a conversation with Dr. Yael Danieli
Dr. Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist, victimologist, author, and lecturer, is director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children, which she co-founded in 1975 in the New York City area; a founding director, past president, and senior representative to the United Nations of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies; and a distinguished professor of International Psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
What led you to specialize in preventing the long-term and multigenerational effects of trauma?
During the ’60s, while working on my doctoral dissertation on the psychology of hope, I realized that Holocaust survivors and their children suffered from what I would later term the “conspiracy of silence”—most people they tried to speak to about their experiences, including psychotherapists and other professionals, would not listen to or believe them.
Survivors’ war accounts were too horrifying for most people to hear. Compounding their psychic pain, survivors also encountered the pervasively held myth that they had participated in their own destiny by “going like sheep to the slaughter” and the suspicion that they had performed immoral acts in order to survive.
The silence imposed by a world that did not want to hear them intensified their sense of isolation, loneliness, and mistrust of society. In bitterness and despair, many decided there was no one they could talk to about their trauma except, perhaps, other survivors or members of their newly formed families. The “conspiracy of silence” was almost a tacit agreement of “you don’t listen, I don’t tell.” Some survivors also chose not to talk about their experiences with their children because they wanted their kids to have a “normal” life.
How did the emotional toll affect the survivors’ families?
From my work with numerous survivors and their children who participated in the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children, I discovered that, in trying to cope, survivors created families that tended to exhibit at least four adaptational identity styles: victim families, fighter families, numb families, and families of “those who made it.” The last two, in particular, often kept their traumas to themselves.
Why did they stay silent?
In numb families, frequently the parents were sole survivors of their previous family—he/she had lost a spouse and children during the war, and you cannot fully recover from losing your children in front of your eyes and not being able to do anything about it. Home life was characterized by a lack of both emotional expression and natural physical contact, and by pervasive silence.
Little or nothing was said about their Holocaust experiences. And the children of such families were often too frightened to imagine what could have led to such constriction and lifelessness in their parents. In some cases, their own inner spontaneity and fantasy life were greatly diminished.
In these numb families, the parents protected each other and the children protected the parents. Children were expected to somehow grow up on their own, to take care of themselves. They were also counted on to understand that they were loved, the proof lying in their parents’ pained efforts to support them financially.
Since they rarely felt important at home, these children had trouble believing that others would consider them worthy of attention. They often adapted by numbing themselves, thus appearing less intelligent and capable than they were. Some were perpetually angry as a way to evoke some attention rather than none at all. While they tried to achieve generally accepted social standards, they often felt out of place, forlorn, and not genuinely involved in their pursuits.
How would you describe the victim families?
The home of survivors with a dominant “victim” identity—common among concentration camp survivors—was characterized by pervasive depression, worry, and mistrust. Joy, self-fulfillment, and existential questions were viewed as frivolous luxuries. Fear of the outside world—of the inevitable next Holocaust—led to clinging within the family. Children were taught to distrust people, especially authority figures, outside the family circle.
To these children, survivor parents appeared to be very confident and “disaster smart” in protecting them against any negative eventuality in life. At the same time, though, survivor parents were frequently disoriented in dealing with the American reality, so the children became the family’s mediators with the outside world. Thus, overprotection of children and of parents became mutual.
Because a wrong decision often meant death during the war, children in such families would often act as if every decision was a matter of life or death. Parents also exercised guilt as a means of control and of keeping adult children from questioning them about their war experience, expressing anger toward them, or “burdening” them with their own pain. Keenly sensitive to their parents’ suffering, the children of these survivors frequently entered the helping professions.
What are some of the characteristics of fighter families?
The term fighter refers either to the way such survivors described their role during the Holocaust—most of them were partisans and resistance fighters—or the posture they adopted after the war to counteract the image of the victimized Jew.
Permeated by an intense drive to build and achieve, the home atmosphere of fighter survivors was filled with compulsive activity. Parents forbade any behavior that might signify victimization, weakness, or self-pity. Pride was fiercely held as a virtue, relaxation and pleasure were deemed superfluous, and defiance toward outside authorities was sometimes encouraged to the point of peril.
The children, in turn, established a fighter/hero identity, both in order to belong to the family and to separate from it, and in search of validation and esteem. Children in such families tended to choose justice and law enforcement professions.
And what do we know of families of “those who made it”?
