By Neringa Latvytė, Faculty of Communication of Vilnius University
The research project conducted by the Faculty of Communication of Vilnius University deals with how the traumatic experiences, wounded past and unspoken memories of women who survived the Holocaust were communicated.
Despite the fact that the Holocaust happened almost 80 years ago, the trauma of the survivors continues until present. If the individual can foresee the end of his/her suffering, he/she has more ability to deal with the trauma. The nature of the Holocaust was such that every day brought undefined life-threatening events during the war and even after, which is why the survivors faced long-term traumaRECHES, R. (2020). Holokaustą patyrusių asmenų tapatumo išgyvenimas/Holocaust Survivors’ Experiences of Identity. Vilnius: Slinktys, p. 46 that destroyed their self-defence mechanisms. Research has shown that the after effect of trauma prevented the survivors from talking about very personal and sensitive events, as the feeling of shame and guilt at surviving followed them all their life. In most of cases, the survivors tried to protect their children from their traumatic experiences by not talking about them. This shows a tremendous effort to normalise their existence by choosing to live a double-life, but also meant that the survivors were not able to properly protect themselves psychologically. Testimonies of Holocaust survivors reveal psychological trauma that causes identity breaches, and also the importance of female solidarity in life-threatening circumstances. After the war ended, it continued in the memories of women and their children until the courage to talk helped them understand their feelings and open up to the world. Sharing feelings encourages others to be open. When we open up, it becomes safer for the other person to talk about personal experiences. Women who nowadays face different kind of violence that affects a person’s identity also often become distant, live in fear, remain alone with their feelings and experiences, and do not expect to receive help – for this reason they do not seek it, thus deepening their internal wounds. Open and empathetic conversation helps to overcome psychological trauma, gives hope and encourages. Research also revealed that nowadays migrant women often face personal dilemmas that lead to fractured identity as well as to closure and detachment in order to keep traumatic experiences to themselves. It assumes that the children and grandchildren of these women will have to live with these silent traumas, which can be healed only by talking about them.
During this research project, which asked the informants to talk about their former, traumatic experiences, we recognised the importance of openness for healing processes – not only for the time witnesses themselves, but also their children and grandchildren. This finding was thereafter disseminated through our local exhibition which is called ‘Healing Soul Wounds’, through lectures and presentations.
The Holocaust in Lithuania led to the total destruction of Lithuanian and Polish Jews. There were approximately 200,000 Jews living in Lithuania before World War II, and some 80 percent of them were killed during the first 6 months of the war. In many cases, this meant that more than half of the population in small towns and villages were murdered. After Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland on 1 September 1939, Vilnius became a centre for refugees in Eastern Europe and offered a temporary shelter to over 30,000 Polish refugees (among them more than 11,000 Jews) in 1939 to 1940. On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and Lithuania was occupied within the week. The Red Army withdrew Soviet officials and civilians, many of whom were Jewish. People were already aware of the fate of the Jews in Poland once Nazis had come to occupy it and tried to escape the country. Unfortunately, not all managed to do so. Many were killed during the pogroms initiated by the Nazis and carried out by local collaborators in the first days of the war. The mass killings of Jews were organised by the German SD and German Security Police and conducted by Special Extermination Squads, local police and collaborators, and continued from late June 1941 until July 1944. The Jews who remained alive were herded into the ghettos in the second half of 1941 and endured terrible conditions of imprisonment.
The Jews in the Vilnius, Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos tried not to give up. The younger Jews in particular joined underground anti-Nazi organisations, seeking to resist with armed force. Despite the huge risks and big losses this seemed to be the most effective manner of resistance. In January 1942, the proclamation “We will not be led like lambs to the slaughter!” was announced in the Vilnius ghetto. Plans were developed to escape to the forests of Eastern Lithuania and Western Belarus where anti-fascist partisan groups were active. About 2,000 prisoners of the ghetto underground resistance managed to escape from the ghettos and joined the Soviet partisans in the woods. But there the Jewish partisans suffered constant anti-Semitism from their non-Jewish fellow combatants.
