My Paper in a New Book In German: “Trauma and Psychosis”

I have just received my copy of a new book published in Germany, in the German language, entitled “Trauma and Psychosis” (“Trauma und Psychose”), and published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht. The relationship between traumatic experiences and psychotic illness is particularly significant in the treatment of psychosis.  This book addresses issues relevant to this topic, starting with an examination of the influence of Theodor Meynert on Freud’s concepts, by Theodor Meissel, and moving on to my paper about the historical application of the medical diagnosis of “Schizophrenia” to survivors of the Holocaust. An earlier version of my paper in English was previously published by Kavod and can be accessed at this link.

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It is an honor to be included in this prestigious publication, and particularly important for me to include in this professional publication in the German language the paper in which I addressed the most neglected of all survivors, those whose suffering led to the total destruction of the capacity to live a normal life. These survivors have been, for the most part, diagnosed as schizophrenic patients and therefore excluded from the narrative of surviving the Holocaust when, in fact, many of them have succumbed to psychotic functioning due to the traumatization and the loss of family and social support that they suffered because of the Holocaust. The inclusion of the testimonies of these survivors, for whom there will be no other witness, is a critical, tragically late addition to the literature about the impact of extreme genocidal trauma.

Other papers in the new book (in German) address the particular meaning of the frame in psychoanalytic treatment, by Marion Oliner; the relationship between aspects of family dynamics and the manifestation of psychosis, by Terje Neraal; psychotic functioning as a defensive adaptation among severely traumatized youth, by Birgit Riediger, and an in-depth case vignette by Stefan Reichard with discussions by Andrea Pavlik-Kellersmann and by Michael Dumpelmann.

                 Irit Felsen

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Historical Trauma: The Intergenerational Transmission of Suffering

An interesting article (click this link) about the way in which famine, wars, slavery and persecution affect the descendants of those who were persecuted. Interestingly, this paper focuses primarily on non-Jewish populations that were exposed to traumatic conditions and on the effects that were passed down the generations in such groups.

               Irit Felsen

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From Trauma to Rebirth: Shoa, Independence, Mourning, and Resilience

These two weeks hold three very significant days for Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere: Yom HaShoa, commemorating the devastation and the heroism of victims of the Holocaust, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and Yom Ha’azmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

Established after the Holocaust and perhaps only because of it, the existence of the homeland for the Jewish people has been paid for by the lives of many, including the children of Holocaust survivors. Among those who lost their children to the wars of Israel were two Holocaust survivors in my own small extended family, my father’s second cousin and my mother’s cousin. Our families, once large, were small after the Holocaust. The connections between the handful of relatives who found each other after the war were warm and special. Their sons were my “cousins”, handsome and talented and loved, the pride and joy of their parents and of us all. The tremendous devastation that the loss of a son brings to parents and to siblings cannot be expressed, and the mind shrinks away from even trying to imagine it. On these days, I am thinking of my relatives, the survivors who lost their sons, and of the young men who never got a chance to grow older. With every year, as I age, my sense of the depth of the loss and the pain of the bereaved families becomes more profound, their ability to live on more incomprehensible. And yet, the families continued to thrive, and have produced beautiful, successful, productive grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This resilience and vibrancy of my relatives, as well as many other bereaved families in Israel, whether Holocaust survivors or not, is astounding.

The timing of the three dates, Yom HaShoa, Memorial Day for the Israel’s fallen and Israel’s Independence Day are meaningfully strung together to express the connection between the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe, the establishment of a vibrant Jewish Homeland, and the terrible price of its defense. There are important connections and lessons to be taken from those who are willing to share their pain and their resilience with us, lessons which were powerfully evident in some presentations last week.

Michel Kichka, one of Israel’s most well-known cartoonists, spoke at the United Nations with candid authenticity of his experiences as the son of an Auschwitz survivor, as he tackled it in his remarkable illustrated novel “The Second Generation- The Things I Did Not Tell My Father”. It was particularly moving to hear the author describe the aftermath of his younger brother’s suicide, which was the impetus that moved him to create the book, addressing, as he said, the tragic but also the humorous and funny moments in the life of the Kichka family, and giving his deceased brother his place within it. Giving his brother his place and remembering poignant as well as funny moments in their shared family life was particularly important because Kichka’s father coped differently with the tragic loss of his son. He would not talk about him; not even during the Shiv’a. Instead, the loss triggered a flood of memories and Kichka’s father begin to speak about his own experiences during the Holocaust. Since then, the elder Kichka has written a memoir and has become a sought-after speaker, much revered by the audiences he speaks to. Michel Kichka spoke openly to the many young students who filled the General Assembly Hall, about the tensions between father and son, two very talented men, each seeking to find their way through the darkness in different manners, not always connecting well with each other, but showing so much creativity and resilience.

