The Last Witness: Introduction

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To order now, just click here:
TheLast Witness : The ChildSurvivor of the Holocaust; Judith S. Kestenberg, Ira Brenner; Hardcover; $36.50 (Special Order);Published by American Psychiatric Press,Publication date: May 1996.


      The last witness to the near destruction of European Jewry by theNazi Third Reich will survive well into the twenty-first century, as he orshe will be fifty-some years old in the year 2000. The fate of this lastwitness is as yet unwritten; but, like other aged survivors of majorhistorical events, this person, yet unknown, will probably live to be morethan a hundred and will be remembered in obituaries as the last livingsurvivor of the Holocaust.

      By then, this person’s memory of that part of life–ravaged by timeand doubtful in the first place (the child was “too young toremember”)–will have faded into the barbaric ancient history section of thetwentieth century. By then, revisionist historians will have done theirbest to “prove” that the Final Solution of the Jewish problem neverexisted, or that if it did, the death toll was “only” in the thousands, notthe millions. By then, the world will have seen numerous genocidal attemptsby the stronger against the less powerful; and the word Holocaust, whichalready is thought by some to have become overused and even commercialized,may have taken on totally new connotations.

      Consequently, it is not difficult to envision the problems ofpsychohistorical research in that far-off time, which will include theaccuracy and reliability of eyewitness reports and the limited degree towhich they can be corroborated. The effects of time on one’s recollectionsadd merely another level of doubt in sorting out the validity of memoriesof long ago, especially if children are involved. My first contact withchild survivors came via my husband Milton, an attorney who spent manyhours helping children remember what had happened to them so that theymight qualify for compensation. When we joined the Group for thePsychoanalytic Study of the Second Generation, he stood by me andparticipated, and when I began to interview child survivors, he did too,with an open ear and heart.

      My attention was then drawn again to survivors who were childrenduring the war, by several parents who attended the Center for Parents andChildren, where we did research and practiced primary prevention. We couldobserve the effects of child survivors’ hiding on the development of theirown young children, and we were amazed to see how very early these parentstransmitted to the children their own fears of being abandoned and neverreturned to their parents. One survivor had to escape from his homelandwhen only four years old. He had to learn a new language and for a longtime could not communicate with other children. This led to an attitudethat was later reproduced in his own son, a four-year-old who, becauseencouraged to speak his parents’ European language, could not learn enoughEnglish to talk to other children. It was the son’s assigned task, itseemed, to resurrect the dead, which he did symbolically by holding backhis feces and not dropping them into the toilet, where they mightdrown.

      Some twenty-five years ago, faced with my first patient who was achild of survivors, I became concerned with the generationally transmittedeffects of persecution, but I still knew very little regarding the adultfate of children who were themselves persecuted. I read several stories ofhow children rescued themselves, but I still knew very little about theseyoung children except for my knowledge about the Theresienstadt childrenbrought to Anna Freud’s Hampstead nursery and clinic after liberation. Butnothing I read had the same effect on me as the analysis of a man who wasborn during the Holocaust and spent his first two and a half years inghettos and two more in a concentration camp. The effect on his cognitiveand moral development was overwhelming. I knew then that I must learn muchmore about the adult fate of young children who suffered under the Nazis,both those who survived with their parents and those who were left to makeit on their own.

      So I began to read the literature from abroad. It was in the midstof reading about newborn babies’ being killed, about very young children inconcentration camps and in hiding, about a mother on the way to the ovensholding her daughter, deploring that not even her little child would beallowed to survive, about starving ghetto children begging in front of abakery frequented by rich Jews—it was in the midst of all this that I knew.I knew then that with the tactics of the Nazis, some people’s attitudetoward children could be made to change. Adam Gawalewicz, a Pole whosurvived several camps, has observed that those of us who were not therecannot entirely understand that the principles of ordinary morality did nothold under conditions of horror: this was a time when the Nazissystematically used their victims in innumerable ways to carry out theircriminal acts.

      The task of resolving conflicts such as having children or having anabortion is intensely aggravated in people who once lived with death as aneveryday occurrence. They had to harden themselves as they saw corpseslying around while people stood in line for soup. In the ghetto, childrenplayed while in their midst one of them may have lain lifeless, dead ofstarvation. In the ghetto courtyards, children played the deadly game ofJews caught by Nazis, of being shot or beaten. In the garden of theassistant superintendent of the Auschwitz camp, his wife and his twochildren frolicked among the flowers while two inmates, exhausted, starved,infected, and swollen from hunger, laid out lovely walks with gravel madeof human bone.