By the beginning of July 1944, a total of 196,000 Jews had been killed in Lithuania. Only up to 9,000 Jews managed to survive the Holocaust. Among them were those who were able to escape to the Soviet Union during the first days of the war or who survived the Nazi concentration camps, or who stayed behind either sheltering among the local population or joining the fight alongside the Soviet partisans or the Red Army.
For many Holocaust survivors it was very difficult to start a new life in a country that had turned into a collection of mass graves of their loved ones. The increasing anti-Semitic policies towards the Jewish community, persecution by the authorities, restrictions of religious and cultural life, and the destruction of their heritage together with the denial of the Holocaust by calling the Jewish victims “Soviet citizens”, forced the Jewish community to live under unbearable conditions. Former ghetto prisoners began to build Jewish emigration routes from Lithuania to Poland and further – to Israel. Once the State of Israel was established, the USSR promised to allow all Jews (who wanted) to leave, but when Israel began to turn to the West, the so-called Iron Curtain prevented those still living in Lithuania from leaving. The desire to be repatriated and join their relatives was further intensified by their wish to escape to the free world. The Israeli authorities developed a good system of support for those who were making aliyah (repatriating) to Israel, so their integration there was less problematic. “Finally, home!” was the most common sentiment amongst the Holocaust survivors and those who were able to start a new life in Israel.
The project starting point
The young women, former ghetto prisoners, who were able to join the ghetto underground resistance movement, faced a dilemma: to escape the ghetto and fight the Nazis in the woods by joining the Soviet partisan battalions, or to stay and wait to be exterminated. Those women who made ‘choiceless’ choices (Langer, 1980) LANGER, L. (1980). The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps, Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 53–59 by joining the Soviet partisans in the woods, faced constant danger and violence there, not only from their enemies but from their fellow combatants. as well remaining silent for decades, seeing the traumatic experience as the price for their survival. The women and young girls who managed to survive the Holocaust being hidden by the local people usually do not talk about the violence they faced during the hiding time. Also the women who were forced to leave the country at the beginning of the war kept silent about the dangers they experienced during the journey and the efforts to hide their Jewish identity. Despite the inhumane conditions in the concentration camps, many female prisoners were trying to protect their own spirituality while trying to survive. What happens when the surrounding environment becomes dangerous and life-threatening? How does that challenge one´s identity, and how do individuals integrate such new living conditions and life changes into their life stories? We wanted to answer these questions by interviewing the women who survived the Holocaust and remained in Lithuania or moved to Israel with their families.
People construct identity by telling their stories Mc ADAMS, D. P (1995). What We Know When We Know a Person. Journal of Personality, 63 (3), 365-396; Mc ADAMS, D. P (2001). The Psychology of Life Stories. Reviews of General Psychology, 5 (2), … Continue reading. Looking back at the past and projecting the future, they create life as a meaningful story in which events are inseparable from one another, showing a continuity or life. Identity is defined as a dynamic, mutable process expressed through the retelling of life stories, and whose content is made up of personal identity (self-assessment, values, goals) and social identity (roles, membership in an ethnic, social and/or religious group) which are judged and change according to changes in the social context. Here, also the untold stories shape the identity of the survivors and have a huge potential to be inherited.
The goal of the project ‘Healing Soul Wounds’ was to collect interviews and to analyse the effect of traumatic events of the Holocaust to the survivors’ daily life. In addition, we wanted to have a closer look at how trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next. We found that impossible mourning and wounds of the memory frozen in silenceMcGLOTHLIN, E. (2006). Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration. Camden House, p. 8 are transmitted from generation to generation, as well as a feeling of guilt due to leaving family members behind in the concentration camps when joining the partisans in the woods. We believe that today, almost 80 years later, the survivors, their children and grandchildren face mainly the same struggles, even if nobody talks about what has happened – not in the public discourse and very often not within the families either.
