The Holocaust: Bereavement takes a different course

Jewish history has all too often been written in tears …
I am fascinated by people and groups with the capacity to recover,
Who, having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Are not defeated by them but fight back,
Strengthened and renewed.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, PhD,To Heal a Fractured World

In some situations, the whole idea of complete recovery from bereavement makes no sense.  Bereavement can be fully expected to last a lifetime.  That must never be considered a mental disorder.  Among the most obvious of these situations is Holocaust survivorship.

Very few Holocaust survivors are still living.  The last prisoners of the European concentration camps were freed in 1945.  Their suffering before release is virtually unimaginable and incomprehensible to the vast majority of us.  We have absolutely no mental yardstick with which to measure such suffering.  Imagination completely fails.  We cannot do it.  The children of survivors are perhaps the only ones who come slightly close to a true understanding.   They sense the meaning of the emotional horror of the experience and the problems of survivorship.

Fern Schumer Chapman, the daughter of a survivor, said it this way in her book, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past: “The past is a presence between us.  In all my mother does and says, the past continually discloses itself in the smallest ways.  She sees it directly; I see its shadow.  Still, it pulses in my fingertips, feeds on my consciousness.  It is a backdrop for each act, each drama of our lives.  I have absorbed a sense of what she has suffered, what she has lost, even what her mother endured and handed down.  It is my emotional gene map.”

We have a habit of using certain old adages to comfort and humor others.  We often use these sayings to dismiss from our own minds what otherwise makes us fearful and uncomfortable.  One adage says God never gives us more than we can handle.  Another says that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.  In the case of the Holocaust survivors, so false.  So weirdly irrelevant.  So insulting.  So empty.  So absent in understanding of the Holocaust experience.  Would we say that to someone who has survived starvation and certain annihilation in a Nazi death camp?  The answer resounds with No.  Then, too, why do we say it to each other?  Life lessons; applied ethics.  The wretched  Holocaust is still our teacher, so many years after.  From the survivors, another exercise in living.

It must be noted that the survivors had been surrounded by death in the extermination camps.  It was not just one death but massive deaths.  Most survivors lost many family members, not only one or two.  They lost many friends and neighbors, not just one or two.  The camp inmates bore witness to many deaths every day, not just on one or two days.  The deaths occurred primarily by premeditated, deliberate and vicious murder, not by disease.  Murder routinely took place after extreme torture.  Intense humiliation before death was standard practice.  Des Pres wrote that human dignity was treated with cynical contempt.  The value of life had been reduced to zero.  There was no escape except the grave.  In many instances, physical survival was an accident of time and place, not an act of strong determination to live.  It was a Holocaust, a great devastation, a systematic mass slaughter.  That was genocide.  That is the background of survivorship.  That is monstrous, shockingly hideous.

This is a different kind of loss and a different course of bereavement.  This is not “good death.”  It is brute force and mass killing.  This is not fear.  It is terror.  It is panic.  This is not anger.  It is outrage and despair.  This is not guilt.  It is inner conviction of crimes committed or omitted.  Judgment has been passed by the jury of the inner self.  The verdict is pronounced.  The finding is guilty on all counts.  The question is not: Is the verdict right?  The question is: To what extent is that verdict right?  No punishment fits the magnitude of the crimes.  The sentence is lifetime-plus-time atonement.  These thoughts form a survivor mindset.

In most instances, talking does not help.  Only in groups with other survivors does discussion seem to bring some heartfelt relief.  After all, in extreme situations, only experience knows experience.  The rest of us remain mere outsiders peering in.  Imagining carries us to the outer edge.  The Holocaust was located very far beyond that point.  All of us have an intuitive understanding of personal tragedy.  We find comfort most of all in others whose experiences match our own.  We find it also in those who have lived lovingly beside us as we suffered.  Survival is a collective art.  We need other people.

In notable instances, writing also helps to soothe.  As an example, Dr. Elie Wiesel long ago became one of the most prominent survivor authors. From his book, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget that smoke.  Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.  Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever.  Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.  Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.  Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.  Never.

He had vowed that, if he survived, he would devote the remainder of his life to telling the story of the Holocaust.  It was his moral duty to tell it, he said.  If the world knew the facts, another holocaust might be prevented.  As the old Santayana adage goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Wiesel has turned his torture and lifetime of bereavement into one of the world’s most treasured and admired literary art forms.  A thing of beauty.  In so doing, he eases his pain.  He brings us news not only of man’s evil but of his goodness as well.  He is successfully saving himself and memorializing his dead family and others as he guides the rest of us.  His writing is his public monument to the 6 million and so very many more.

Once again he found meaning in life and regained the will to live.  Eventually, he was even able to say, “I have not lost faith in God.  I have moments of anger and protest.  Sometimes I’ve been closer to Him for that reason.”  As we read his works, we fervently wish him to be right: no more war and injustice!  Horror transformed into beauty and the embodiment of moral righteousness.  That is quite an achievement of chronic bereavement.  It is not a disorder.  It is a rare and wondrous gift.  The Nobel committee recognized and honored this life of achievement with an award for peace in 1986.

