Dr. Thomas Thibeault
December 18, 1998
One of the first things that comes to mind when the word "holocaust" is mentioned, are the atrocities committed against the Jews, Gypsies and others who were targeted for the final solution. It's hard to believe that such atrocities happened. But they did. How did those who fell victim to Hitler's Third Reich, react emotionally to maintain their sanity, particularly while in the ghettos and concentration camps? What kind of a psychological defense mechanism did their minds employ, to help them cope with the devastating situation they found themselves in? Could their emotional trauma and responses be comparable to victims who face a terminal illness? If so, they could provide a wealth of information for studying the psychological defenses utilized by humans to cope with crisis.
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a renown researcher and author on the subject of death and dying, began her research in 1965. At that time she was a professor of psychology, who had been asked to assist four theology students from the Chicago Theological Seminary in a research project. The students had been asked to write a paper on "crisis in human life." They chose to write about death, since they considered death as the biggest crisis people have to face (On Death 21). Kübler-Ross made arrangements to interview terminally ill patients in various stages of illness, once a week. The interviews were documented, as well as the patients' responses and needs (22). The outcome of this study showed that patients who are terminally ill go through five stages of reacting emotionally in coping with the finality of their terminal illness. These five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five stages may replace each other or they may exist side by side during the patient's illness (138).
The first stage of emotionally adjusting to a terminal illness is denial. Upon learning of their terminal illness, most people will react by saying, "No, not me, it cannot be true." They believe that the doctor made an inaccurate diagnosis of their illness, or that their test results were incorrect (38). This is usually a temporary defense and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance (39).
The typical reaction of the Jews, when they found themselves being affected by Hitler's Third Reich, was to deny that anything was going to happen to them. Lucille "Celia" Laundau Eichengreen, a survivor of the holocaust, began to feel the effect of anti-Semitism when she was just a child. In 1934, at the age of nine, Celia was forced from a private school near her home to a Jewish school some distance away. When she asked her father, why she was forced to go to another school, her father told her, "All this is just a passing phase. And your school--it's a much better school; you'll be happier there" (Eichengreen and Chamberlain 9).
Elie Wiesel, who entered Auschwitz at the age of 14, gives his account of what happened to him and his family during the war in his book Night. He said that the people of the town were saying: "Hitler wouldn't be able to do harm, even if he wanted to." Wiesel said that they even doubted that Hitler wanted to exterminate them. "Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century" (17).
Wiesel tells of how his friend, Moché Beadle, came to town to warn him about what was happening (16). Beadle told of seeing the Hungarian Jews being transported by train to Poland, taken by lorries toward a forest, and forced to dig huge graves. How the Gestapo slaughtered the prisoners, and threw babies into the air for the machine gunners to use as targets (15). Wiesel did not believe him. In desperation, Beadle went from one Jewish house to another, telling his stories, but, no one would believe him (15-16). But in spite of his warning, Wiesel says, "The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced, yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile" (19). Many of the Jews could have left their countries before any harm came to them, but their refusal to believe that anything would happen to them, kept them there.
When the Wiesel's home was surrounded with barbed wire, and it became a part of the ghetto, Wiesel said, "We even thought of ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic.... Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers" (21). Then they were forced out of that ghetto into a smaller one, they were still denying that anything was going to happen to them. They chose to believe that they were being moved to a safer environment and that the Germans were actually doing this for their own good (31).
Rudolph Vrba documented his experiences in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, in his book, I Cannot Forgive. He was a Slovak Jew, who rebelled against the Fascist regime of Monsignor Tiso and was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 17 (1, book cover back). Vrba tells of how he and another Slovak prisoner watched hundreds of bodies being stacked on top of each other and loaded onto lorries to be taken to the crematory. As they watched they tried to decide if the bodies were of Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, or Slovaks. Vrba said, "For some ridiculous reason, it was comforting to hear someone say that they were not from Slovakia. ...we felt completely divorced from the scene. This was something which happened only to men who come from some other world" (75). This illustrates the need to believe that these horrible things happen to other people, not to one's self.
According to Kübler-Ross, denial is important and necessary. It helps cushion the impact of the patient's awareness that death is inevitable and gives the person a chance to collect himself and proceed with the ritual of daily living (On Death 39).
Wiesel gives us an illustration of this kind of behavior when he tells us his mother's reaction to what was happening to their family. The Hungarian Police had just ordered all Jews not to leave their homes for three days, or they would be shot. The same day they came into their homes and took their gold, jewels, and other valuables. But he said, "At home, my Mother continued to busy herself with her usual tasks. At times she would pause and gaze at us, silent" (20).
