Conquering the Demons from the Holocaust

Dr. Kellermann is a clinical psychologist in a treatment center for Holocaust survivors and their families in Israel and a lecturer at the International School for Holocaust studies in Yad Vashem. He is the author of several books, including Focus on Psychodrama and Sociodrama and Collective Trauma. His latest book is: Holocaust Trauma: Psychological Effects and Treatment.

Each night after falling asleep, the demons keep coming back. They personify the millions of victims of the Second World War; infants, adolescents, young men and women, and the elderly who suffocated in the gas chambers or were burnt or shot or who starved to death. The terrible pictures return in the dreams of the survivors and the survivors keep re-experiencing the tragedy over and over.

Despite the fact that over sixty years have passed since the war, the enormous impact of Holocaust Trauma upon the survivors becomes even more apparent, because for them, the passage of time has made it even more difficult to cope.

As described in my recent book on Holocaust Trauma: Psychological Effects and Treatment (iUniverse, 2009), such late consequences are a part of the present lives of millions of people around the world. But it does not only affect the approximately half a million first generation of Holocaust survivors, who are already in their 80s or older. It also affects their children and grandchildren, as well as their spouses and caretakers. Collectively, it influences the Jewish populations in Israel and elsewhere, as well as the non-Jewish populations, such as the societies in Germany and Austria, and other war-torn European and non-European countries. The Holocaust is in their blood, in their bones and in their minds. They have thoroughly internalized its lessons and are constantly aware of the possibility of a new attempt of annihilation. It’s not a question if, but when it will happen again.

For everyone else, the actuality of the Holocaust also seems to have increased in recent years and there is a growing interest in anything related to the Holocaust during the last decade, with more educational programs, commemoration events and memorial museums than ever. Such programs urged us ‘not to forget’ what happened during the Holocaust. For the most traumatized populations, however, it is both impossible and unnecessary to ask them not to forget, since they keep remembering both day and night. For the survivors, it is most important that they should not forget. They are all the others; the other peoples of the world, some of who were involved in the war and others who had nothing to do with it. They should learn from the Holocaust. So that it will not happen again. It means; another genocide.

But they seem to have already forgotten most of it. Despite some public gestures of reconciliation, most people who are today living in the perpetrator nations of Germany and Austria have been successfully repressing most memories of World War II and left the working through of the past to subsequent generations. As a result, the ancient anti-Semitic sentiments, which were never eradicated despite everything, are again expressed. It is no longer politically incorrect to express anti-Jewish feelings, especially if they are concealed as anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli opinion. People living in other parts of the world are also showing increasing expressions of the “new” anti-Semitism. While the Nazi Holocaust led to the attempt at total annihilation of the Jewish people, the recent “new” anti-Semitism may lead to “wiping Israel off the map” as stated by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

All of these new threats indicate that much of the world hasn’t learned the lesson. And while there are various shades and grades of Holocaust denial, much of the world acts as if the Holocaust never happened.

So, what are the lessons of the Holocaust? What meaning should it have for future generations?

For the Jewish people, it provided the raison d’être for the need of a Jewish homeland and the justification for creating the Jewish state of Israel. It became the legitimizing factor for the state’s right to exist, and it underscored the urgency and vital necessity for pursuing its national interests. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this original significance has not lost its significance. Though the Holocaust in the future might be compared to a distant historic event, such as the exodus of Egypt, and be remembered and retold from generation to generation, it still has a profound effect on everything that happens in Israel today.

The Holocaust may sometimes be felt only as an undercurrent of vague energy without clear structure. But strong emotions easily evolve at every point of national crisis. At these times, the new trauma re-actualizes the old one. For example, during the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the settlers felt that they were exposed to a “pogrom” and in signs posted around Israel they accused the government of wanting to make this geographic area Judenrein.

For the non-Jewish world, however, the lessons of the Holocaust are much more difficult to spell out. Does the Holocaust have a lesson for the whole of people-kind, which is being ignored?

