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Holocaust Memorial Day at The Wiener Library

Posted by Marina Paraskova, Friday 3rd February, 2017

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Library Director Ben Barkow, Mayor of Camden Nadia Shah and Dr Beth B. Cohen

Library Director Ben Barkow, Mayor of Camden Nadia Shah and Dr Beth Cohen

To mark the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, The Wiener Library hosted a special lecture by Dr Beth Cohen, entitled Starting Over: Reconstituted Jewish Families After the Holocaust on 25 January 2017. The event, which was introduced by the Mayor of Camden Nadia Shah, was one of many activities organised as part of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day; since 2001 around 5,590 local activities have taken place in Britain. The aim of Holocaust Memorial Day is to educate communities about the Holocaust and other genocides, which have destroyed the lives of many in the past and continue to do so to this day, both physically and emotionally.

This year’s theme, “How can life go on?” focused on the destruction of families and communities, the impact of genocide on the lives of those who have survived and the incredibly difficult process of rebuilding lives after such horror. It grapples with issues such as lasting trauma and coming to terms with the past, the attempts at rebuilding both families and communities, remembering those who have perished under such circumstances, as well as those facing hatred and denial today. At The Wiener Library’s Holocaust Memorial Day event, Dr Cohen engaged with all of these issues by depicting those who offer an often overlooked perspective: that of the child survivors of the Holocaust.

'For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.'    

Elie Wiesel (in Krell, 216)

Dr Cohen spoke to the audience about life after facing almost-certain death, atrocities and displacement from the children survivors’ perspectives. The dead were, however, also commemorated through the ceremonial candle, which was lit by the Mayor of Camden, Nadia Shah, who also gave an inspiring speech about tolerance in modern communities and the necessity of speaking out against evil. Dr Cohen began her talk with some chilling statistics: around 90% of Jewish children up to the age of 10 perished during the Holocaust. For those who survived, those horrors did not end. Dr Cohen told the audience that the first step for a surviving parent after the war was to find their child as they had often been separated in the ghettos or camps and other institutions, and indeed, find whether they had survived at all.

Of course some parents managed to hide their children with acquaintances before they had been deported from their homes. Dr Cohen illustrated this scenario with the case study of Natalie Gold whose parents had left her with an acquaintance when she was a toddler and who later was transferred to a covenant. By the time Natalie Gold and her mother were reunited, they were complete strangers to one another and found the parent-daughter relationship difficult to reestablish. For many children, these reunions were not happy occasions and adjustment was difficult. Developmental psychologists suggest that early patterns of attachment and separation from a primary caregiver, especially until the age of 4, can shape and determine expectations in future relationships. The lack of such a primary caregiver to act as a constant source of support may have led to psychological strains during childhood and later life for many child survivors (Morris, 1-36).

But for child survivors, adjusting to the stranger that is their parent, was not the only difficulty in post-war life. Dr Cohen also told stories of children who found out their surviving parents had remarried in displaced persons (DP) camps, and now had not only a new mother or father but also new siblings. According to Cohen, some children described feeling like ‘a third wheel’. She also spoke of survivors who were forbidden to ask or speak about their dead parent or led to believe that  their step parents were their biological ones, most often due to social expectations necessitating a portrayal of a ‘normal’ family. The deceased parent was not the only secret suppressed, however. Many of the child survivors described feeling guilty for their experiences of trauma and atrocity during the Holocaust. They believed, and in some cases were told, that their parents’ grief was much greater. Those concealed during the war were told they experienced the best of humanity and Cohen managed to embody how these feelings of relief and gratitude felt false to most of the child survivors that she interviewed.  

Until recently, child survivors were not even considered survivors of the Holocaust in the same way their parents were. Dr Beth Cohen countered this view by showing how being placed in multiple institutions, having to adapt to a new family, forget their dead parents and suppress emotional strain are just some of the incredibly traumatic experiences of child survivors and indeed that they must be recognised as such. For those children who survived concentration camp imprisonment and were forced to witness death and experience starvation and disease on a daily basis, it is arguably even more damaging to undermine their experience. Many studies in developmental psychology have shown that it is in the early stages of childhood that people are most vulnerable to developing certain behaviours. Displaying and dealing with emotions, for example, develops greatly between the age of 6 and 10, and the way children deal with their emotions has a great impact in their adult ability to deal with negative emotions (Caspi, 154) . If the child is taught to conceal and ignore the pain and trauma they experience, that would most likely be their response to any mishap or negative experience for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, children who are frequently exposed to negative emotion at home, which is the case with many children survivors, are more likely to have difficulties regulating negative emotions in later life.

Child survivors’ lives after the Holocaust were often difficult and involved trauma, loss and attempts at rebuilding their position in the family. They faced hatred and denial just as often as adult survivors, even from their own families and closest relatives, and arguably suffered more as they did not have the emotional capability to deal with the emotions they were feeling. Dr Cohen illustrates how difficult it is for lives to go on after the Holocaust. She contradicts the rosy view of the high birth rates in DP camps and shows the other, often overlooked side of Holocaust survivors remarrying after the war: the side of the most vulnerable members of society who also lost everything and struggled with how their lives could go on.

Cited Works:

Caspi, A et al. “Maternal Expressed Emotion Predicts Children’s Antisocial Behaviour Probelms: Using Monozygotic-Twin Differences to Identify Environmental Effects on Behavioural Development”. Developmental Psychology, 40 (2), 2004: 149-161.

Krell, Robert. “Alternative Therapeutic Approaches to Holocaust Survivors.” Healing Their Wounds: Psychotherapy with Holocaust Survivors and Their Families, edited by Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg, Praeger, 1989, 215-227.

Morris, Amanda et al. “The Role of the Family Context in Development of Emotion Regulation”. National Institute of Health, 2009, 1-36.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds many resources on the psychological after-effects suffered by Holocaust survivors, some of which is listed below:

For more related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue; Survivors; Second/Third generation; Psychology; Persecution; after-effects; Children.

Please report misuse to our Education team.

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