To tell the story means to put efforts to build a bridge between past and present that would help to connect generations and to heal the soul wounds. The concept of soul wounds was introduced by the psychologist Eduard Duran, who highlighted the transfer of intergenerational trauma and introduced day-to-day tools for healing DURAN, E. (2006) Healing the Soul Wound: Counselling with American Indians and other native peoples. New York: Teachers College Press that includes commemorative and narration practices for both personal and communal healing. Many survivors were transformed by their experiences and suffered with symptoms that would now be described as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Surprisingly, in the years that followed, children of survivors were also significantly affected because of learned biological symptoms of PTSD and traumatic behaviour could be passed directly from one generation to the next via an epigenetic mechanism.Yehuda R, Lehrner A (2018): Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Effects: Putative Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms. World Psychiatry (17), p. 243–257.
The storytelling-like healing practice includes the need to discover the facts about the survivor himself/herself, about the family and other people, to testify personally what happened, to give some kind of evaluation, the desire to pass the knowledge of the loss to children and grandchildren, and to remember their death. This is a long day-to-day process that includes not only a personal but also a social aspect. The goal of narrating personal stories has a tendency to teach others, preventing intolerance, ignorance and violence, and showing what the consequences of indifference might be. Thus personal stories can help in adding details to the unknown past and can cure society of the prejudices and stereotypes. Willingness to know and to accept the pain of others, empathy and solidarity is required from the society in order to treat psychological wounds which arose from traumatic experiences. The healing process can be considered to be in a progress when the story that is shared includes emotions and becomes not only a collection of different facts but a personal evaluation of the events. The wound of trauma may have a scar, but it is no longer open and, metaphorically, bleeding. However, this does not mean the pain will not surface when you try to share. The process of healing a soul wound is a long term healing procedure full of challenges and setbacks, but in the long run it lets us deal with trauma in a proper way and connects us to reality.
The work process and contact with the informants
In total, I was able to conduct 12 interviews with women: two with 99 year-old survivors, eight with daughters and two with grand-daughters of survivors. All the interviews were collected in 2020 and up to mid-2021, with a total of more than 40 hours of conversation recorded. In three cases the interviewees did not want to be filmed or even voicev recorded, because of the fear of being recognised, and here only notes were taken. Two interviews were filmed and four were conducted via Skype.
Despite the fact that I have been working with the topic of the Holocaust for over 25 years and knew the survivors and their family members very well, it was necessary to prepare psychologically for each interview. In some cases, it was necessary to come back up to four times before it was possible to begin the conversation. This is how the suppressed memory of traumatic experiences was forcing a traumatised person to avoid the confrontation with reality because when you hand your story over to another person, you are no longer in control of it. That vulnerability and lack of control can occur if you are sharing a particularly personal or triggering detail to a close person in confidence or to a barely known person who will amplify your voice on a public platform. To be vulnerable, to tell your story, you do have to let go of the need for control and trust the person you are talking to. I have to admit that in some cases the silence was really difficult to break and I even had tears in my eyes, but in the end when the talking started all previous fears vanished. To talk about the unspoken past, to touch the untouchable was hard, despite the fact that the Holocaust has now been studied for a long time. But still, the emotional load after each of the interviews was so huge that it took a large amount of time after each interview to stabilise my emotions. It was also very important to show empathy, understanding and solidarity with the interviewees, and ensure that the women would not feel negative repercussions after revealing their stories for the first time. The crimes committed against the survivors and their family members who perished, the kinds of violence – physical, verbal, visual, emotional, moral – that were experienced by all survivors, were hard to listen to. In addition, the women’s tremendous efforts to cope with all traumatic experiences, while at the same time trying to protect family members by hiding these stories, had a huge emotional impact on me. I was touched personally as a woman, as a daughter, as a mother, by the subject of silence and women’s traumas. Two online sessions with professional psychologists were provided for all partners of the project to overcome the consequences of indirect trauma that all of the researchers that were collecting interviews had to deal with. This was definitely a very useful practice for the researchers to help them accept all the emotions and the verbal traumatic experiences shared by the survivors and their family members.
