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And Then, One Day … Whom Could I Tell?

Pages 21-33

Children Surviving the Holocaust During their Latency
Elisheva van der Hal


In their article, “Growing up in the Holocaust Culture (1983),
Kestenberg and Gampel state:

To adapt to post Holocaust culture the survivors who spent much of their early childhood under conditions of organized persecution and isolation had to erect a new social and psychological identity (p. 143).

In seems to me that for the children who survived the Holocaust during their latency years, the re-finding of an empathic enough parent or parent substitute after liberation had a crucial effect on the way they succeeded in erecting this new “identity.” Empathic encounters are of the utmost importance to trauma victims. They can counteract potential lifelong impediments resulting from extreme traumatic experiences (Catherall, 1989; Herman, 1992).  At the same time, having the ear of an empathic parent or parent figure then was, to my mind, of great value for another reason: These children needed it to complete a conclusive part of their post-oedipal-latency development; the last enactment of what I shall describe as the “inner plot.”

On the other hand, not having had the opportunity to be reunited with a comforting parental figure, unfortunately more rule than exception, led to evelopmental problems accompanied by excessive anxieties, anger and extreme loneliness.  Encounters in therapy (Dasberg, 1992) reveal that in some cases, even after 50 years, the search for this parental figure goes on:

A. was 6 years old when he and his parents were chased out of their home and taken to concentration camps, where both his parents died.  He survived, though barely, and was taken in after the war by a childless, widowed paternal aunt.  This aunt had had a close relationship with him and his parents before the war.  Now, together, they shared the pain of their loss and endearing memories without having the need to talk about what happened.

A., being quite bright, quickly bridged the education gap which was due to the years in the camps, and stayed on do to well academically.  He chose the same profession his father had held, married, and had children.  The relationship with the aunt stayed affectionate and mother-son like.

A. came for help after becoming upset by a memory which had been repressed till then: He had laughed when he saw his father being beaten by Nazis because he did not walk fast enough.  This recollection had been triggered when his adolescent son sniggered at a comment in which he expressed his concern for his son’s well-being.

E. was 9 years old when, one summer afternoon, at home alone with his mother, a friend of the family came by and offered a hiding place for one of the two sons.  As E.’s older brother had gone out, his mother then told him to pack and go.  In a quick farewell, his mother told him to stop bedwetting since no one would be willing to hide a bedwetting child.  A gentile neighbor later told him after the war that two days after he had gone into hiding, the rest of his family was taken from their home to Sobibor where they were all killed.

After liberation, E. could not find any connection with the few relatives who had survived. He was taken into a war orphans’ home.  There he felt very lonely, although he had some friends. He relates: “Nobody talked about what had happened to us in the war.”  He remembers being permanently afraid of not doing well enough.

After moving to Israel, he married, at a very young age, a warm, affectionate, but not very understanding, woman.  His anxieties became stronger and stronger over the years.  Now in therapy he talks about the promise he had made to his mother to try and stay dry and alive in hiding, and how, over the years, he had kept this promise, although to this day living with the awful dread that he might fail and thus let his family down.

Latency and the Inner Plot

Freud was the first to distinguish the period in a child’s life between the ages 7-10 as the latency period. In his “Three Essays” (1905), he describes how the child, overcome by disgust and shame at the conclusion of the Oedipal phase, and before the onset of adolescence, becomes more and more successful in warding off bodily tensions and in diverting his/her attention and curiosity towards matters outside.  As they are far from being latent, the child learns to handle bodily and sexual drives more and more efficiently (Borenstein, 1951; Buxbaum, 1994).  The explicit objectives at this age are to get a grip on one’s self and the world around (Erikson, 1950), and to become ready to appraise and exercise social rules and moral judgments (Piaget, 1932)

During latency years, the ego development starts to take flight while shielded by defense mechanisms.  Aggression is being dealt with by the mechanisms of identification with the aggressor and altruism (A. Freud, 1946).  In this period, “the ego organisation carries the drive” (Winnicott, 1956, p. 122).  Infantile anxiety concerning parental figures are, however, still very much on the surface, and have to be fought off by splitting and projective activities (Klein, 1932).