The obvious lessons of the dangers of malignant prejudice and racism, of cruel dictators and totalitarian regimes, and of the possibility of recurrent acts of genocide among human beings are easily taught. But what has the world learned to do in situations when dictators again rise to power and threaten another people with genocide, such as in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Darfur? Strangely enough, various countries who were all involved in the Second World War seemed to have learned a very different and almost opposite lesson from the Holocaust. The German population seemed to have learned to universally oppose all armed conflict and to choose peaceful means for resolving conflicts, while much of the US (and perhaps the UK) learned that such major threats must be confronted with military means. The latter have learned from the Second World War that totalitarian regimes such as those in Iraq, North Korea and Iran are real threats, which must be confronted head on and that terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida and other manifestations of the Axis of Evil may be as dangerous as Hitler.

In addition to these lessons, there are other more personal, moral, theological and existential lessons, which cannot be simply explained by the above political conclusions. In fact, in our efforts to digest the Holocaust, we become more perplexed and often raise more questions than answers. It is difficult to remain indifferent to these questions. Living in this time and age, we cannot (and should not) stop asking them, even if they leave us disturbed and restless to the edge of insanity. These questions and answers constitute a very disturbing lesson of the Holocaust.

Because it is an ugly one.

It tells the story of genocide and racial persecution, of unimaginable cruelty and non-existent compassion. Anyone who learns about what happened will be unable to find some sense in it all. To the question: “How could it have happened?” we respond with guilty silence and to the question: “Could it happen again?” we nod in shame.

As we attempt to digest this part of history, we are confronted with the forceful presence of the ultimate evil and “unconditional hate”; the cruelty of human beings to each other, the mockery of basic human values and the unlimited degradation of people. We learn about the dangers of blind obedience to authority and detached bureaucratic extermination.

But at the same time, the history of the Holocaust also reveals great manifestations of compassion, courage and heroism.

These two opposite learning experiences are perhaps the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust. They have often been observed among survivors of the Holocaust and they have been variously depicted as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTSD made people more vulnerable to stress, while PTG made them more resilient. This paradoxical learning experience has not only bewildered generations of trauma therapists. It may be seen also as a significant lesson of the Holocaust itself.

Survivors of trauma have learned that the world is evil and meaningless, that life is terminal and that people are unworthy. But they have also experienced that there may be hope even in the worst of conditions. If we listen carefully to their stories, we will slowly come to appreciate this profound lesson.

As we become more accustomed to this stereophonic sound, we come to realize that this dual reality does not only include the assumptive world of the victims, but also of the perpetrators (who may not be only cruel), the rescuers (who may not be only saints) and the bystanders (who may not be only indifferent). While we have a tendency to look at these main actors of the Second World War in black-and-white terms, and try to understand them beyond the realm of normal human existence, we may come to understand and appreciate that they were all ordinary people of flesh and blood, like ourselves and everybody else.

Being confronted with Holocaust trauma in depth, means that we are also facing ourselves today. This might be the main lesson for the world to internalize.

Perhaps when everybody starts to remember in this way, it will perhaps enable the survivors – finally – to start to forget?

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/13/2009

Mr Besch
You state:
"Those in Hamas who are also War Criminals deserve punishment too no matter the provocation. No favorites are played here. "
Correct in principle except that your statement is liable to be thought of as insidious by implying that the conflict is between Israel and Hamas.

It is NOT!

The conflict is between the Palestinian people who have been:
-dislocated from his homeland
-dispossessed of his legitimate properties
-disfranchised and subjugated in his homeland
Then was
-supplanted by aliens Zionist colons to establish the state of Israel.

It is with the nation/state, Israel, that proceeded to deny the RIGHT of Return to those among the Palestinians who chose to distance themselves and their families from theatres of war and to escape the fate of their compatriots who were massacred in Deir Yassin: the Palestinian refugees!
This conflict is now something like 90 years old ( Balfour declaration 1917-today) in which Hamas is a relatively new comer no more than 12-15 years as an influential entity .

Its advent and rise was an inevitable reaction to the steady ascent of the Israeli Right (Likud etc), Israel’s expansionism and obdurate intransigence in recognizing Palestinians’ rights in their homeland.

