With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a group of mental health professionals marked the 40th year since they completed their study, “Effects of the Holocaust on Children of Holocaust Survivors in the American Psychoanalytic Association,” which caused a paradigm shift in the way children of survivors were treated by their analysts. It turned out that many mental health professionals, many of them Jews, and some of them Holocaust survivors, were no different than the rest of the Jewish community—for the first 30 years after the Holocaust, the entire Jewish community seemed to be in denial about the massive psychic trauma of the Holocaust and those who survived it.
Then, in the late 1960s, an Orthodox rabbi, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, organized one of the first Holocaust commemorations ever at the Riverdale Jewish Center. Elie Wiesel, then known as the author of Night and a journalist, spoke to a handful of Holocaust survivors. More importantly, in 1972, Greenberg and Wiesel convinced the City University of New York to offer Holocaust studies. City College, Queens College and Brooklyn College all offered a number of courses taught by experts, from Henry Friedlander and Henry Feingold to Yaffa Eliach and Wiesel and Greenberg themselves.
The awareness timetable in the therapeutic community ran parallel to the academic community’s.
The catalyst is acknowledged to be a conference of mental health professionals in Montreal in the mid-60s. The subject was massive psychic trauma, and it was organized by Henry Krystal, a psychoanalyst and Auschwitz survivor from Detroit.
Analysts Vivian Rakoff and John Sigal told the audience about their work with children of Holocaust survivors who experienced challenges coping with their lives, and noted such patients needed to be understood in relation to their parents’ victimization.
It took from 1967 until 1975 to convince the leadership of the American Psychoanalytic Association that a study on the effects of the Holocaust on children of Holocaust survivors was necessary. The effort was led by psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg, whose parents were murdered in Poland while she was in the United States. Kestenberg sent questionnaires to members of the International Psychoanalytic Association to find out if they had any children of survivors in treatment. Of those who did, the universal response was that it had never occurred to them to link their patients’ dynamics to the history of their parents’ persecution.
Robert Prince wrote his doctoral dissertation in psychology at Columbia University in 1972 on psycho-historical themes in the second generation. He was warned that psychoanalysts were not supportive of his interest in exploring the impact of history on the individual, because it was then believed that trauma only occurred in early childhood. It took an outside prominent reader, Robert Liebert, who shared an office with Robert J. Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors, to sway the faculty. Ten years later, Prince’s dissertation was published as a book.
In addition to denying the impact of a parent’s experiences in the Holocaust on their children, psychoanalysts were hung up on Sigmund Freud, and did not want to discuss Jewish persecution.
In 1927, Freud wrote that religion is a regression to an infantile relationship with an all-powerful archaic father. Thus, psychoanalysis became a more universal science of the psyche, and tried to negate Jewish identity in the post-Holocaust era as being too parochial and particularistic. Some even denied their own faith.
Heinz Kohut, founder of self-psychology, fled Vienna after the Anschluss, leaving behind his family, who was murdered. His son, Thomas Kohut, a professor of history at Williams College and a psychoanalyst, tells Emily Kuriloff, author of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third Reich: History, Memory, Tradition, that his father only shared his Jewishness shortly before his death. “He was afraid I’d be killed. He was trying to protect me from what happened to his own family in Vienna.” Furthermore, Heinz declared “If I have a son, I should never have him circumcised.” When Judith Kestenberg noticed that one of the cases Kohut published was clearly that of a Holocaust survivor, she wrote him a letter asking whether the case was that of a survivor. He replied that his issues all related to his pre-oedipal conflicts; he never responded directly to the question.
There are now several hundred doctoral dissertations on the psychological impact of the Holocaust intergenerationally. Generally, second generation analysts, such as Evelyn Berger Hartman of Riverdale, do not shy away from their patients’ losses, pain and identity. Their work clearly indicated that there are psycho-historical issues that impact on descendants of survivors of genocides.
American culture at the end of the 20th century was replete with victim groups. With so many competing social stigmas and emotional challenges, mental health professionals needed to understand the nuances of the individual and not lump them all into the DSM categories of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the 21st century, the immediacy of 9/11 resulted in psychoanalysts directly addressing the horrific traumas experienced. The absolute contrast between the attention 9/11 survivors and their families experienced compared to the Holocaust survivors and their offspring is dramatic and it is stark. This new consciousness, the awareness of how historical events impacted the psychology of individuals, is the new paradigm.
Eva Fogelman, PhD is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She was a pioneer in starting awareness group for children of survivors and intergenerational groups. She is the writer and co-producer of the award-winning Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust. She co-directs the International Study of Organized Persecution of Children, a project of Child Development Research.
By Dr. Eva Fogelman, PhD