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These very characteristics were powerfully present in the encounter of the 2000 people who attended Temple Emanuel on Sunday and had the unique opportunity to listen to Toby Levy, a vibrant beautiful eighty five year old survivors of the Holocaust who was a child in hiding during WWII. Toby embodies the capacity of many child survivors, to adjust and to surmount the tragedies that life shaped by the Holocaust had presented her with. Toby’s speech was an astounding manifestation of her capacity to transform herself in her later years, once again, to become an outstanding educator, who shares her legacy  as a positive message about the possibility of moral behavior under the most dire circumstances, as so bravely shown by the rescuers who saved the lives of her family.  I strongly recommend viewing Toby’s presentation, as well as the presentation by Amanda Lanceter, granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, Gina and Henry Lanceter, which can be viewed on the Museum of Jewish Heritage website or on youtube at this link .

Finally, I had the honor of hearing once again the incredible story of the Bielsky Brothers, told by Robert Bielsky, the son of Tuvia Bielsky, who spoke at the commemoration ceremony at Kean University, organized by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest and its director, Barbara Wind. The Bielsky brothers succeeded in rescuing 1200 Jews, whose descendants number around 20,000 today. As Robert Bielsky put it: ”From nothing but a ragtag collection of disheveled, malnourished, displaced, ill, and traumatized people, they became the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews in all of World War II”. The Bielsky brothers first decided to escape to the woods to save themselves and fight the Nazis, and then invited and accepted all those who joined them, whether young or old, women or men, sick or healthy, and organized a large community that lived and functioned in the woods. The Bielsky brothers not only saved themselves and those close to them but took responsibility for all those who came to them. These untrained leaders organized fierce militant resistance to the Nazis, punished Local Polish Nazi collaborators in order to intimidate the rest of the population from hunting and betraying Jews, and led their followers to safety during the terrible years of persecution until liberation by the Russian Army.

At these times of failing leadership and divisive politics, when power is often abused by those at the helm of so many Governments, the Bielsky bothers are examples of incredible courage, of altruistic concern for the community, and of the possibility of ethical leadership.

We must teach the younger generations about the forces of good that lie within each of us, and about individuals that rise, often unexpectedly, like Moses in Egypt, to meet the challenges of their times. We must believe that such individuals are amongst us, even today.

                     Irit Felsen

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Thoughts for Yom HaShoa, 2018

Beginning tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 11, 2018), we will commemorate Yom HaShoa. Many survivors, like my own parents, who were in their early twenties when the war destroyed their world, are no longer with us. The number of survivors who are still alive dwindles down with every passing day. But still with us are some remarkable child and adolescent survivors, those whose early years were spent during the horrors of WWII. Yet, these remarkable people, many of whom I know and love, have managed to adapt well. The psychological survival of these survivors who grew up and came into their own in a world of extreme brutality and loss is hard to comprehend. Anyone who had or loved a child is aware of the vulnerability of children and the deprivation, fear and cruelty they might experience when there is no protection available. There are tremendously valuable lessons to be learned from the successful adaptation of child and adolescent survivors of the Holocaust, for their lives are a testament to the human spirit, and to human resilience, which has not received appropriately sufficient attention in psychological research.

Paul Friedman who was appointed by the Joint Distribution Committee to assess the psychological condition of the surviving adults and children in the Displaced Camps in Europe commented on the special impact of childhood deprivation and traumatic experiences on the young survivors. He stated: “I found a situation that was well-nigh miraculous in view of the children’s past experiences. Here were no monsters, no savages, no psychotics. But I soon discovered that these children had serious emotional problems, usually of a neurotic nature. They would have been distinctly abnormal not to have had them. To have lived, as these children had, in Hitler’s Europe, was to have inhabited a world where all the accepted modes of human intercourse have been destroyed and all moral standards have been subverted. But the behavior patterns formed by these children during the years when they had to struggle for sheer survival could not be lumped together in an over-all syndrome…the patterns were too diverse”.