The interviews identified emotional tension within the second generation and confusion within the third generation, and revealed very well that traumatic experiences have a long-term tendency to remain. The process of ‘healing the soul wound by talking’ was key to the success of the interviews and showed clearly that empathy and solidarity is required from society in order to treat the psychological wounds arising from traumatic experiences. Healing can be complex, with a lot of moving parts and pieces. But one part of healing our wounds and the wounds of others involves sharing our stories, which include the events of the survivor’s or family member’s whole life, and also makes up part of your emotions, feelings, hopes, fears, traumas, modes of expression, patterns, core values, goals, family, family and friend influences, community, tastes, and your perception. It is very hard and definitely needs a lot of patience, empathy, support and encouragement, and returning to the spoken subject after the suppressed story has been told, but it becomes easier with the increasing courage of the narrator and the interviewer, and this tends to encourage others who are in a trouble to start to look for a solution to the problem.
Examples from some of the stories we collected.
Fania Yocheles-Brancovskaya (99), Holocaust survivor: ‘I remember the forest and a long tree trunk; an impressive tall man and a blonde woman were sitting on it. Me and Chaila Šapiro talked about us. The man asked questions. He was Miceika. He asked how we came there, various things. And suddenly he said: “You girls are so energetic, and willing to fight! I want to take you to my squad.” He mentioned the Adam Mickiewicz Squad. But suddenly the blonde woman said: “I’m not going to let you have Jewish girls!” We, astonished: “How can that be?” We were shocked: “What? Jewish girls are worse than the others? Is that a kind of antisemitism?’ […] I said to Chiena [Borovskaya], “We got out of the ghetto to the partisans, and here we find antisemitism!” And she said to me, “Calm down”. That [blonde] woman was Albina [Gessia Gleser]. Chiena explained to me: “You know, the situation in the partisan squads is different. Especially for the girls … After all, different people have gathered”. And Albina knew and understood that the moral attitudes in the Jewish group would be completely different than in the gang of people of various kinds.’
‘Many who survived in the ghetto and various [concentration] camps said nothing to their loved ones. Stayed silent for a long time … couldn’t talk. And their children didn’t know what they had gone through. And only in recent years did many start coming to Paneriai. And they started talking. Myself to my family – also … My children were born … I started telling them from the first day.’
Dita Zupowitz-Sperling (99), Holocaust survivor: ‘There was the so-called Children’s Action that day. What my eyes saw – others did not see. We were told not to leave the house, and not to open the door [but] to keep it unlocked. But I didn’t manage. It was near the Nėris River. I had to see what was going on there. I dared to glance through the opened door a little … It would have been better if I had not … Because at that moment I saw a German SS soldier standing next to a young woman with a child… They took the children away that day. She was holding her baby, so he unleashed a big German dog – you know – like a wolf. She was so scared – the child fell on the ground. That was the end… He took the child … It seems that I did not write about it. That’s why I’m trying [to speak] about it … I have to add that I’ve deleted everything I’d seen. I do not know how. It was deleted without my wanting to do so.’
‘I was silent. I never told anything. […] I wanted to forget everything. Just delete everything. […] I had to make attempts not to think about it. Yes, I did not write about very difficult situations […] there is nothing about all this. […] I described completely different things. […] Enough, but not everything. Maybe it’s good that you’re asking because the world needs to know how it was. […] Even now, it’s hard to talk about it.’
Fruma Vitkinaitė-Kučinskienė (89), Holocaust survivor: ‘[Is there anything you are reluctant to talk about? That you don’t talk at all?] During the time of hiding, there were very dangerous situations and things that caused danger … […] I experienced very terrible things that I did not tell even to my cousin Gute. I mean in the time of hiding. [Were those things related to violence?] I can’t even say. I was just very scared but, yes, the purpose was coercive.’
Bella Shirin (76), the daughter of Holocaust survivors: ‘And after the death of my mother the Holocaust continued for me. I blamed myself [for my mother’s suicide]. Why did I get up later that day? I could have saved her. […] To speak about talking – I could not talk because I was taught from my childhood – do not tell anybody what is important to you […] after my mother’s death – it wasn’t me. It was absolutely a different person. […] I didn’t change. A human being cannot change. I mean I forgot what I was. I became angry and very nervous. I had no patience for anything. It all continued for too long […] we have to talk about pain, and fear. If there is no one in the family, there are no close people – then I am ready to listen. […] My purpose is to make it easier for anyone who has a hard time … To listen. […] I talk to pupils in schools – that’s important. […] People need to know in order to avoid it all.’