According to Kübler-Ross, although a patient first denies his illness, there will come a point in time when he can no longer deny that he is ill. He will begin to replace his feelings of denial with feelings of anger, rage, resentment, and envy. He will question, "Why me? What have I done to deserve this?" The patient has a good reason to feel angry, after all, his life has been interrupted and he no longer has control of his future. This anger is may be directed randomly at anyone. He may resent others who are healthier than he is or someone who has a promising future (On Death 50-51). Some may make God the target of their anger (Questions 24).
As the mistreatment of the Jews expanded, there came a time when they had to admit that they were targeted by the Germans as sub-humans, and that bad things were happening to them. Similar to the terminally ill patient asking, "Why me?" The Jews were asking, "Why the Jews? What have we done?" They were no longer in control of what was happening to them, and their futures were questionable. The Jews were rightfully angry at the Gestapo, SS men, and the Germans, who had taken away their valuables, separated families, and killed for no apparent reason, other than the fact that they were Jews. But some of the Jews directed their anger at family members and God, too.
When Celia's family was forced to leave their home and was faced with the fact that this was happening to them, she said, "For me, the forced move was just one more proof of the power of the hatred for the Jews. . . . Why did the Germans hate us so? What had we done" (13)? Later, when Celia's father was killed by the Germans, her mother blamed God. She screamed, "God, where are you: How could you let this happen? Why have you abandoned us? And I believed in your mercy..." (Eichengreen and Chamberlain 32).
Prior to writing her book, From Ashes to Life, Celia did an interview session for the 1990 Holocaust Oral History Project. During that interview, she was asked questions about her internment in Auschwitz. The dialogue went as follows:
Interviewer: "During this time particularly, were you ever blaming, what
were the things that you thought about sometimes?"
Eichengreen: "I blamed my parents for not going out of Germany when
the going was still possible."
Interviewer: "Did you think about it a lot, or was it something that..."
Eichengreen: "No, there was no point to it. It was too late. We could have
all lived had we left, we could have all left at a given time. We didn't."
Interviewer: "When your father obtained visa, which he turned down
because it was only a three day visa, was that for him alone?"
Eichengreen: "No for all of us, for all four of us."
Interviewer: "At that point in time that could have been the change, the
turning point for you?"
Eichengreen: "We could have gotten to, in the early thirties, to Palestine"
This contradicts what she later says in her book. In 1937 her parents offered to send her to England and she refused to go (Eichengreen and Chamberlain 15). In 1938 her mother, had written to Celia's uncle and asked him if they could come to San Francisco, California to live with him. But he refused to let them, saying that he could not possibly be responsible for four more people (23). Perhaps, subconsciously, Celia blamed her parents for not getting her out of Germany. Because, later in the interview, she denies that she ever blamed them for what happened. The dialogue follows:
Interviewer: "You said about forgiveness. What is your stand on
Eichengreen: "Forgiving whom?"
Interviewer: "Well the Germans, your parents."
Eichengreen: "My parents I've never accused of anything."
Interviewer: "You never felt resentment to them."
Eichengreen: "No, no, they did the best they knew how to do. There is no
feeling of any kind of resentment" (1990 Holocaust Oral Project 22-23).
Kübler-Ross states that expressing anger provides an emotional release for the ill patient.
It gives the patient the sense of having some control, and a way of letting people know that they are still alive (On Death 52). Through working out their anger, they begin to realize that they are alive today, and may possibly have another tomorrow. Realizing that their time is limited, they begin to live more intensely, and with a different set of values (Questions 22, 24).
This is demonstrated by Wiesel. He and his father had spent 10 days traveling from one camp to another, in a cattle car. The car did not have a roof, the weather was freezing, and it was snowing. Upon arriving at the camp, Wiesel realized that his father was close to death, but he left him outside, took a shower, and went to bed. The next morning when he woke up, and "remembered that he had a father," he went to look for him. He said: "this thought came into my mind: 'Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself.' Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever" (Wiesel 117-118). This demonstrates the anger Wiesel felt for having to be responsible for his father, when he had little strength himself. But he immediately felt ashamed of himself for having such thoughts. This immediate guilt following the feelings of anger, indicates that he in not really angry at his father, he is angry at not having control over his situation. He really loves his father. After he found him, he stayed near him and cared for him until he died (118-124).
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 24. He spent over a year there, and told of his experiences in his book, Survival in Auschwitz. Having been a "seasoned" prisoner, he no longer took anything for granted. Levi and two others were assigned to work in the building where the SS stored their food. This meant not working outside in the winter, and maybe a chance to steal some food. The following quoted from his book, demonstrates how his values changed since he first entered Auschwitz, and how he was aware of the other prisoners' envy.