Despite the traumatic experiences and the extensive losses they suffered, child and adolescent survivors, as a group, have assimilated well into the environment to which they immigrated after the war, and have become personally and professionally successful individuals, who raised successful children. Their successful adaptation was achieved despite the fact that they received little support or understanding from their new environment.  I was fortunate to have recently had the opportunity to interview a group of child and adolescent survivors for a study requested by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The study collected information about the experiences of the young survivors in the time immediately after liberation and in the early years following the end of WWII. Did they speak of their ordeals? Did they talk about their Holocaust experiences with parents, if a parent survived, or with other survivors? Did others such as relatives who did not live through the war in Europe want to know about it? Did American peers or teachers express an interest? The findings from the interviews were stark: “nobody wanted to know”, the survivors unanimously stated. And they themselves did not want to talk, either. They wanted to forge ahead, make a new life, become “normal”. And that they did, not without scars or wounds, but in spite of them. We have so much to learn from the survivors, so much to listen to, to record for posterity, and to cherish. For this is a generation of human miracles, each and every one of them. They have been through the worst and have managed to maintain the best of the human capacity to overcome tragedy, to rebuild, to move forward and find meaning and love even after having known the profound pain of having lost it before.

 Many of the survivors, now in their late years, are finally able and ready to share with the world their experiences. They tell us about experiences which are at the extreme of the human tolerance for suffering, and they share their personal stories of endurance and of the unique ways in which each individual found it possible to go on and to thrive. We must listen, carefully, as these precious lessons are passed on to us, the witnesses to the last witnesses to the Holocaust.

             Irit Felsen

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Baneful Medicine: An exhibition considering medicine during and after the Holocaust

I would like to let all those who are in the NYC area know about an upcoming event, on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 from 6:00-8:30 pm, at The Great Hall of the Cooper Union (where Abraham Lincoln and Barrack Obama spoke in 1859 and 2008, respectively!).

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The Center for Medicine After the Holocaust (CMATH) organizes multiple meaningful programs addressing pertinent issues associated with medical ethics and concerns, many of which have come to the fore as a result of the atrocious abusive practice of medicine and medical science experiments during the Holocaust. Among CMATH’s many activities over the years were lectures and art exhibits about medicine and the Holocaust in Prague, Budapest, Kiev. Some of those works and some new ones are on exhibit at Cooper Union’s library from April 2 through May 11. On Tuesday, April 24 between 6:00 – 8:30 pm, there will be an event with CMATH Champion Andrew Weinstein, who curated the exhibit and the artists, which will also include food and drink.

To learn  more about the event, register and receive free tickets you can go to this link.

       Irit Felsen

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Michel Kichka at the United Nations On Wednesday April 11, 2018

The United Nations Department of Public Information is hosting a special multimedia event on Wednesday April 11 2018 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. The event will feature Michel Kichka presenting his book entitled “Second Generation – Things I Didn’t Tell My Father”.

Michel Kichka is an award winning, Belgian-born, Israeli cartoonist and illustrator who has written and illustrated a spectacularly powerful book about his parents, his family and his own life as the child of Holocaust survivors. I have often included images from his book in my presentations about the experience of the second generation and the meaning of intergenerational transmission, because pictures, especially his, speak louder than a thousand words. His poignant narrative and illustrated book has a very special place in my heart. I wholeheartedly recommend that those whose lives were so intimately colored by our parents or grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust attend this unique opportunity.

Registration instructions can be found at this link.

Irit Felsen

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Photos from my recent presentation at the Norman and Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service in Boca Raton, FLA

On Monday March 12, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting with a large group of second generation. It is a unique experience to be present in the room with so many others who share the unique experience of having been raised by our Holocaust survivor parents and to discuss our experiences among ourselves. As could be expected, some of the experiences reported by the second generation are commonly shared and some are different, but the sense of comfort and mutual understanding that permeated the encounter made it possible to speak of all of them. I am profoundly moved by the opportunity to meet and speak to my “extended family” of second generation.

As we children of survivors read the Haggada on Passover, we bring our very personal meaning to the words that recount the suffering of our forefathers, but also much more recently, that of our own parents. We remember and celebrate the holiday of freedom for the Jewish people who were released from bondage in ancient Egypt, and we remember our parents’ miraculous deliverance from Nazi slavery and torture, and celebrate their victory in creating the lives they established and the families to which they gave new birth.

Happy Passover to all of you!

Irit Felsen

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