Hamas is NOT the Palestinian people despite its marginal electoral win in the recent elections held in the 1967 occupied territories.

Aadel M Al-Mahdy - 10/13/2009

There’s no doubt in my heart that the Holocaust has happened. Nonetheless, I reject the exaggerated number. This is my personal opinion though it is not stripping the Holocaust from it importance.

“For the Jewish people, it provided the raison d’être for the need of a Jewish homeland and the justification for creating the Jewish state of Israel.” You said, forgetting to mention that the Palestinians have the same need and right.

“during the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the settlers felt that they were exposed to a “pogrom” and in signs posted around Israel they accused the government of wanting to make this geographic area Judenrein.”, you said, forgetting to mention the recent Israeli offensive on Gaza, and the same “Shoa” the Israeli army visited upon the Gazan. 1,400 fatalities; hundreds of them are children.

“It [Holocaust] tells the story of genocide and racial persecution, of unimaginable cruelty and non-existent compassion” That is true, and the same thing applies to Israel when it carried out its criminal operation “cast lead” on Gaza.

Furthermore, let me mention while we’re at it that the Jews have frequently abused the Holocaust by their attempts to install a global collective sense of guilt in our hearts though most of us aren’t directly related to the atrocities Hitler committed towards not only the Jews but non-Jews as well. The Jews have been frequently blowing the horn of holocaust, even when they have just committed an atrocity against the Palestinians, and charging whoever opposed them with anti-Semitism

“Cast Led Operation” is another holocaust, but you conveniently forgot to mention it. Therefore, I am justified to mention that I detect bias in your article though it is well-written.

I hope the article is not a commercial for the book; otherwise the total article is not only biased but also tainted.

Randll Reese Besch - 10/12/2009

It didn't start with the 12 million separated out and murdered by the German Christians and their eager followers. It was the most publicized and industrialized and the most portrayed. There are others more recent but less publicized and less industrialized---but all of them are bad.

It is easy to know the difference between those criticizing Israel for performing atrocities against others and those who use it as a mask to simply attack Israel. It is confused all the time and purposely by those Israelis who like their butchery for their Holy Cause. It gets their job done. Those in Hamas who are also War Criminals deserve punishment too no matter the provocation. No favorites are played here.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/12/2009

-Having had one's community pulverized and decimated in one’s homeland for long generations ; is that reason enough to usurp another's homeland where one would have greater security in the full knowledge that , in the process, it will pulverize another's people community?

-Having had one's people brutalized because of their defenselessness in the face of unbridled racism; is that reason enough to brutalize another, as it happened equally defenseless , people in one's effort to secure effective defenses for one's people?

The question of the relation between the establishment of Israel in Palestine that brutalized the Palestinian people and pulverized the Palestinian community AND the HOLOCAUST should be viewed in the same light as the above two hypothetical situations/questions!

Except that the utter horror of the Holocaust have dimmed perception and closed minds to the exact parallelism between that episode with the above two hypothetical questions.

A deep sense of remorse and regret have added to the West's total blindness to that exact parallelism .

I find it understandable WHY the WEST supported the establishment of Israel in an other people’s homeland, Palestine, while in full knowledge of the ensuing devastation of the Palestinian people to achieve that!
After all, it, the establishment of Israel in Palestine, had the extra advantage of resolving the long festering Jewish question in both Europe and the USA and supporting Israel would, in a perverse way, condone and atone for the mega crime meant to rectify the original crime of the Holocaust!

What I find harder to understand, or ever accept, is that the victim of that abominable horror should remorselessly perpetrate an enormous crime against another people to, with the best possible good will interpretation of his act, secure one’s people security
simultaneously preach endlessly about the evil of others and moralize ceaselessly the rest of human kind!

Dr Kellermann certainly did a good job working at and treating the awful out growth from that most abominable of crimes against his people.
Would he, being the technical authority on trauma inflicted on the innocent by single minded racism, care to consider , investigate and report his thoughts and findings about the trauma inflicted by his own people on the Palestinian people??

Then and only then would he be morally qualified to preach, sermonize and moralize!

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