The Last Witness: The Child Survivor of the Holocaust


The Last Witness Book Cover

The Last Witness: The Child Survivor of the Holocaust

Judith S. Kestenberg, M.D., and Ira Brenner, M.D.;

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The Last Witness : The Child Survivor of the Holocaust; Judith S. Kestenberg, Ira Brenner; Hardcover; Published by American Psychiatric Press, Publication date: May 1996.


I recently visited the Holocaust Memorial in Miami and witnessed a powerful exchange between two men of vastly different cultures. Most of the visitors had left for the day, and a silent emptiness was descending upon the grounds. There, in the waning moments of daylight, the huge sculpture of a tattooed arm, reaching for the heavens, cast an eerie reflection in the surrounding pool. One of the last tourists, a Hispanic man, was hurrying through, explaining the significance of the photographs and maps to his son. They paused in front of a photograph of a barracks in a concentration camp, which showed the emaciated prisoners with shaven heads in their striped uniforms, locked in their cage like bunk beds. A man with a European accent was standing by the photographs also, pointing to the same scene, and sadly, but matter-of-factly, he stated to his own family, “I was there.” The Hispanic man immediately spun around, his mouth dropping open as he confronted the silver-haired man, and asked incredulously, “You were there? You really were there? Did you know Elie Wiesel?”

The European man, seemingly unfazed by the stranger’s curiosity and forthrightness, simply replied that yes indeed, he was there, but no, he never met Elie Wiesel. Still astonished and apparently not convinced, the man searched for words in English and asked many questions. Still unconvinced, he finally asked, “You have the numbers?” The survivor nodded, silently raising his forearm to show the man and his son.

The Hispanic man gasped and started to cross himself, exclaiming, “Dios mio! Dios mio!” He yelled for the rest of his family, urging them to come see this man – it was very, very important. He stood in awe, and whispered, “Worse than the holy wars!” He then asked more questions, which the survivor patiently answered. He became visibly shaken, and in the end all he could mutter was “Then it really happened.”

This dramatic encounter illustrates the challenge of meaningfully describing the Holocaust and putting it in any kind of perspective. The questioner was obviously knowledgeable, caring, and interested in the history of the Holocaust, but it did not become real to him until he had living proof. His proof came in the form of a man with “numbers” – an eyewitness. But he still could not comprehend it and compared it to the holy wars. His historical perspective seemed to remove it from the modern twentieth century and cloak it with a religious aura. He became overwhelmed and had a profound experience when his extended conversation with the survivor finally broke through his denial. It became so important for both men to communicate about the reality of horror that they struggled to overcome the language barrier between them.

This tendency toward denial in the face of an overwhelming reality can be exploited by perpetrators who count on general incredulity at reports of their misdeeds–whether incest or the Holocaust. In addition, the feelings of shame and guilt that are mobilized during victimization may keep those who have experienced trauma from speaking up. Survivors of the Holocaust, however, whose numbers are ever dwindling, have clearly recognized the crucial importance of sharing and documenting their experiences. We hope that this volume becomes a suitable forum for their voices, while at the same time broadening our understanding of the psychological aspects of survival.

As the reader will note, we offer no photographs, tables, graphs, maps, blueprints of the gas chambers, copies of incriminating Nazi documents, or extensive statistics. Such information is available, and with access to the archives in the former Soviet Union, more data will certainly emerge to add to the already enormous amount of historical evidence. What we offer is an in-depth study of the traumatic effects of genocidal persecution on the child’s psychic structure and on development throughout the life cycle. Although this book is essentially about the victims in one particular instance of genocide—though one that has become almost paradigmatic – we suspect that some of our findings will be replicated in other situations.