Many of these survivors were motivated by a wartime fantasy to “make it big” if and when they were liberated, also as their way to defy the Nazis. Persistently and single-mindedly, after the war they sought higher education, social and political status, fame, and/or wealth.
Outwardly, this group became more assimilated into American society than other survivors. Some achieved a “normal” posture by excluding any reminders of their past. This denial often resulted in inner numbing and isolation.
Some in this group devoted their careers, money, and political status to demand commemoration of and attention to the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. They strove to understand the roots of genocide, to find ways to prevent its recurrence, to ensure that Holocaust victims were treated with dignity, and to aid victimized populations in general. Notably, though, “those who made it” tended to deny the long-term effects of the Holocaust upon themselves and their children; rarely would they acknowledge the Shoah as a factor in their psychological lives. The primary focus was on outside appearance and displayable success. But despite their outward appearance of having “made it,” of all the four groups, they were the most likely to divorce; and, tragically, when reminders of the denied past caught up (such as loss of control, helplessness, inability to work or perform), they were more likely than the others to commit suicide.
It seems that the children in all categories of survivor families consciously or unconsciously absorbed their parents’ Holocaust experiences as their own.
That’s right. To varying degrees, Holocaust parents transmitted to their children a sense of the conditions under which they had survived the war. Many children of survivors have internalized Holocaust images and, hence, simultaneously live in two different places (Europe and America) and times (1942 and the present).
So many years after the fact, can Holocaust survivors and their children be helped?
Yes. Our work at the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children has shown that when survivors and their families become aware of how their lives have been shaped by their post-Holocaust adaptational styles, they are better prepared to move forward toward self-actualization. Moreover, this awareness can help stop transmission of pathology to succeeding generations.
The ultimate goal is psychological liberation from the trauma of victimization.
How can this goal of psychological liberation be achieved?
Survivors and their offspring can learn to acknowledge, accept, and integrate their and their parents’ experiences into their own lives—that is, confronting and incorporating aspects of extraordinary human existence that would not be normally encountered under everyday circumstances. Over time, a fuller understanding of victimization experiences leads to gaining the ability to develop a realistic perspective of what happened, including the impersonality of the events.
What do you mean by the impersonality of events?
By this I mean the ability of survivors to no longer view themselves and humanity solely on the basis of what personally happened to them during the war. For example, having been helpless does not mean that one is a helpless person; having witnessed or experienced evil does not mean that the world as a whole is evil; having been betrayed does not mean that betrayal is an overriding human behavior; having been victimized does not necessarily mean that one has to live one’s life in constant readiness for its reenactment; having been treated as dispensable does not mean that one is worthless; and taking the painful risk of bearing witness does not mean that the world will listen, learn, change, or become a better place.
Recovery also involves a continuous and consistent unraveling and transcending of an individual’s or a family’s particular adaptational style, moving instead in the direction of liberation and self-actualization. Many survivors and their offspring found participating in groups helpful because they could share with others concerns and feelings that would be very difficult to confront alone. Children of survivors have also benefitted from researching the factual events of their parents’ experiences, especially if their parents didn’t speak about the Holocaust or passed on only selective, fragmented accounts.
Is this pathway to recovery you describe unique to Holocaust survivor families?
No. This pathway has been found to be beneficial by survivors and children of survivors of other massive traumata, such as the genocide of the Armenians; the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia; and the ongoing genocidal processes in the Sudan. This is true also for veterans of wars and children of perpetrators.
In all these situations we’ve found that the conspiracy of silence after trauma is not only a new traumatic factor but often determines whether the survivors and subsequent generations will succeed or fail in the immense task of reestablishing themselves as equal, well members of society with dignity, despite their traumatic history. Of crucial importance is the empathetic reception of their communities and societies after trauma and tragedy. Society needs to commit to providing measures of acknowledgement, apology, and reparative justice (including compensation, restitution and rehabilitation, commemoration and education), so the trauma history becomes a shared rather than a stigmatizing history. The mourning, too, needs to be shared by all, rather than suffered alone by the survivors. And individual nations as well as the international community have to create mechanisms for monitoring, conflict resolution, and intervention to prevent future cycles of traumatization.
How can we better understand and relate to survivors of trauma and their families?
Listen to them, despite your fear of the terrible things you might hear. To forsake this opportunity is not only to perpetuate the conspiracy of silence and thereby re-victimize the survivors, but to deprive yourself of historic memory that connects you with your own and your people’s history, and allows you to learn from it. Take the time. You will be forever enriched and grateful for it.