      Despite the prolific Polish literature on the Holocaust, very littlehad been written about the psyches of survivors and their children. Justhow widespread, we wanted to know, are the repercussions of the massiveregression of Nazi persecution? And could we have begun to understand thesurvivor’s guilt so clearly described by Niederland (1968) had we notstudied the working of the superego under these extreme conditions?

      So we studied history, not as historians, but as psychoanalysts whowanted to know what happened to the human psyche during the Holocaust andin its aftermath. One of the things we found is that children under thepersecution were more outspoken to the Nazis than were grown-ups. Theyjoined the resistance and fed their families. They had to become old beforetheir time, while often their elders regressed. We also found that thestrength of these children and the strength of those who resistedregression brought them a new zest for life, which was then transmitted tothe second generation.

      Under the auspices of the International Study of OrganizedPersecution of Children, a group of interviewers followed asemi-structured, psychoanalytically informed protocol, audiotaping theseheroic and remarkable people for hours at a time. Although we wereinterested in the internal consistency of their testimony and gentlyconfronted them when chronological or historical contradictions wereobvious, the more important aspect of the interviews, for our purposes, wastheir experience and understanding of what they had undergone.Approximately ten years and fifteen hundred interviews later, the data arebeing deposited in the Wiener Library of Tel Aviv University for long-termstudy.

      It is gratifying to have the opportunity to bring together some ofour early findings in this volume. Though it is a modest contribution abouta subject that ultimately must defy comprehension, we hope that readerswill come away with a better understanding of how the developing child canbe affected by the trauma associated with persecution. We did not see thiswork as merely a study of the pathology of a traumatized group.Nonetheless, although our metapsychology cannot do justice to theirsuffering (and indeed the use of too much psychoanalytic jargon can have atrivializing effect on their experience), we have felt it necessary tocommunicate some of our findings in our professional language. We hope itwill be received in the spirit in which it is intended.

      The chapters show considerable overlap (as might be expected, giventhat the stories they tell are of people who managed to survive the samegenocidal onslaught). Although the chapters might have followed a differentorder, we have decided on the following progression. Chapters 1 and 2, eachof which presents a number of vignettes and histories, show thesimilarities and differences in the experiences of children of various agesfacing the two main situations that could befall them in those dire yearsof the Holocaust: that of being in hiding (sometimes even from oneself) andthat of being in the concentration camps. Chapters 3 and 4 then focus onrecurrent themes relevant to both situations: the effects of thisexperience on superego development and the role often played bytransitional phenomena in mastering the attendant trauma and object loss,even much later in life.

      With Chapter 5 we move from issues of early childhood and latency toconsider the effect of the Holocaust experience on adolescent development,as seen here in a young girl’s diary. Continuing this progression throughthe life cycle, Chapter 6 looks at these child survivors from theperspective of adulthood, examining typical patterns of parenting andgrandparenting—at times disturbed, at others adaptive and even salutary,but always bearing the indelible stamp of a harrowing childhood experience.The aging process is next considered from an unusual double perspective:Chapter 7 first considers the premature aging of children in theHolocaust—both the physical wizening of children exposed to extreme traumaand deprivation and the psychological phenomenon of the “little adult,” sooften a stage-skipping adaptation that later becomes maladaptive. Thechapter then goes on to consider child survivors in their chronological oldage. Chapter 8 presents an instance (not unique in our experience) of howsome of these unresolved issues were dealt with, however belatedly, as aresult of survivors’ participation in our research interviews. Finally,Chapter 9 presents an overview of what has preceded and advances a partialhypothesis, admittedly speculative, regarding the cause of this mostdemonic episode in human history.

      We have tried to present some of the complexities of understandingthe interplay of genocidal persecution and the development of the child,keeping in mind the uniqueness of the experience of each of these “lastwitnesses.” We hope that readers will be able to tolerate the anxiety,horror, and sadness that this subject invariably evokes. It is a necessaryexperience if we are to prepare ourselves better to understand and assistthe survivors of massive trauma.

      Judith S. Kestenberg, M.D.

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