have no memory of the circumstances that led to my placement. Of my first two years I was told only after the war. However, by age 2 1/2 I have a very clear memory of my father's clandestine visit, during which he taught me to address him as "Uncle." I nestled against his sports jacket and felt his gun against my back. It was rare for a Dutch civilian to have a weapon, but he did. And at age 2 1/2, I somehow sensed the danger and warned him to be careful.

Forty years later, when I had told him my recollections of his visit, my father denied my memory and told me that I was mistaken. He confirmed the visit but stated that I could not have felt a gun. It was his habit to carry it in his right pocket for quick access. After thinking about it, several weeks later he confirmed my memory. He recalled that on that particular day he had placed the gun in his left inside pocket, so that he would not have a problem if he followed his usual inclination, which was to fling his jacket onto a chair. He did not wish the gun to fall out.

I am stubborn about memory. Had my father been caught, that visit would have been my last with him. Child survivors cling to last memories of mothers and fathers.

My confrontation with memory has not been particularly traumatic, for my circumstances were far superior to those of any other hidden child. This, of course, begs the question of why my eyes fill with tears whenever I think of my time in hiding. Perhaps it is because even the best of circumstances were somehow off the scale, the dangers too real, the fear too great, the separations too painful.

My father was not the only one to deny me my memory. My Christian sister, aged 12 when I joined my hiding family, thirty-five years later rejected my memory of her taking me out in a baby carriage. A German soldier approached us to help carry the buggy through a flooded section of street. I pulled the blankets over my head. She turned back. Several years later, she conceded the accuracy of my memory and said she was taking me to my mother's hiding place, a very dangerous enterprise.

Within the last year, she challenged me again. Having read my account, (6) she said, "My boy, where did you get such a story?" I asked her what was wrong. In response she said that I had lived a normal life, whereas I had told her I was confined to the apartment. She stated that this was nonsense and that I had played outside with other children and regularly seen my mother at least once every two weeks over the period of my hiding. She added that she was 12 years old when I came into their home and that therefore her memory was obviously far better than that of a little boy aged 2. We spent nearly three years together during 1942-1945.

I was stunned. Rather than argue with her, I went to my mother and asked just one question: "How often did you see me after giving me away in August 1942?" Her answer - twice. Once in January 1943; she stated that she stayed overnight and that I had still recognized her as my mother, which made her overjoyed. The next visit she recalled was in the spring of 1945, at great personal risk. She stated that in the last few weeks before liberation, she had grown so hungry and weak that she no longer worried about being caught.

All told there were two visits, perhaps three. Also, I never played outside. In fact, I was warned to stay away from the window so as not to be spotted. Right after liberation, I did play outside with other children on the streets below our third-floor apartment.

Should my foster sister's memory win out over mine? Is her adult memory superior to my childhood one? She is very intelligent, and an astute observer, witty and personable. Is her need to forget as great as mine to remember? She could not understand why several years ago I made a pilgrimage to Westerbork to say Kaddish at the site from which my paternal grandmother and two aunts were deported, two to Auschwitz and one to Sobibor. I have come to believe it is too painful for her to absorb my pain.

I conclude from these confrontations over memory that children with valid memories must fight for their right to remember. In my career as a psychiatrist I have encountered Holocaust child survivors with puzzling encounters with memory (7) that complicate their psychological recovery from a variety of seemingly simple complaints of depression and/or anxiety. I offer a few examples of such children, with changes of name and place required to provide anonymity.[Page 1 of 3]

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*University of British Columbia, Department of Psychiatry, 1741 West 41st Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., V6M 1Y1, Canada.

1. Terr, Lenore (1987). What happens to early memories of trauma? A study of twenty children age five at the time of documented traumatic events. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 27(1): 96-104.
2. Herman, Judith L. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
3. Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham (1994). The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. New York: Shocken.
4.Wilkomirski, Binjamin (1996). Fragments. New York: Shocken.
5. Gourevitch, Philip (1999). The memory thief. The New Yorker, June 14: 48-68.
6.Stein, André (1993). Hidden Children: Forgotten Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Penguin.
7.Krell, Robert (1993). Child survivors of the Holocaust: Strategies of adaptation. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 38: 384-389.