The Last Witness: Introduction

The Last Witness : The Child Survivor 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 the Nazi Third Reich will survive well into the twenty-first century, as he or she will be fifty-some years old in the year 2000. The fate of this last witness is as yet unwritten; but, like other aged survivors of major historical events, this person, yet unknown, will probably live to be more than a hundred and will be remembered in obituaries as the last living survivor of the Holocaust.

By then, this person’s memory of that part of life – ravaged by time and doubtful in the first place (the child was “too young to remember”) – will have faded into the barbaric ancient history section of the twentieth century. By then, revisionist historians will have done their best to “prove” that the Final Solution of the Jewish problem never existed, or that if it did, the death toll was “only” in the thousands, not the millions. By then, the world will have seen numerous genocidal attempts by the stronger against the less powerful; and the word Holocaust, which already 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 of psychohistorical research in that far-off time, which will include the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness reports and the limited degree to which they can be corroborated. The effects of time on one’s recollections add merely another level of doubt in sorting out the validity of memories of long ago, especially if children are involved. My first contact with child survivors came via my husband Milton, an attorney who spent many hours helping children remember what had happened to them so that they might qualify for compensation. When we joined the Group for the Psychoanalytic Study of the Second Generation, he stood by me and participated, 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 children during the war, by several parents who attended the Center for Parents and Children, where we did research and practiced primary prevention. We could observe the effects of child survivors’ hiding on the development of their own young children, and we were amazed to see how very early these parents transmitted to the children their own fears of being abandoned and never returned to their parents. One survivor had to escape from his homeland when 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 attitude that was later reproduced in his own son, a four-year-old who, because encouraged to speak his parents’ European language, could not learn enough English to talk to other children. It was the son’s assigned task, it seemed, to resurrect the dead, which he did symbolically by holding back his feces and not dropping them into the toilet, where they might drown.

Some twenty-five years ago, faced with my first patient who was a child of survivors, I became concerned with the generationally transmitted effects of persecution, but I still knew very little regarding the adult fate of children who were themselves persecuted. I read several stories of how children rescued themselves, but I still knew very little about these young children except for my knowledge about the Theresienstadt children brought to Anna Freud’s Hampstead nursery and clinic after liberation. But nothing I read had the same effect on me as the analysis of a man who was born during the Holocaust and spent his first two and a half years in ghettos and two more in a concentration camp. The effect on his cognitive and moral development was overwhelming. I knew then that I must learn much more 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 make it on their own.

So I began to read the literature from abroad. It was in the midst of reading about newborn babies’ being killed, about very young children in concentration camps and in hiding, about a mother on the way to the ovens holding her daughter, deploring that not even her little child would be allowed to survive, about starving ghetto children begging in front of a bakery 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 attitude toward children could be made to change. Adam Gawalewicz, a Pole who survived several camps, has observed that those of us who were not there cannot entirely understand that the principles of ordinary morality did not hold under conditions of horror: this was a time when the Nazis systematically used their victims in innumerable ways to carry out their criminal acts.

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

Despite the prolific Polish literature on the Holocaust, very little had been written about the psyches of survivors and their children. Just how widespread, we wanted to know, are the repercussions of the massive regression of Nazi persecution? And could we have begun to understand the survivor’s guilt so clearly described by Niederland (1968) had we not studied the working of the superego under these extreme conditions?

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

Under the auspices of the International Study of Organized Persecution of Children, a group of interviewers followed a semi-structured, psychoanalytically informed protocol, audio taping these heroic and remarkable people for hours at a time. Although we were interested in the internal consistency of their testimony and gently confronted them when chronological or historical contradictions were obvious, the more important aspect of the interviews, for our purposes, was their experience and understanding of what they had undergone.Approximately ten years and fifteen hundred interviews later, the data are being deposited in the Wiener Library of Tel Aviv University for long-term study.

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

The chapters show considerable overlap (as might be expected, given that the stories they tell are of people who managed to survive the same genocidal onslaught). Although the chapters might have followed a different order, we have decided on the following progression. Chapters 1 and 2, each of which presents a number of vignettes and histories, show the similarities and differences in the experiences of children of various ages facing the two main situations that could befall them in those dire years of the Holocaust: that of being in hiding (sometimes even from oneself) and that of being in the concentration camps. Chapters 3 and 4 then focus on recurrent themes relevant to both situations: the effects of this experience on superego development and the role often played by transitional 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 to consider the effect of the Holocaust experience on adolescent development, as seen here in a young girl’s diary. Continuing this progression through the life cycle, Chapter 6 looks at these child survivors from the perspective of adulthood, examining typical patterns of parenting and grandparenting – 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 the Holocaust – both the physical wisening of children exposed to extreme trauma and deprivation and the psychological phenomenon of the “little adult,” so often a stage-skipping adaptation that later becomes maladaptive. The chapter then goes on to consider child survivors in their chronological old age. Chapter 8 presents an instance (not unique in our experience) of how some of these unresolved issues were dealt with, however belatedly, as a result of survivors’ participation in our research interviews. Finally, Chapter 9 presents an overview of what has preceded and advances a partial hypothesis, admittedly speculative, regarding the cause of this most demonic episode in human history.

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

Judith S. Kestenberg, M.D.

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