‘There was a time when I was told: don’t tell anybody what you hear at home. So it was as if everything fell down a well – I told nothing. Even if I wanted to talk … When we left Lithuania and came to Israel I did not talk openly. I couldn’t tell what I was feeling. I couldn’t share the most important things. […] Only after returning to Lithuania in 2016 did I start talking openly.’
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor (wished to remain anonymous):
‘My mom ran a psychologically difficult marathon of life.’
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor (wished to remain anonymous):
‘All my life I live with the story of my mother. I am tired of this’.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor (wished to remain anonymous):
‘[What did your mother tell you about her traumatic experiences?]. I don’t know what to highlight. There are not more important or less important aspects. This is daily life. No. We don’t ask [her] because then nervous tension appears’.
Judita Gliauberzonaitė, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor:
‘My grandmother spoke […], spoke openly about it. She was open-hearted. But it was later when she was an elderly woman. I really doubt that immediately after the war when her kids were little she could talk about it. […] I did not hear much from my mom about my grandmother’s past.’
‘I remember that in my childhood she used to say: ‘They killed my family’. I was about five years old when we went to Plungė and Kaušėnai. It was a kind of family trip, and I could not understand at that time why she was crying her eyes out. I had never seen her cry before, but at that time she was weeping loudly. She had such a close relationship with her mother, who was killed in Kaušėnai. My mom was the youngest. Only her brother survived.’
Ieva Černevičiūtė, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor:
‘My grandmother was in a hideout […] While my grandmother was alive, there was no talk about it at all’.
‘My daughters started to be interested. They want somehow to know something about it. They are interested in their past, in who their grandparents were. My activities in the community [Kaunas Jewish community] also influenced them. So, from this, their interest came out. […] For my girls this subject is more interesting than for my boys. I don’t know why. Maybe other things touch them more. My son who is 20 doesn’t want to find out more, he doesn’t ask, he is not interested. But for the girls it’s somehow interesting. For them it is relevant enough. It’s different. You see… In one family but different perceptions. But that is normal. Different people, different interests. My youngest daughter is the most into finding out’.
The Covid-19 pandemic
Due to the pandemic and total closure of the country for almost two years, I was not able to conduct almost half of the interviews that were planned to be carried out in Israel in the summer of 2021. The trip to Israel was necessary because some informants were not willing to be interviewed online while sharing very sensitive personal memories and because I was aiming to collect visual material: pictures and objects from personal collections. Also, meetings with the remaining half of the interviewees needed to be rescheduled and rearranged, as many of them were suffering from bad health and were in a risk group. Consequently, the majority of the interviews took place over the phone or via Skype. Personal items and photographs could not be collected. For this reason, the collections of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, the M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum, and the Archive of Literature and Art were searched, and additional information as well as visual material were gathered as supplements to the research and the local exhibition. Due to the constantly changing restrictions of Covid-19, I had to reorganise the work process several times to adjust to the new rules. Also, the opening of the local exhibition was postponed numerous times.
The local exhibition ‘Healing Soul Wounds’ and dissemination of findings
The local exhibition reveals the dilemmas faced by young women seeking to survive in the brutal conditions of World War II and the Holocaust. The testimonies of the survivors, their daughters and granddaughters, illustrate that soul wounds remain open through several generations. If the traumatic experiences are kept a secret, it feels as if salt is being poured on the wounds, making healing impossible. That it is still difficult to talk about what happened, is demonstrated by the large number of interviewees who wished to remain anonymous, andthat even the daughters and grand ters of the women who faced traumatic experiences are reluctant to talk about past events.