With the solution of the Oedipus complex, the super ego proper starts to develop.  An intrajection of the parents takes place gradually as the child seems to become less preoccupied by interest in and dependence on the parents (Sandler, 1960).

Obtaining an identity is first and foremost identifying with the strong, big and mighty, and trying to master their skills.  I seems to me as if the child, at the resolution of the Oedipal complex, hears its parents say, “It was a nice try, but now you have to do some proper growing up, then you may show me what you can do.”  Although the pain inflicted by being rejected and slighted in this way is considerable, and asks for revenge, there is also a promise of reunion, or, as Sandler (1960) puts it, “The child attempts to transform paradise lost into paradise regained” (p.159).

In the meantime, the mental work of the child seems, in my view, to concern overcoming this traumatic experience, rejection. It must be enabled to express unrestrained anger, rage and aggression, without fear of retaliation; being able to forgive and to be forgiven in order to receive due recognition and rewards.  This pattern is repeated time and time again in an internally-staged dramatic activity which I would call the “inner plot.”  By means this inner plot, the latency child learns to master the overwhelming conflicts between the superego demand, the id impulses, and the anxieties resulting from these conflicts.  This inner plot is worked on and acted out in playing, fantasizing and day dreaming.

Being an internal activity, it is mainly not conscious, and surely most of the time secret. All the same, we know it exists. Freud (1901) already suggested a scenario for this plot.  We also know it by the literature, movies, etc., which seem to be especially created for the latency age group.

The plot in these scenarios invariably finds the hero or heroine as an unfortunate victim (favorably a poor orphan).  Due circumstances of its own doing (being bad or reckless), ill luck the wickedness of bad guys (threatening parental figures or siblings), it is being separated from loved ones, and experiences terrible hardships or life-threatening situations.  Either by its own wits, strength, charm, a secret weapon, or with the help of good guys, peers, animals or even extraterrestrial beings, it succeeds not only in escaping at just the right moment, and surviving, but also in becoming rich, famous, honored or otherwise rewarded.  Most important and satisfying, however, is an ending in which there is a reunion with the good, understanding and forgiving parental figures.

These themes seem to be universal and time-resistant.  Examples vary from Joseph to Mogli, Huckleberry Finn, Little Orphan Annie, E.T., Heidi, Nicholas Nickleby, Remy, and so many others.

Surviving During Latency

It is quite eerie to realize how this inner plot seems to suit the actual experiences of so many children during the Holocaust, especially those in their latency years.  However, these are not the plots of stories dreamt, imagined or acted out in playing.  We are confronted with real stories; how these children had to master situations which we cannot imagine even in our wildest fantasies. This brings about enormous difficulties in remaining present emotionally while listening to the recollections of the then-children. Most were separated from their parents, but even those who could stay together with their parents were often left to their own devices, as their parents had to endure forced labor, or were succumbing to illnesses.  There are many stories of how precisely children in this age category performed heroic deeds.  Often, they functioned as messengers between resistance groups in the ghettos or with the partisans.  They “organized” food in the camps, took care of younger siblings, and nursed ill and frail parents.

Children who survived the war in hiding had first of all to endure an unprepared-for separation from their parents and other family members – letting the children in on what was going to happen to them was considered too risky.  Often secretively brought by unknown resistance workers to total strangers, they had to adapt quickly to extremely different ways of life. They had to suddenly change their names, their identities, practice another religion, learn to speak strange dialects or different languages.

The interdependency between the children and their gentile caretakers on the matter of life and death – hiding Jewish children was a capital offense – made relationships even more complicated. Many children had to change addresses more than once, sometimes as often as 10 to 15 times. They had to be self-reliant, able to contain their overwhelming anxieties, loneliness, rage and anger, struggle with their forbidden loyalties and identifications with origin and religion, and needing to make their own unguided decisions about good and bad, right and wrong.

