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Silenced And Unsilenced: Why Didn’t They Talk Before?

by Ruth Lijtmaer, Ph.D.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the bad people but the silence over that by the good people” –– Martin Luther King Jr.

Psychoanalysis is a survivor of the Holocaust. It was founded and flourished in central European communities that would be destroyed by the Nazis. A core group of refugees who lived through persecution and exile were instrumental in rebuilding their movement on alien shores. They had no opportunity to mourn the loss of their culture or their leader, Freud, whose death was overshadowed by the cataclysmic upheaval around them (Prince, 2009).

 This paper is a reference to silence and dissociation. It tells the story of human resolve and survival of the analysts who escaped their countries to save their lives. These analysts experienced forced migration, they were exiles from their home countries, and refugees seeking shelter in whatever country accepted them. The fact that the refugee analysts did not discuss the influence of persecution in their lives is a silence that represents trauma that was passed to the next generations (Lijtmaer 2017).

As exiles and refugees, they had to leave their native countries against their will, often in haste to avoid threat. As an exile, each person would be unable to revisit his or her country of origin: What was lost will remain lost. As Leon and Rebecca Grinberg (1989) clearly stated: exile is a specific kind of migration in which “departure is imposed and return impossible.” They further note that exiles, unlike other immigrants, are typically denied the “protective rite of farewell” (p. 157).  Akhtar (1999) pointed out that to be an exile leaves little room for “nostalgic ruminations,” so that “representations of the home land are themselves sent into intrapsychic exile” (p. 92). From this point of view, an exile is not simply one that who cannot physically return, but also, is someone who cannot fully “remember” other version of themselves; cannot bridge the gaps between serious versions of self that were rooted in disparate times, physical spaces and relationships; and, who cannot stand in spaces “between self-states” (Harlem, 2010, p. 463).

Many clinicians view exile as a traumatic discontinuity of the self (Akhtar, 1999; Garza-Guerrero, 1974; and, Lijtmaer, 2017). Living in another country and submerged into another culture and language, can initially create ‘culture shock:’ there is a threat to identity and a powerful process of mourning. Thus, we can understand the impact of such separations in terms of greater reliance on internal object relations, without losing sight of the important sociological and cultural aspects that define and shape identity. In fact, there were common traumatic experiences in the exiled analysts that produced highly individual effects. Among the refugee analysts, all endured significant danger and losses; however, the quality and degree varied. One important variable was when and how they escaped (Hale, 1995; Eisold, 1998). However, the influence of the traditional ideas of the importance of the internal world over external realities became complicated. As Mészáros (1998) wrote about the Psychoanalytic Congress in Paris in August 1939, the last congress in Freud’s life before the war: “During the presentations, the participants dealt with internal psychic events, and in the breaks, they discussed the threatening external reality. All personal concerns revolved around the question of emigration” (p. 211). Although this may have been the only means by which the meetings, and by extension, the supportive experience of a professional ‘society,’ could continue at all. In an ironic inversion, the real depth seemed to be located in conscious concerns about reality. Was silence and dissociation already beginning to take place even before emigration occurred?

Immigrants, or exiles, enter their new country with one set of selves. These are then overwritten and refracted by their experiences with peers, neighbors, colleagues, and authorities in the new culture, and this experience shapes their consciousness, subjectivity, and sense of identity. Psychoanalysis does not yet have a coherent framework for theorizing about the subjectivity of first-generation immigrants. I am proposing here that psychoanalysis borrow W.E.B. Du Bois’ (1994) notion of “double consciousness,” (p. 39) be used to reshape it in light of current notions of multiplicity and use it to help us to conceptualize the immigrant and exile experience. The concept of “double consciousness” can serve as a springboard, helping us theorize about questions of the type that were raised by other authors (Bromberg, 1998; Lobban, 2013) including:

  1. What is the subjective experience of the immigrant as the person attempts to hold two sets of selves (those cut from foreign cloth and those made in the new country)?
  2. How does that subjective experience affect the immigrant’s sense of self if everyone in the new country is convinced that their “national” fabric is automatically superior to the “foreign” bolts of cloth that the emigré persons brought with them?
  3. How do we integrate ideas about the immigrant or exile as someone with a bifurcated self consisting of a “foreign” self and a “new country” self?).

