To Tess, special thanks for writing this article with me and for being there. I am deeply grateful to the many Holocaust survivors and their families who over the years trusted me with their pain and memories. My particular thanks to those families who gave their permission for their stories to be told. Some personal details have been altered to protect the identities of the people involved.
Between 1965 and 1979 I worked in a child psychiatric clinic. For the first five years I saw children individually and in groups for assessment and psychotherapy, after which I began working with whole families. Since 1979, I have been in private practice working with families, couples and individuals. A large number of them are Jewish and many are Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Not a week passes without someone weeping about the Holocaust.
Although I have written extensively about my work, this is the first time I am writing about Holocaust survivors and their families. I approach the task with trepidation. I am afraid of trivialising the enormity of what happened. To me it is still incomprehensible. Yet, if I do not write, I would be repeating a central feature of the Holocaust- namely silence.
I present a number of stories of my work with families who came with symptoms, problems or complaints that seemed unusual and at times bizarre. Although all had seen other members of the helping professions, the Holocaust had never been mentioned. Only when it was explored did their problems become comprehensible and meaningful, providing the context for alleviating or resolving their complaints.
Psychological and psychiatric literature abounds with papers detailing the detrimental effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their families. Generally overlooked is the amazing resilience of the survivors, the strength and vitality that made it possible for them to overcome their pasts and build new lives for themselves and their families in a new country.
I. SHOWER PHOBIA
In my early days as a child psychologist, I was asked to see Shirley, an eight year-old girl who had a very unusual problem. She refused to take a shower, reacting with extreme panic when her parents insisted. She had seen anum- ber of professional people but none could explain her intense reaction. Discussions with her previous therapists and the reading of her file were not helpful. The basic information was that the family was Jewish, the father in business, and the mother a housewife. Born in Europe, they had come to Australia in 1946.
In the assessment interview with Shirley, I asked her to do a drawing. She drew houses and chimneys – big houses with lots of chimneys. I showed her cards of people in different situations and asked her to make up a story about each. A repetitive theme emerged of people going into a house to take a shower and never coming out.
I made some enquiries which revealed that her parents were Holocaust survivors. Talk about the Holocaust was a constant feature of family life. With this new information I was able to tell Shirley that I thought I understood why she was unwilling to have a shower and explained it to her. She was able to talk more about her fears and told me she wasn’t only afraid of the shower, but also of the soap. To her the soap was her grandparents. Once the connection between the presenting problem and the Holocaust was established, understanding and resolving the problem was relatively easy.
Perhaps most people who went through the Holocaust cope by remaining silent. Some, however, are preoccupied by it and their family life is dominated by conversations about the past. Such a preoccupation may account for Shirley’s parents’ failure to see the connection between her fears and their recurring discussions. The helping profes- sionals may have contributed to this by not involving the parents more directly in therapy. Thus, her parents were not aware that their conversations and their war experiences affected Shirley.