H., then a 9-year-old girl: I sat alone in a little room without windows for hours. Sometimes, they put a light on, sometimes that was too dangerous.  When the light was on, I could see the mice coming through the holes in the wallpaper.  I said to them:  “You are my little friends, the only friends I have; you will keep me company.”

R., then a 10-year-old boy: After my parents left us at our hiding place, and told me again that I should look after my little brother carefully, I had a dream which I cannot forget to this day, perhaps because it was the last time I saw my parents.  In the dream, I saw two small hands coming out of this hole they used as a toilet. I realized that those were my brother’s hands, and that I had to try and pull him out.  When I was busy pulling, I saw my parents passing by in a train.  I knew then that I would never see them again.

What fantasies did these children have, through which they mastered their fears, their inner plots? As those fantasies are secret, we will never know.  Now, parts of them sometimes appear in art forms, or through therapy.  Some parts came out in drawings like those made by the children in Terezin (Gaezer Grossman, 1989), or in the horrendous games they seemed to be able to play in the concentration camps (Gampel, 1988).  It stands to reason that surviving itself was the game, but it had nothing playful or pretending in it any longer (Auerhahn and Laub, 1987).

In general, children are able, through interplay between fantasy and reality, to touch base and be comforted with normalcy. Thus supported, they develop enough self-confidence to take off to a new, perhaps even richer, version of the inner plot, and to experience the satisfaction of creating a more successful performance.” (Eifermann, 1987).  For children who were persecuted during the Holocaust, the interplay must have been much more complicated. The lines between reality and fantasy must have become seriously scrambled, as, for instance, a creative performance in pretending could be life-saving, while being creatively playful could be life-threatening.  Parental figures could not be of comfort, either because they were totally absent, or they themselves were too scared and too weak to give a minimal sense of security and boundaries.  Without these possibilities for rebounding, it seems logical that new versions of the inner
plot became more and more rigid and repetitious, depleting sources of fantasy and memory.

Some of these children indeed had to render these gifts of childhood prematurely, and needed to become little adults.  Amazingly, however, others tell us how they were able, in the most horrible circumstances, to retain imaginative and creative ways of thinking and acting.

G., then in his latency years, and now a painter, relates in a television interview how, while in hiding, during endless, terribly fearful and lonely nights, unsure if he could master his bedwetting, he had to fight Jesus descending from the cross.  Once when he had an “accident,”he saw in a hallucination-like experience, how innumerable, tiny Hassidic figures converged around him and helped him fight off the dangerously advancing Jesus.  Their dancing and singing made Jesus go back to his cross.

Did latency children during the Holocaust fantasize the outcome of their inner plot? What were their hopes, their dreams? In reality, too many of their real life stories unfortunately did not provide for the happy-end, the glorious reunion which is so obligatory in the fantasy world.  As they re-entered the post-Holocaust society, many did, in fact  remain orphans.  Most of them had not actually witnessed the death of their parents or their other family members. They thus did not have “proof” of their relatives’ deaths, nor graves to visit and to cry on, or, for many years, if at all, any documents.  They could not grasp the meaning of death, or accept it, and kept waiting – in many cases, until today – for the return of their loved ones (Gampel, 1988).

Others were reunited with parents who, in many cases, were unrecognizably changed, physically and/or mentally by years of unbearable suffering, and who were emotionally unavailable because of being preoccupied with their own losses.  Too often these children did not only lack the warm and joyful reception they might have dreamt of, but they also had to deal as well with the adult commentary about their “nasty habits” which had, in fact, helped them to survive, or such sayings as, “You were too young to be able to remember what happened to us,” or, “You were only a child, so what did you suffer anyway?” etc.

It is no wonder, then, that many of these children now recount the period after liberation as the most miserable and absolutely loneliest time of their lives, worse even than what they had gone through during the war years.  Not being able to find the good parental images in the real world, they seemed to have pushed them deep inside themselves, never letting go, hoping for some sort of reunion, a miracle perhaps….  They were able to escape in new identities if, during the years to come, they happened to encounter persons empathetic enough to function as partial replacements for the good enough parental images.  However, in many ways and situations, they had to rely on the old mastering game which changed over time into a quite mechanical coping strategy, sometimes more effective, sometimes less.

