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

Confronting Memory in the Psychotherapy of Child Survivors of the Holocaust

Robert Krell, M.D.

Margaret was 61 years old when she was referred to me with unremitting depression of 3 1/2 years' duration since the death of her companion. Her main symptoms were anxiety and fear of being alone.

Born in Vienna, she was spirited out of Austria on a Kindertransport, arriving in England at age 12 in 1939. Sent to a Jewish school, she wanted nothing to do with Judaism. She abandoned her studies and graduated as a practical nurse in 1948. She married an Englishman in 1952 and moved to Canada shortly thereafter. This first husband died in 1984, and her second "companion" in 1988, both deaths triggering depressions.

Of her childhood, Margaret recalled sitting in a high chair, ballet lessons at age 3 or 4, and virtually nothing of her parents. With questions such as "Did your mother wear perfume?" memories were elicited and there followed an entire account of walks in the park, sitting with mother on a park bench and having ice cream while noting the sweet smell of her mother's fragrance.

Asking about her Judaism at first drew a blank. Several visits later, while discussing the location of their home in Vienna, Margaret recalled long trips with her mother through the city center to take ritual baths. They were in fact Orthodox Jews.

In England, placed with a non-Jewish family, she felt more secure attending a Catholic convent and rebeled at attending a Jewish school.

Asked how she found out what happened to her family, again, no recall. Several visits later came a description of her frantic search for her parents, even including a trip to Switzerland to talk to an uncle. The news was that they had died in a concentration camp.

Margaret buried her memories and her grief. With the death of her partner, she mourned not only his loss, but also that of her first husband and her parents. Her overwhelming grief caused her to rely on her young-adult children for company. Their absence would cause tremendous anxieties with fear of total abandonment. For her, out of sight was literally equated with death.

Talking of her recent bereavement, she suddenly recalled her father putting on tefillin. I commented that as an Orthodox Jew, perhaps he did not feel so alone, even in the concentration camp. Margaret wept and talked of her turning against Judaism and being baptized: "Who are you when you are just a refugee?"

After three months of weekly visits, Margaret in passing said that she was virtually free of anxiety and that her friends commented on her apparent well-being.

Her confrontation with memory gave her back memories of her parents. She explains: "It is as if I have two separate lives, a Jewish one with my prewar family and my non-Jewish family since. I am two persons in the process of coming together." Her next Christmas felt strange for having a tree and for feeling partly Jewish again. Margaret has joined a child-survivor support group, of which she says, "There I don't have to explain myself."

Jacques was in a bad marriage and quite depressed. It was his third failed relationship. He wondered if his choice in partners was at all related to his having been a hidden child. Born in the spring of 1942 in Belgium, he was hidden with a family he thinks to have been abusive. His parents visited him at great risk on his first birthday and he cried terribly when they left. He thinks his father saw them beat him to quiet him and was to return for him the next day but was caught by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp.

That is the story he knows and on which he shaped his earliest identity, for he has no personal recollections before rejoining his family in 1945.

In 1949, his father returned from many years of post-concentration camp medical treatment. He was weak, but warm and nurturing. Jacques's mother would say when he went on a school trip, "Call, your father may not be alive when you get back." His father died in 1961.

The question here is not only whether there is actual preverbal memory that can be recaptured but whether the affective feelings experienced by Jacques are indeed a reflection of that memory. For example, his experiences of anger are expressed as rage, always directed at himself. His outbursts resemble the rage seen in a young child. He was "abandoned" by his parents in circumstances of great danger; a danger that cannot be understood by a child who rages against the abandonment and subsequently interprets it as reflecting worthlessness. Unworthy of love and protection, the child shapes an identity based on shame, in this case the shame of being unwanted and persecuted without knowing why, and suffers a permanent blow to self-esteem.

That shame and rootlessness continued for Jacques in the absence of a Jewish family tradition after the war. Despite regaining parents and an older brother (with more fervent memories and subsequent Catholic conversion), feelings of self-worth remained elusive. The inability to establish an identity resulted in a continuation of self-directed anger. Marital partners were not chosen for compatibility but to fill the void of missing self-esteem, and he picked those who agreed not to have children.

Within therapy, in an attempt to retrieve Jacques's "nonexistent memory," he asked questions of his elderly mother who told him he was in at least four placements from 1942 to 1945, organized by the resistance. There are no photos of him as a baby.

Jacques is resentful of his mother. It took some time before he was able to recall that she said, "Do you know what it was like for me to have to give up my children?" His feeling had always been that she did it with pleasure, so as not to be burdened with him. That is how he felt about her in the postwar years - that she ignored him because he was a burden. As Jacques became increasingly in touch with his feelings, he offered such instances of self-awareness as "My sense of isolation and distress must connect with my loneliness as a child in hiding who was waiting for someone to collect him. It is as if I am still waiting, but no one comes." [Page 2 of 3]

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