The stories of the women offered in the exhibition, and exposure to the most painful experiences while trying to answer the researchers/my questions, paved the way to reconciliation and the healing of soul wounds. This goes not only for the interviewees, their children and grandchildren, but also for visitors of the exhibition. Stories that were kept secret for decades triggered emotions, and need human solidarity and empathy to understand them. All this is especially important in order to reflect on and understand today’s world, and the processes that take place in it. And, after all, people all over the world still have to solve the same dilemmas when trying to survive during a war: Survive or disappear? Fight or hide? Talk or keep quiet? It is difficult to communicate the traumatic stories gathered during the interviews, and the exhibition concept changed several times. Again and again, we asked ourselves if visitors would be ready to hear or read the stories. For now, it has been decided to encourage visitors to reflect and share their thoughts in different ways. The exhibition will visit Lithuanian museums and cultural organisations and will be accompanied by detailed presentation of the research and the possibility for open discussion.
The most important findings
After analysing all the collected material, several challenging aspects were identified. Firstly, we realised that even 77 years after the war ended it is still very difficult for the women survivors to share their personal traumatic experiences because of the fear of being seen as “different” by others and, consequently, not accepted by society. Holocaust survivors often feel lonely, as they do not feel that anyone is really willing or able to listen with empathy, and to ask the right questions in a sensitive way. Secondly, silent memories have a unique tendency to be inherited and leave deep psychological scars for the next generations, and contribute to shaping their behaviour and understanding of themselves. The women of the post-memory generation, the second generation, built up their identity based on the unspoken traumatic past of the mothers, who tried to protect their children by keeping their experiences secret for decades. HIRSCH, M. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2012 The mothers, the time witnesses, said that it is very hard to talk about what happened because they felt shame and guilt, and did not want to appear weak in front of their children. But nevertheless, the children of the Holocaust survivors inherit the marks of their parents’ wounds, a signifier of an experience not personally experienced, ‘the scar without a wound’. SICHER, Efraim (1998). The Burden of Memory: The Writings of the Post-Holocaust Generation. Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Ed. Efraim Sicher. Urbana: University of Illinois … Continue reading Changes seem to appear in the third generation: the unspoken trauma transmitted by their grandmothers to their mothers and later on to them consist of continuity of keeping a secret, but at the same time an interest in knowing the truth and talking about what happened has increased.
To summarise: What are the main issues to remember in such projects?
The difficult issues one suddenly faces, the consequences of one’s actions, as well as traumatic physical and psychological experiences leave soul wounds that one might be able to suppress, but not heal with silence. Memories can open these wounds again, and fear, shame, uncertainty and stress – even if not expressed in words – can be passed down from generation to generation. The testimonies of Holocaust survivors reveal psychological trauma that causes identity breaches, as well as the importance of female solidarity in life-threatening circumstances. Even after the war, it continued in the memories of women and their children – until they found the courage to talk and finally were able to understand their feelings better. Sharing feelings encourages the openness of others. When we open up, it becomes safer for the other person to talk about personal experiences as well. Open and empathetic conversation helps to overcome psychological traumas, gives hope and encourages. We should talk, listen and hear.
References and footnotes
|RECHES, R. (2020). Holokaustą patyrusių asmenų tapatumo išgyvenimas/Holocaust Survivors’ Experiences of Identity. Vilnius: Slinktys, p. 46
|LANGER, L. (1980). The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps, Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 53–59
|Mc ADAMS, D. P (1995). What We Know When We Know a Person. Journal of Personality, 63 (3), 365-396; Mc ADAMS, D. P (2001). The Psychology of Life Stories. Reviews of General Psychology, 5 (2), 100-122
|McGLOTHLIN, E. (2006). Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration. Camden House, p. 8
|DURAN, E. (2006) Healing the Soul Wound: Counselling with American Indians and other native peoples. New York: Teachers College Press
|Yehuda R, Lehrner A (2018): Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Effects: Putative Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms. World Psychiatry (17), p. 243–257.
|HIRSCH, M. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2012
|SICHER, Efraim (1998). The Burden of Memory: The Writings of the Post-Holocaust Generation. Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz. Ed. Efraim Sicher. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 26-27