To give some statistics, most analysts got out of Europe in time, which is not to say that their flight was without suffering. Although Anna Freud referred to it as a “new kind of Diaspora” (Steiner, 1989), it was largely dissociated from institutional consciousness. Exact numbers are elusive; but, of the 2000 psychiatrists in Germany in 1933, by 1939, 600 had left for 80 countries around the world (Peters, 1988).

Between 1938 and 1943, 149 analysts were aided in the emigration by an ambivalent American Psychoanalytic Association and the Emergency Committee on Immigration that was formed in 1938. Even though they provided passports, money and jobs to the psychoanalysts in Europe that were trying to escape, by 1933, there was already the sentiment that there were “too many European newcomers in American psychoanalytic communities” (Mészáros, 2008, in Prince, p. 184). There were growing concerns of having to share resources with the newcomers. The Emergency Committee formulated plans to steer newcomers to undeveloped areas with the expectation that they adhere to the Committee’s recommendations (Mészáros, 2008, in Prince p. 184). The intent of that committee was equally to control the process of assimilation. Its regulations stated that: “the primary functions of the committee were to restrict and control immigration, to direct it to communities not already overcrowded, and to keep the teaching of analysis centered in the hands of our recognized teaching institutes” (Muhlleitner & Reichmayr, 1995). Therefore, the analysts and the institutions in the United States made it hard for these exiled analysts to continue their work here. Particularly problematic was the American analysts’ discrimination against non-physicians. This oppression is also noticed in authoritarianism in psychoanalytic institutions since it can be seen as a reliving the trauma of both fascism and exile, and not merely typical group psychology. Further evidence of the impact of dissociated trauma includes the astonishing blind spots for actual events in treatment of Holocaust survivors; the extreme privileging of infantile fantasy over reality; and, attention to childhood neurosis at the expense of adult catastrophic events. Boulanger (2007), for example, has written extensively about the challenge to psychoanalytic theory posed by adult onset trauma. Confronted with overpowering reality, it seems that psychoanalysts retreated to the primacy of infantile fantasy.

How did the exiled analysts manage and cope with the trauma of being forced to leave their native countries, the trauma of being exiles, and knowing, the extreme trauma of the ones that were held in concentration camps? How did the exiled analysts feel, when they were seen as accomplished professionals in their own countries, but were not being accepted as such by the psychoanalytic community in the host country? How did analysts feel about being forced to leave behind their dying or dead European community and leaving the community behind? And, how did they feel when they were able to flourish in the new land despite their abandonment of their community in their home countries? The answers to all of these questions, I suspect, added to the Silence and Dissociation in the exiled analysts.

Despite its central European origins, an analysis of the historical impact of the Holocaust on psychoanalysis has been seriously neglected. This silence of psychoanalysis on this subject bears striking parallels to the silence found in survivor families. Many psychoanalysts were silent about their experiences of trauma because “…their traumatic state cannot be represented” (Laub & Auerhahn, 1989, p. 390). The inability of these analysts to talk about their experiences (and some took 20 years to be able to verbalize them openly) showed the impact of trauma on memory and the ubiquity of dissociation in everyday life. Such dissociation is not necessarily pathological but can be seen as one that exists on a continuum from more or less volitional/conscious ways (Bromberg, 2014, in Kuriloff, 2014, xi).

Jews, who comprised a majority of German exile psychoanalysts, had to remain silent about, or in the end, flee from destruction. Ostow’s (1982, in Prince 2009) comments that a “gentleman’s agreement” existed among post-war analysts, wherein “one does not discuss Jewishness” (p. 150). Likewise, Bergmann (2000) said that “Most analysts who came here as refugees ignored the Jewish question” (p. 313).  These statements inform us that the Jewishness of psychoanalysis was a problematical issue.  For example, Abraham Brill, born in Galicia, Poland, was the first practicing American psychoanalyst. He intentionally distanced himself from his provincial Orthodox roots in his efforts to integrate himself fully into what he saw as “American” culture. However, his Jewish identity still permeated his work (Richards, 1999).

The silence that permeated the exiled analysts and their associated issues, has also to do with the institutions that did not support these analysts. I wonder how much that silence of those who felt like exiles in their own field, affected these analysts’ lives and impacted their work with patients. Particularly, if the patients of the exiled analysts had, themselves, experienced similar traumatic experiences of exile, rejection and unformulated trauma. With silence, possibly on both sides of the consulting room, how could this trauma be properly addressed?

Nowadays, it is common to see that notion of dissociation being used to explain some of the analyst’s responses to experiences that were threatening to their equilibrium.