So it would seem that fate, by a new unsuspected path, has arranged that we three, the object of envy of all the ten thousand condemned, suffer neither hunger nor cold this winter. This means a strong probability of not falling seriously ill, of not being frozen, of overcoming the selections. In these conditions, those less expert than us about things in the Lager might even be tempted by the hope of survival and by the thought of liberty. But we are not, we know how these matters go; all this is the gift of fortune, to be enjoyed as intensely as possible and at once; for there is no certainty about tomorrow (Levi 127).
After a patient accepts that he is ill and that his time is running out, he begins to look for alternatives to postpone the inevitable. This is the third stage of coping--bargaining. Bargaining, is not as easily recognized as the other four emotional stages, because bargains are usually made with God, are done in private, and are kept secret. He may believe that if he does something good, he will be rewarded with an extension on his life, or less suffering.
(Kübler-Ross, On Death 82-83).
Even though Wiesel doesn't give a specific incident where he bargained, this statement infers that he did. "Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world. This day I had ceased to plead" (Wiesel 79).
Theresa Zitter, who entered a concentration camp when she was 14, made a bargain with herself. She bargained that if she could stay alive long enough, her dad would come to save her (Zitter, lecture).
According to Kübler-Ross' study, when the patient comes to the point, where he is getting weaker and he realizes that he is getting closer to dying, he begins to feel an overwhelming sense of loss. In this fourth stage--depression, he begins to grieve. He will first mourn his past losses: material losses, loss of their job, loss of who he was. Then he enters yet another stage of grief and that is mourning future losses. He says goodbye to the past and the future (On Death 85-86). A person who is alone, and does not receive outside support, or someone who does not want to suffer any longer may consider suicide (Questions 55).
The Jews in the concentration camps certainly reached a point where they knew that they were close to death. They had lost their past and their futures looked bleak. They had already lost their homes, personal belongings, their families, and their own identity. They were physically barely alive. It would be hard for one to imagine feeling more depressed than Levi when he said:
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, or us as we were, still remains (Levi 22). ...Why try to read into the future when no action, no words of ours could have the minimum influence? ...our wisdom lay in 'not trying to understand', not imagining the future, nor tormenting ourselves in how and when it would all be over; not asking others or ourselves any questions. We preserved the memories of our previous life, but blurred and remote... (Levi 106).
Kübler-Ross explains that if a patient has enough time to work through the first four stages he will enter the final stage of coping--acceptance. He will no longer be depressed or angry. He will have mourned his past losses and future losses, put his affairs in order, and begin to contemplate his death. He will be tired, weak and have little to say. He may prefer to be left alone, and shows little interest in his surroundings and will appear to be almost void of feelings. In order to accept death, he begins to separate himself, emotionally, from people and the world" (On Death 86).
When Wiesel's father felt that he was near death, he made sure that Wiesel knew where he had buried the gold and money in the cellar of their home (Wiesel 120). This was the only thing his father had left, so he had put his affairs in order. As his father became weaker he told Wiesel, "Take pity on your old father... Leave me to rest here...Just for a bit, I'm so tired...at the end of my strength...?" When Wiesel showed his father the dead half-frozen bodies all around him, his father said," I can see them, son. I can see them all right. Let them sleep. It's so long since they closed their eyes....They are exhausted.... exhausted...." Elie goes on to say, "I felt that I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death that he had already chosen" (117). "His breathing was labored, thick. He kept his eyes shut. Yet I was convinced that he could see everything, that now he could see the truth in all things" (121). Wiesel could see that his father was accepting death.
Levi appears to have accepted that emotionally withdrawing from the world he found himself in, was natural and necessary when he said, "In the Lager it is useless to think, because events happen for the most part in an unforeseeable manner and it is harmful because it keeps alive a sensitivity which is a source of pain, and which some providential natural law dulls when suffering passes a certain limit" (155). Wiesel may have passed this point of suffering after being transported in a cattle wagon. He and his father were two of the twelve people who survived a transport that began with 100 prisoners aboard. After this experience, Wiesel said, "Indifference deadened the spirit. Here or elsewhere--what difference did it make? To die today or tomorrow, or later" (110)? "My mind was invaded suddenly by this realization--there was no more reason to live, no more reason to struggle. All through the days and nights we stayed crouching one on top of the other never speaking a word. We were no more than frozen bodies" (Wiesel 112). It would seem that Wiesel had let go of his emotional attachments to the world, and has now accepts death.
