Each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I recall the words I read in an article about memory. It ended with the words, “We live best and understand best when we remember well.” At the time I was inclined to accept the writer’s philosophy. But then I become marginally involved as a fund raiser with a program designed to record the experiences of Holocaust survivors living in Israel, an adjunct to the large-scale Spielberg project of eye witness records for posterity and for future researchers. It was an interesting and often heart-breaking experience for me.
The potential participants fell into a number of groups: those who were willing, even eager to tell their stories, those who agreed but were not without their hesitations, and those who found it too painful to be involved. For all survivors of traumatic experiences, it raised the old, familiar question of whether it is healthier to remember and to talk about the past, or better to consign it to the machsan (storeroom) never to re-emerge.
We do know that an estimated 55% of Holocaust survivors world wide suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Studies among survivors in Israel nevertheless point to a degree of happiness with their lives here. They explain to interviewers that their contentment resides first of all in gratitude for being alive and having been given the opportunity to start a new life, with an almost universal emphasis on the importance they attach to being able to build a family with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in defiance of the Nazi’s aim to destroy the Jewish people.
Some of them express pride in having made a contribution to building the country. In any event, it seems obvious that survivors, wherever they are, must possess an unusual degree of resilience to have survived the trauma they went through in the first place.
These survivors, in common with others living in communities across the world, frequently talk about their belief that they have a responsibility to recall what happened to them and a duty to talk about it to make sure everyone remembers. “Never Again” is more than a slogan for them. It becomes a mission and many spend a part of their lives voluntarily lecturing to schools, community centers and wherever they can find an audience. These are people who follow the “relive” school of thought, and whether because they have been influenced by the therapists who recommend it, or they have simply followed their own instincts, they clearly believe in talking therapy.
“You need to talk about your pain and start to process what happened to you,” is the starting point of the majority of therapists who treat trauma victims. Research carried out in the United States in 2016, explored the effects traumatic experiences have on the brain. Without going into the scientific analysis, which can be found under the names of the authors of the report – Su, Veeravagu and Grant – it seems that following trauma, neurons within the brain begin to die and the brain changes. Trauma is defined as what occurs when the human ability to handle events is compromised.
If following a shocking experience the victim is able to cope, this is not diagnosed as trauma. Where trauma exists, which is clearly the case with Holocaust survivors, talking therapy, as well as a number of related therapies, can enable the victim to face what happened without becoming stuck in it. In other words, to be able to move from the past to the present.
On the other hand, there are experts who maintain that for some survivors talking therapy is a disaster. According to accumulated evidence, for these survivors, recalling what happened to them, even in a controlled environment, results in nightmares, vivid flashbacks and a restless and troubled existence. Interestingly, the testament of a significant number of survivors reveals that they were unable to talk about their experiences to their children, usually out of a wish to protect them and from fear of traumatizing them in turn and because at that stage they were afraid of breaking down in the telling.
A journalist writing in Haaretz (April 23, 2020), described how his grandmother, who had been liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British army, had been unable to talk to her daughter about what had happened to her because she said, “If I remember I won’t be able to continue living.” Similarly, therapists called upon to help the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017, when a whole tower block was consumed with many people still inside it, causing 72 people to be burned to death and many injured, reported that encouraging survivors to talk about it only caused them more distress.
For these survivors, as well as for many survivors of the Holocaust, the passage of time appears to have helped the originally stoically withdrawn among them, some confessing that it was far easier for them to talk to their adult grandchildren in a way which a generation earlier had been impossible.
The studies among Israeli survivors do suggest that having the ability to face the terrible experiences of the past and to talk about them without becoming obsessed with them does provide a better chance of achieving contentment and stability than a sustained effort to block them off.
But like every other life-forming decision, a great deal does depend on the individual. Who should be encouraged to open up? Only an expert can decide.
The writer is a former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation, was the director of BIPAC in the UK and has been a contributing writer to journals all her adult life.