The predominantly Jewish European analysts of the 1930’s experienced difficulty holding the version of reality manifested by feelings of being marginalized, being expelled, from being under the real threat of death. Dissociation may reflect a psychic ingenuity, a means for survival, or, even creativity in response to existential threat. Bromberg (2006) calls expectable dissociation as a conscious and adaptive way of dealing with painful experiences.

Some, like Anna Orenstein (2004) relied on elaborate fantasies about her mother’s cooking and upon remembering the richness of her early life in a Jewish traditional home.

Orenstein used those fantasies and memories to cope with, and offset, her Auschwitz experience. But it was some time before she explained this in her memoir, published in 2004––70 years after she experienced the trauma. She had been unable to talk about the trauma at an earlier time. Another psychoanalyst, Henri Parens said:

“I did not “come out” as a Holocaust survivor until the 1990s.. I remembered things and had access to my past, but it was terribly painful…” (personal communication in Kuriloff, 2014, p. 3)

Krystal (2007) stated that he was a survivor of labor camps and Auschwitz, because he could maintain his secure attachment to his mother. He revealed that he lost and never regained any memory of how or why he survived a “death arch.” Those experiences of persecution were minimally addressed in his own analysis by an émigré analyst. Krystal’s resilience and his capacity to survive against all odds is another example of adaptive use of dissociation.  However, he, too was marginalized by mainstream psychoanalysis in his adopted country (Kuriloff, 2014).  In 1992, when William B. Helmreich of the City University of New York found that some Holocaust survivors tended to be more successful than other American Jews of comparable age, Krystal concurred. But he added an important caveat: “If I had been part of Dr. Helmreich’s study, he’d probably see me as very well adjusted, but I don’t see myself that way; I have lots of post-traumatic stress-type problems. Many survivors look better from a sociological point of view than from a psychiatric one.” (Roberts, 2015).

Some psychoanalysts in Europe were not implicated directly in Nazi atrocities but  to varying degrees occupied a space in which, in the words of Lothane (2003), stated that:

“…there were neither one-dimensional villains nor saints, nor a clear boundary between the bad guys and the good guys, between black cynics and lily-white idealists, but rather, the more mundane manifestations of short-sighted opportunism” (p. 96).

Jewish analysts had no choice but to emigrate if they wished to survive. They were joined by some politically endangered non-Jews as well as by a few others, such as Richard Sterba, who left Berlin and Vienna, respectively, out of solidarity with their Jewish colleagues. Others, like Aichhorn, adopted a significant degree of “inner emigration” by quietly continuing their work under Nazi occupation. Apart from, though also often linked with, obvious instances of craven opportunism, it is legitimate to ask whether staying to continue one’s work represented some degree of “saving what could be saved” and whether, by the same token, emigration of that minority who were not Jews was to a degree selfish in its search for individual security and prosperity, notwithstanding the great difficulties encountered in leaving one’s home and in finding one’s way in a new place. It is also the case that it was usually, though not always, the famous and well connected that could afford to leave while their less famous or relatively anonymous colleagues found it harder or even impossible to emigrate (Cooks, 2005).

Although these vignettes speak of silence and dissociation during a catastrophe, the degree of postwar dissociation of Holocaust trauma is also quite evident, not only among the theorist/victims. The majority of psychoanalysts notoriously minimized, if not ignored, the significance of the Holocaust in the analyses of survivors, and later in the children of survivor analysands. It is worth noting that memories of secure attachments were the most important asset in promoting survival in Holocaust victims before silence set in.

The ultimate psychoanalytic insult is “superficiality,” and many of the theorists who included a cultural dimension particularly feared disparagement as “mere sociologists.” Further, psychoanalysts have a traditional self-image of standing above the fray, objectively studying human nature while being inoculated from its biases. Thus, although intragroup social pressure was a strong early contributor to the silence regarding the impact of the Holocaust, it was ignored. Nevertheless, it is a truism that psychoanalytic theories are always located in a wider social context, and understanding the context gives breath to understanding the theory (Prince, 2009)

The Socratic ideal of the examined life is just as important for the history of individuals as it is for the history of organizations: Those who ignore their past are doomed to repeat it. Every persecution has its victims and its perpetrators. The latter and their heirs should welcome historical exploration because perpetrators are prone to the same disease as victims: chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (Lothane, 2003).


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If you would like to contact Ruth Lijtmaer, her email is:

Source: Other/Wise International Forum for Phsychoanalytic Education