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Focus on Issues a Neglected Group in the Study of Holocaust Survivors

In studies done till now on the Holocaust and its victims, one group has been neglected. They are the survivors who were children at the time. It is only within the last six years that a cumulative study has developed to deal with the traumatization of those who were no older than 13 when World War II began.

In Sands Point, Long Island, a quiet suburb of New York City, a privately-funded study began in 1981 compiling testimonies of the children who came through the Holocaust, reaching out to archives and private individuals in Europe, Israel and throughout the United States and Canada in search of written accounts of memories.

The Jerome Riker International Study of Organized Persecution of Children has to date collected 500 interviews with child survivors. Volunteer interviewers continue to ferret out these people and record their personal experiences before, during and after the Holocaust.

BASIS FOR INTEREST IN CHILD SURVIVORS

Specific interest in child survivors arose from the work of a husband-and-wife team directing the Riker Study, Milton and Dr. Judith Kestenberg. Milton Kestenberg is a New York attorney whose work in challenging refused West German reparations claims by Holocaust survivors who claimed psychological impairment led him to question the reasons for the refusals.

In working on these claims, he found they had been refused because German-authorized psychiatrists contended they could not validate that the stated psychological problems were actually induced by the Holocaust. As Kestenberg questioned survivors about their experiences in order to refile their claims with the German government, the information he gathered made him increasingly aware of the psychological makeup of child survivors and the emotional legacy passed on to their own children.

Dr. Judith Kestenberg, the Riker Study project director, is a psychoanalyst specializing in child development. In 1972, she founded Child Development Research (CDR), a non-profit organization, whose purpose is the prevention of emotional disorders in children. CDR runs a center for parents and children, babies, pregnant women, mothers with babies and/or toddlers up to age four.

“Through these years,” she said, “we have learned to communicate with these babies and have taught parents to communicate with them. We invented methods of communicating with children non-verbally before they could speak fluently.” CDR therapists work with movement, art and music therapists in order to study nonverbal communication with children.

“It is this experience that gave us a new understanding of how babies think. These observations enabled us to begin to study on a new key how children felt when they were traumatized by the Holocaust,” Dr. Kestenberg explained.

IMPACT OF THE HOLOCAUST MINIMIZED OR IGNORED

Dr. Kestenberg repeatedly noticed that in therapy, the Holocaust experience was not factored into the behavior of survivors and their children as a contributing element.

Moreover, psychotherapists conceded that they themselves were guilty of minimizing or ignoring altogether the Holocaust as a major contributing factor to mental illness, witnessed by the fact that therapists found it difficult to identify with the impact the Holocaust had on their clients. The result was that the therapist became what one called “a partner to the denial of the impact.”

Psychotherapists in America, said Milton Kestenberg, shared the resistance to the Holocaust and its experience with the rest of America. “This was taboo,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, emphasizing that readiness to discuss the Holocaust is only recent. “It was quiet because we (the U.S.) didn’t do anything about it.”

The guilt was felt not only by America, he said, but by the survivors themselves, for having survived when others did not. This was fueled by a lack of sympathy from people regarding the survivors’ Holocaust experiences.

Milton Kestenberg recalled a woman who had been adopted by an American family as a “second daughter” on condition that she never speak about her Holocaust experiences. She kept her promise not to talk about them, he said, “but she never forgot them, either, and their memory constantly gnawed at her. She nurtured these memories inside her and she developed a neurosis.”

A RELIEF TO TALK ABOUT EXPERIENCES

Eva Fogelman, a psychotherapist who is a research associate and Board member of the Riker Study, said that during her work with groups of children of survivors she found some parents who were themselves only children during the Holocaust.

Fogelman said that therapists, in interviewing the child survivors, found that these people had not previously had the opportunity to talk about their experiences. “It’s such a great sense of relief to finally share it with somebody and get a chance to talk about it,” she said.

A WHOLE NEW FIELD IN PSYCHOLOGY

Most people, said Fogelman, don’t ask child survivors what they went through during the Holocaust because they feel they don’t remember, that children couldn’t have a memory of such things. “It’s as if they didn’t see anything, hear anything, feel anything,” Fogelman observed. On the contrary, said Fogelman, “they are completely left with nightmares and the horrors that they experienced.”

Fogelman told JTA that child survivors have actually related in the interviews that their parents said to them, “You were too young to remember anything.” But in reality, Fogelman said, child survivors, with the guidance of experienced interviews, have a lot of memory that is pertinent to how children experience trauma, “They have a lot to teach us about how children cope under stressful conditions,” she said.

Until now, Fogelman said, there has been no systematic research on the effect of the massive psychic trauma on children as compared to adults. But now, 40 years later, “we are trying to understand from a psychological perspective from people who had different kinds of experiences” what varied reactions arose from experiencing childhood during the unprecedented persecutions of the Holocaust.

“We don’t know a lot of this. Today in psychology there is a whole new field on stress and coping, but even in that literature there’s no differentiation between children and adults,” Fogelman explained.

She said that during the interviews with child survivors, many of them said they felt they didn’t belong anywhere. They felt they did not belong with the second generation because they didn’t go through the Holocaust. And they are constantly being told by those who were adults then that they couldn’t remember. As a result, child survivors have felt isolated, alienated from a group of people with whom they share a common historical background.

Over and over again in interviews with child survivors, said Fogelman, interviewers were asked, “Am I the only one or do you know any other people I could meet?” Therefore, meetings were set up for child survivors to have an opportunity to meet with each other to share not only their experience of the past, but also how they feel today, as well as their creative responses to coping with losses and trauma.

In these groups, Fogelman explained, the child survivors encounter a sense of family, community, heritage, culture, language — exactly those things they lost during the Holocaust. There are now child survivor organizations in several major U.S. cities. The first of these groups was begun a year-and-a-half ago in Los Angeles. This past Simchat Torah, the Los Angeles group met and danced with the Torah together. They also celebrate Passover communally.

“These organized meetings,” said Fogelman, “are not only self-help kind of groups where people share their feeling, but they have become for many people an extended family, a Jewish community that they feel they didn’t belong to, a re-creation of a sense of belonging.” Fogelman said that child survivors in these groups have repeatedly said, “This is the first time I feel like I belong somewhere.”

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