Therapy Now

Child survivors of the Holocaust usually feel a need to come for therapy when their coping strategies fail them, and they feel threatened, depressed, and at a loss with themselves and the world around them. In therapy, an opportunity is created to reach out to the then-child and recover its inner plot, through the dreams, fantasies and valued ideas that were of vital importance then, and which often barely changed over the years.  Bringing the inner plot to a conscious level makes it possible to decide on its validity for present time and life circumstances.

T. came for therapy in a state of desperation, because his wife and children had decided to leave him.  It appeared that after having suffered serious financial setbacks he became very passive and demanding.  At age 7, T. had lived with his family in a ghetto-concentration-camp.  His father became so weak that he was no longer able to perform forced labor.  His mother then decided to hide his father under the floor of their living space. When the guards came to search for him, she stood herself and her children on the loose floor boards and managed to persuade them to leave them alone, risking the lives of the entire family.  In being able to overcome his fear of imminent death, T. had to make his father the hero of his inner plot, someone for whom it was worth dying.  Now, himself a father in distress, he expected his wife and children to stand up for him, identifying himself with his own father. When that did not happen, he became angry and unreasonable.

Recovering and recognizing the inner plot in a therapeutic encounter enables latency child survivors to engage in the work of mourning, if they find it in themselves to do so.  It is often amazing and too moving for words to witness how these persons the courage to come eye-to-eye with a plot they cherished for many years, and to sometimes be able to let go.

A. and E. (see p. 3) were able to express the following:  A., sobbing:  “After the war I wanted to forget what had happened.  I did not want to see it.  I wanted to be like my friends.  My mam (aunt) had put a large picture of my parent from before the war on the sideboard next to the dinner table. That is how they stayed with us, while we had our meals, strong  and healthy.  That is how I wanted to remember them.  I wanted to believe that my parents in the concentration camp were not my real parents, and actually till this day I sometimes think that …  How could those soiled skeletons be my parents? …”

E., looking at a space far beyond: “I remember that I told myself during hiding that I have to make an effort to remember everything.  That is why I can tell you even the smallest details. I thought: If I remember well, I will stay alive, and will see my mother again.  Of course, I took special care to remember to go to the bathroom at night. That was the most difficult and scary.  After the war there was nobody who asked me what had happened to me. I had to keep everything to myself.  During the years that followed, I became more and more afraid that something would happen to me, an accident maybe, and then, how could I account for the fact that I was the only survivor?  I had to stay alive for their sake.  I became more and more afraid that I would not be careful enough…. It sounds crazy, but now I realize that all I wanted to live for was to see my family again and tell my mother everything I told you …”

Catherall (1989) emphasized the necessity of making not only a connection with the observing ego in the therapeutic relationship with trauma survivors, but with their experiencing ego as well.  He acknowledged the possibility of the therapist becoming overwhelmed by the traumatic material and, therefore, not being able to provide a safe and supportive environment. Dasberg (1993) writes in this context about the problems of “infection” by trauma.  In exposing our experiencing ego while listening to the traumatic recollections of child survivors, we are exposing the latency child inside ourselves, and confront it exactly with our own worst fears for landing life-threatening situations.  We tried to master these fears by mental exercises and dramatic activities by means of the inner plot, acted out in our own fantasies or vicariously, by the creative works of others.

We become painfully aware how for latency child survivors these mastering fantasies became realities; that is, the bad, life-threatening parts of the inner plot became reality, the good part, the happy end, the reunion, for too many, did not materialize. However, in trying to retrieve and construct parts of our own inner plot or at least be aware of its existence, we may be able to stay more connected, broadening our perspective and understanding, and thus making the therapeutic encounter meaningful and perhaps -healing.

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