The upsurge of nationalistic strivings and ancient ethnic hatreds associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, and the deadly tribal war between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda are just a few of the many instances of mass violence today in which genocidal aggression shows itself. The advent of psychodynamic sophistication in the realm of international conflict resolution has brought hope, however, that through understanding the psychology of neighbors and having an appreciation of national unresolved mourning, groups can work out their differences (see the work of Vamik Volkan, especially Volkan 1988). The signing of an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization finally to recognize each other can be seen as a very positive step in that direction.

It has been more than fifty years now since the liberation of the concentration camps and the hiding places, so we have been able to see some of the long-term effects of trauma on child survivors and their offspring. For those whose suffering persists, help is available through support groups in the various survivor organizations and through professional channels. We hope that our contribution will help mental health professionals be more aware of some of the issues confronting these patients, whose lives have been touched by the flames of the Holocaust. We may be able to alleviate some of the pain of the survivors, but the memory of those who perished endures. It endures as a somber reminder that the future of humankind hangs in the balance between the forces of creation and the forces of destruction.

As a participant in this project, I have learned a great deal and am deeply appreciative of Dr. Kestenberg’s wisdom and support. However, I have lost count of the number of times, over the last ten years, that I have considered ending my involvement in this overwhelming project. After all, I was quite busy with the demands of my practice, my psychoanalytic training, my teaching, and of course my personal life. I further rationalized that I did not think of myself as a researcher and had not originally envisioned my career as taking this direction. So I preferred not to think of it as “giving up” each time Judy Kestenberg, whose tireless energy, inspiration, and absolute commitment to intellectual integrity, spurred me on: “We were invited to present a paper at….” or “Can you write a paper for…?” or “Can you speak on a panel at…?” So I kept going, pushing myself a little more, to get another interview, to present one more time, to “survive” in the project just a little longer. I quickly realized how hard it was to set ordinary limits on my time when it came to this extraordinary group of people, many of whom had pushed themselves beyond imagination in order actually to survive from one day to the next. The emotions stirred up in me each time I listened to their stories were profound and utterly exhausting. It is little wonder that for several decades after the war the world did not want to hear about the suffering of the survivors. And now “the children,” many of whom are in their fifties and sixties, have long since come of age and have needed to be heard from also. They have much to teach us, and I was compelled to listen.

When Dr. Kestenberg felt that we needed to reach more psychiatrists with our findings, I responded. With the encouragement of my friend the prolific writer Salman Akhtar, I contacted the publishing arm of the American Psychiatric Association with the idea. Much to my pleasure, it was eagerly accepted. The result is this book, a tribute to all of the last witnesses of this all too human tragedy. It could not have been put together without the expert secretarial efforts of Lorraine Amato-Margasak and Ellen Young, as well as the loving support of Roberta Brenner, whose own endurance was put to the test on more than one occasion.

This volume consists of previously published articles and new material. Although the book is a collaboration, Judith Kestenberg is primarily responsible for Chapters 1, 2, 5, and 9, and I take authorial responsibility for Chapters 4, 6, and 8. Janet Kestenberg Amighi assisted in writing Chapter 1, Chapter 3 is a joint effort by Judith Kestenberg and me, and Chapter 7 was written by Judith and Milton Kestenberg.

Chapter 2 combines two presentations. The first is a contribution to a panel, “The Psychological Impact of Being Hidden as a Child,” held at the Meetings of the Hidden Child, May 26, 1991, New York, NY, chair Dr. Sarah Moskovitz. The second was read at the Nürnberg-Erlangen Meeting on Persecuted Children and Children of the Persecuted, October 18, 1991, and was published in German in 1994 by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Chapter 3 is reprinted in revised form from an article in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, published in 1986.

Chapter 4 is reprinted in revised form from an article in the Psychoanalytic Review, published in 1988.

Chapter 9 is translated in revised form from an article published in German, “Kinder unter dem Joch des Nationalsozialismus,” in Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse, in 1992. It also appeared in shortened English versions in the British Journal of Psychotherapy in 1992 and in Mind and Human Interaction in 1990.

Ira Brenner, M.D.

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