The holocaust victims in the concentration camps, who survived long enough, came to accept that they would die there. Wiesel expressed that he had accepted that he would die in Auschwitz when he said: "Not a cry of distress, not a groan, nothing by a mass agony, in silence. No one asked anyone else for help. You died because you had to die. There was no fuss. In every stiffened corpse I saw myself. And soon I should not even see them; I should be one of them--a matter of hours" (Wiesel 101).
It's hard to believe that anyone suffering from a terminal illness could maintain hope. But according to Kübler-Ross, "We're nourished by hope in especially difficult times" (On Death 139). Most patients maintain hope for a possible cure. They believe that all this must have some meaning and will pay off eventually, if they can only endure it for a little while longer. When a patient stops expressing hope, it is usually a sign of imminent death (140).
The concentration camp prisoners were also nourished by hope. Celia made the following statement, during her interview session with the 1990 Holocaust Oral History Project, when she was asked what she would hope for while in the camp. She said: "A miracle. We didn't hope for a God, because there was no God, obviously. But for a miracle, some unreal miracle. I had hoped for a slice of bread.... (12).
Levi gave evidence that the goodness of one single man, gave him hope when he said:
I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today: and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just would outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving (Levi 111). Even when things were especially rough, he maintained hope. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope (Levi 113).
According to Kübler-Ross, "If one is interested in human behavior adaptations and defenses that human beings have to use in order to cope with stresses, this is the place to learn about it" (On Death 45). Of course, she was speaking of working with critically ill people in hospitals, but the same could be said about learning from the survivors of the holocaust. By examining the holocaust victims' emotional reactions to adapting to their situations and comparing them with terminally ill patients, we can better understand how they psychologically adapted to their unique crisis. In making this comparison, we should keep in mind that we as human beings accept that disease and illness exist and may someday affect us, or our loved ones. The "final solution" was not something the Jews could have ever expected to happen. This sort of crime against humanity was unheard of. The "final solution" was designed and executed by man onto other living human beings. So they had to adapt to something that was far beyond an expected crisis.
Levi, having made many adjustments himself while struggling to survive in the concentration camps, speaks of man's ability to adapt:
Man's capacity to dig himself in, to secrete a shell, to build around himself a tenuous barrier of defence, even in apparently desperate circumstances, is astonishing and merits a serious study. It is based on an invaluable activity of adaptation, partly passive and unconscious, partly active: of hammering in a nail above his bunk from which to hang up his shoes; of concluding tacit pacts of non-aggression with neighbours; of understanding and accepting the customs and laws of a single Kommando, a single Block. By virtue of this work, one manages to gain a certain equilibrium after a few weeks, a certain degree of security in face of the unforeseen; one has made oneself a nest, the trauma of the transplantation is over (Levi 50-51).
In her lecture, Theresa Zitter, a holocaust survivor, told of how her mother would tell people that they had a wonderful chef when they were in the concentration camp. Of course, this was not true. Zitter then smiled and said, "People have a beautiful way to adjust. (Zitter lecture)." As human beings we do seem to have a tremendous ability to adapt. Our minds have a way of psychologically coping and adjusting even under the most extreme conditions.
The holocaust survivors can offer us valuable lessons on life, hope, survival, and the human mind, if we take advantage of learning from them. When we think of the holocaust we envision horrible scenes of naked, starved, skeletal people, and dead bodies. Any one of these survivors: Celia, Levi, Vrba, Wiesel, or Zitter could have been just another one of those bodies. But they're not. They are walking testaments of the strength of man's mind to adapt and survive, even in a world of horrors. How can we afford not to learn from them? The more we learn about human behavior and understand how our minds function to help us adapt to various crises, the better we will understand others and be sensitive to their needs.
Perhaps when we hear the word "holocaust," we'll think beyond the naked bodies, ravaged by hunger and see the mystical power of the human mind. And when we read the survivors' stories, or hear them speak, perhaps, we'll hear more than just their words, maybe we'll hear their need to be understood, particularly when they speak of things that "THERE ARE NO WORDS FOR."
1990 Holocaust Oral History Project. Witnesses. Survivors. Lucille E.-Interview. San Francisco. Aug. 14. 1990. URL: http://remember.org/witness/wit.sur.luc.html (10 Oct. 98).
Eichengreen, Lucille and Chamberlain, Harriet Chamberlain. From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: The Macmillan Co, 1972.
Questions and Answers on Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan P, 1974.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Macmillan P, 1961.
Vrba, Rudolph, and Alan Bestic. I Cannot Forgive. New York: Bantam Book, 1964.
Wiesel, Eli. Night. New York: Avon Books, 1971.
Zitter, Theresa. Lecture. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale IL. 3 Nov. 1998.