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"Time does not heal all wounds"

Natan Kellerman, project development director and clinical psychologist at Amcha, gave a talk on December 1 at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen on the psychological effects of the Holocaust. Amcha offers Holocaust survivors and their families psychosocial support as a national Israeli center. “It is important for survivors that the world is aware of their fate and that their presence refutes every denial,” said Kellerman.

The psychologist has worked for Amcha, which was founded in 1987 as a self-help group, for over 10 years. In his recently published book, Holocaust Trauma - Psychological Effects and Treatment, Kellerman describes the psychological impact of the Holocaust on survivors and subsequent generations. He also discusses the consequences of the Holocaust on the self-image of Israelis and Germans.

Today there are over 200,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, most over 80 years old. The self-help organization Amcha is currently experiencing the highest demand in its 22-year history. “With age, memories of the brutality return, as careers wind down and children are provided for,” reported Kellerman. “Survivors then have a need to broach the subject.” Everyone has a story to tell. Amcha helps survivors tell their stories - as often as possible, enabling them to conquer their fears.

Survivors´ first priority after the war was to search for their families. The first stop was the Tracing Service. Often they were unable to locate anyone, and feelings of guilt ensued. ´Why am I still alive?´ is a question that stays with survivors their entire lives,” according to Kellerman.

Silence subsequently ruled for many years. Parents didn´t talk and their children were afraid to ask questions. “We call this phenomenon the conspiracy of silence,” said Kellerman. There was a shadow on the second generation which grew in an atmosphere of silence, sadness and fear. “Children inherit the pain,” says Kellerman. Although they did not endure the Holocaust themselves, they work through it in nightmares as if it was their own experience.

Survivors were initially perceived in Israel as weaklings who did not defend themselves. Like the rest of the world, Israelis wanted to look to the future and build their country. There was no looking back so survivors threw themselves into their work. “They needed a goal for their lives: Israel and their own grandchildren,” reported Kellerman.

The Eichmann trial in the early 60s brought about a first breakthrough, thereby bringing the topic to the forefront. “Since then a change in mindset has taken place in Israel,” said Kellerman. “It is now being recognized that survivors found the strength to carry on and build their country after the war.” A dialogue with the third generation, which strongly identified with the fates of their grandparents, was now possible.

An awareness of survivors´ needs had also grown, remembers Kellerman. Most victims had overcome their trauma in the meantime. They felt satisfied with what they had made out of their lives, which they had nearly lost. Yet nearly 25 per cent of the survivors still suffer from psychological problems. Time does not heal all wounds,” notes Kellerman. “The trauma stays. I compare it to radioactive fallout which no one sees or feels, but it is there. And if we allow it to, it can attack us.”

Amcha seeks to support survivors in dealing with their pain by helping them process their experiences. The organization also offers survivors an environment in which they feel understood. “The people are not sick. They were traumatized,” said Kellerman. “They are normal people who have experienced something profoundly abnormal. They don´t need a diagnosis; they need support.”

Sometimes associations like soap, boots, gas, the music of Wagner or the German language are enough to reawaken the trauma. Kellerman mentioned a survivor who kept seeing images of children being thrown into the fire alive at Auschwitz. “The pictures just keep coming up. It´s post-traumatic stress disorder.” Amcha tries to help people in this situation so their feelings do not overwhelm them. “It goes beyond a doctor-patient relationship,” Kellerman emphasizes. “The therapist also pays a high price.”

Typical symptoms are sadness, depression, fear, loneliness and psychosomatic complaints. To avoid these, survivors bury themselves in work and hide any signs of weakness. “Holocaust survivors are strong people with a mixture of resistance and vulnerability. They have a lot to give us, like the aspiration to build a better world amid the backdrop of terrible memories.” Sometimes a ritual for saying goodbye can also help survivors, like visiting their old home and its memorial site, lighting Yahrzeit candles or writing down their own histories. “But most of all they have to talk,” Kellerman emphasizes.

In addition to discussing Amcha´s work, Kellerman also used the opportunity to view original family documents in the ITS archive. He was born in Sweden, the son of a Hungarian Jewish mother who survived Auschwitz. The Israeli wanted to see the ITS for himself. “I simply had to come here in person after having heard so much about Bad Arolsen,” said Kellerman.