Holocaust memories erased by survivors

Scotsman.com/January 25, 2004
By Ben McConville

He spent two years of his childhood in the hell hole of a concentration camp, enduring, along with millions of other children and their families, the horrors of the worst atrocity of the 20th century.

For most of the lucky few who survived Hitler's death camps, the terrible memories they shared have been indelibly printed on their minds, but for people like Dori Laub it was different.

Right into his adulthood - he became a psychiatrist - when he was asked what his most vivid memories as a young child were, he recalled an idyllic scene of him and a young friend running through fields of green, having a childish argument about whether or not they could eat grass.

But at exactly that time Laub and his family were instead incarcerated in a desolate concentration camp on the Romanian border with Ukraine, where he stayed until he and his mother - his father had not survived the horrors of Transnistria Camp - were liberated by the Soviet army and made their way to the newly formed state of Israel.

When he first realised that he had 'misremembered' such a significant part of his life, Laub, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and one of the world's leading experts in trauma, said it was like a bolt from the blue.

But it has also been the basis for groundbreaking research, which has resulted in his discovery that he and scores of others were suffering from a previously unknown psychiatric condition, which he has called Erasure.

Laub, 66, who is also deputy director of the Genocide Studies Programme at Yale, said: "I wrote up my experiences as a child, but when we moved to Israel when I was 13, my mother destroyed the journal.

"In 1968 I met a Swedish analyst to whom I was recounting the tale of me and a friend arguing over where you can or cannot eat grass. He told me about patients he had treated from a camp in Czechoslovakia who had sworn that they were treated well by the Nazis.

"One woman said she had received breakfast in bed every morning. Another said it had been like a holiday. This was like a bolt from the blue for me. I realised that maybe I was lying to myself."

Six million Jews were killed between 1933 and 1945. With Holocaust Memorial Day on Tuesday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Laub believes it is more important than ever that his research and the testimonies of those survivors who do remember what they went through are used to keep the history alive.

Laub has spent many years developing his discovery, which is principally that a form of psychosis leads people who have suffered extreme trauma to construct false memories to protect themselves against the evils done to them.

A study by Laub in 1993 found that of 5,000 psychiatric patients being held in institutions in Israel for at least a year, more than 900 were Holocaust survivors. Laub also found the patients to be wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic or depressed.

Laub said: "In many instances survivors had no coherent or cohesive history to tell - particularly relating to the Holocaust. They refused to see the Holocaust as important or even noteworthy. They gave us only fragments.

"I was told by the staff that 20% of the patients were silent. They just do not speak to anybody. They walk around, intently watch, smoke and then unexpectedly walk away. Sometimes one can get close to them and can watch their facial expressions. One can see their ongoing struggle. They attempt to say something, which may come out barely audible, a scream, a moan or a sigh. It is as if they do talk, but in decibels that are not audible. At the very least, they seem to be in conflict and in a struggle when trying to pronounce a word.

"On interviewing those who do talk, I realise that the same struggle is true for them also. There is parsimony and a restraint in what they say, which is very remarkable. In particular, in all that relates to the Holocaust, many deny memories."

Laub's initial findings caused public outcry in Israel, and as result more than 300 patients no longer require psychiatric inpatient hospitalisation. A further 600 were able to be treated for the correct condition, and many experienced life outside a psychiatric unit for the first time in more than 40 years.

One woman who Laub met was Judy Lefman. Imprisoned in a forced-labour camp in Czechoslovakia, Judy did not remember fearing her German female guards or, in her five years of incarceration, remember missing her family.

Laub said: "Memory, in Judy stopped with the persecutions. Germans did nothing cruel. She did not recall her deportation. Work camp was not difficult. Neither does she remember liberation or the experience of returning to her hometown with no one being there, not even feelings about missing her mother.

"She knew she went by boat to Israel, but forgot the detention in Cyprus where she met her brother David. Her nephew described her as totally apathetic and indifferent when she lived with his mother after her arrival in Israel. This led to her psychiatric hospitalisation."

As well as his trauma research, Laub has played a prominent role in archiving the memories of Holocaust survivors. In the early 1980s he won an Emmy for a documentary, Forever Yesterday, which is based on the video testimonies of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, which is held at Yale University and which he helped found in 1981. His team of mental-health specialists have recorded more than 4,000 interviews.

Laub said: "By preserving these testimonies, we have created a living memorial to counteract forgetfulness, ignorance and malicious denial of the facts.

"I would say that 80% to 90% of the film footage and photographs made in the camps were taken by Nazis, and the intent of those film-makers was the very same as the killers. They wanted to kill the truth by photographing it, filming it, in a very dehumanising way."

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