An elderly lady of my acquaintance lived with her family in Eastern Europe during the War.  As the German army advanced, she sent her only child, a teenage son, to live in hiding and safety in the countryside.  Her son was discovered by the German army, tortured, and then shot before her eyes.  All the remainder of her family died in the concentration camps.  She herself became a subject of the infamous Nazi medical experiments.  She was never able to talk about her son and her experiences without dissolving into tears of guilt and despair.  The wound never healed, nor could that be expected.

Late in her life, she was hospitalized.  Due to a medication error, she became delusional.  One auditory hallucination brought her to a state of panic.  We found her behind the door of her room, frightened and shaking.  Over the intercom, this hearing-impaired lady had clearly heard the voice and commands of the Gestapo.  They were taking a lineup of concentration camp inmates to the “showers” (gas chambers).  She saw a camp guard pass her door.  She beckoned us to quickly hide with her behind the door.  The Holocaust trauma survived and burned in her vivid memory.  Through her vision, we could sense the smoke and feel the flames.  That was 50 years after liberation.  She had seen the face of evil.  Like Dr. Wiesel, she would never forget.  Why would she?  Why should she?  How could she?  Who would?

She managed to make her peace with life by giving to others.  It was her own personal kindness project.  It brought her purposeful life.  It commemorated her dead.  She was an expert, avid needle point artist.  She was passionate about her skill.  Everyone in her surroundings received, with great pleasure, something she had created.  She lived to be well over 90.  Her bereavement remained raw, but it never brought her down.  She was never defeated.  She found meaning and healing in her life by giving the fruits of her talent.  Her son lived once more in her generosity.  Bereavement’s achievement.

Given the depth and breadth of the trauma, it seems an act of heroism just to return to so-called normal life.  From Dr. Wiesel again: “I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and to live my life — that is what is abnormal.”  The feeling tone is obvious.  After such trauma, a life of normal routines seems at first crazy, surreal, disorienting.  It seems almost disrespectful of the dead.  At best, the reentry is a struggle.  It happens nevertheless.  At the center of the healing are other people.  Connection is the core principle.  Hope can be given only by others.  Also in Jewish folk wisdom, a Yiddish proverb states: Even in Paradise, it is not good to be alone.

Needed:  people of warmth and compassion.    A shared knowledge that the Holocaust situation was evil and extreme.  A firm flow of support and reassurance that guilt for past and guilt of survivorship are misplaced.  A conviction from others that the survivor has always been worthy of dignity and respect.  Acknowledgement that bereavement is forever and is sane.  An understanding that the dead are kept alive inside the grief.  Therefore grief is necessary and has a purpose.  There is no incentive to finish grieving.  On the contrary, there is every incentive to urge grief to remain fresh.  Needed: people for whom death is no stranger.  People willing to lift the veil of fear and find the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

So much is said about the devastation of World War II, fascism, and Nazi Germany.  Atrocity and abject misery seem to be an endless source of fascination.  The reasons are many but the fact remains.  Much less is said about reintegration.  It is the human will and ability to rise above past contempt.  The survivor had to regain entry into a sensible, open society and sane living.  Lost through radical suffering. Found, as Des Pres tells us, through social interaction and keeping dignity and moral sense active.

Those of us who did not experience the full horror of the Holocaust will never fully understand its emotional power.  But we can help those who did.  Never become discouraged by the scale of the problem.  Just keep inching forward.  This bereavement is a victory for connection, the value of relationships.  Accepting, respecting, and appreciating are fundamental qualities of relationship.  Attentive listening is also basic.  For the survivor, learning to trust again is demanding.  It takes great mental effort to accomplish.  We can help to point the way, again and again.  Repetition is part of the answer.  Telling the Holocaust story is that part of the answer.  Dr. Wiesel: “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that, having survived, I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”  To forget the Holocaust, he said, would be to kill twice.  Bearing witness gives voice to the dead.  That voice is indispensable.  Silence speaks.

Connection is a gift we can freely give.  It does not require full understanding.  It requires only empathy, honesty, and compassion.  Maybe a little altruism as well.  Each connection provides links to the wider community and further connections and friendship.  The support system expands this way.  Self-respect and dignity are reinforced this way.  Life finds meaning again this way.  Life is reaffirmed this way.  Once more an achievement of bereavement.  Survivors fight back, strengthened and renewed.

Our task is to make music with what remains.
-Yitzhak Perlman, violinist

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:
The last of the human freedoms –
To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,
To choose one’s own way.
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

– Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD, Psychiatrist, Author, Holocaust survivor

Rea L. Ginsberg is a retired social worker and hospice coordinator and an adjunct professor of clinical social work.  She can be reached on Twitter @rginsberg2.

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