Holocaust survivors’ 70 years of trauma: ‘I could cry nonstop, even now’ – Telegraph.co.uk

“There wasn’t the culture of openness and psychotherapy that we have now. They
may have had nightmares and horrifying dreams but they didn’t speak about
it, which delays treatment and makes the trauma more resistant,” says Hacker
Hughes.

The Holocaust isn’t simply an event from the past, however: its horrors have
tapped away at survivors’ subconsciouses for the past 70 years – leaking out
when they started a family of their own, or when a terrorist attack in Paris
sparks waves of crippling anxiety. Even in old age, survivors can’t escape,
as bad memories start to break past failed attempts to forget.

While Knoller coped by refusing to talk, others went a step further and
managed to block out their experiences entirely. Hacker Hughes explains
that, in times of extreme stress or horror, people dissociate and create a
mental block to guard against reality. “Everything goes into a mental box
that remains unopened,” he says. “Of course you can’t remember it, because
the experiences never went through the circuits that normal memory would go
through.”

Eve Kugler was born in Germany and lived through Kristallnacht as a child. In
the late 1930s, her parents sent her to a children’s home in France, hoping
she would be safer there, and eventually Kugler sailed to the United States
in 1941, aged 11. But Kugler can remember nothing of the SS guards who
stormed her house, the misery of saying goodbye to her mother, or the two
week-long voyage across the Atlantic. All she remembers is getting off the
ship and arriving in America.

“I didn’t feel whole,” she says. “Hitler robbed me of my memory and he robbed
me of my childhood. I knew that things happened before I turned 11 and I
used to look over my shoulder, looking for that child. Where was she?”


Eve and her older sister, Ruth, in Halle, Germany, in 1935

Despite having no recollection of life in Nazi Germany, Kugler’s childhood
experiences have shaped her existence since. The area where she stayed
outside Paris was heavily bombarded, and for decades, Kugler would hear the
sound of falling bombs in her head. Once, during her 40s, she hallucinated
that she had a number tattooed onto her arm, just as Auschwitz prisoners
did.

Amazingly her parents survived the war, but Kugler was almost 50 when she
finally asked her mother to explain what had happened. “I felt like a
fraud,” she says. “I felt like I was hearing the story of someone else’s
life.”

Kugler is now 84 years old, and in the past few years she’s visited the places
in Germany and France where she spent the first decade of her life. “I can
feel the trauma and the terror of the Nazis, who were everywhere,” she says.
“It is important. It took a large number of years but I’ve started to feel
like I was there, and I feel better for it.”

Those like Knoller and Kugler, who are able to talk about their experiences,
are among the mentally strongest Holocaust survivors who are still alive
today. Many others, who have suppressed the horrors so fiercely that they
still cannot tell their stories, suffer far more from the trauma of what
they saw 70 years ago.

Old age can be a particularly difficult time, as retirees finally have the
leisure to reflect on what they went through. Dementia is an added fear, as
sufferers lose their short term memory but maintain their long term memory,
and so have a renewed focus on childhood experiences.

“Dementia is quite often when the mechanisms used to supress trauma break down
and people suddenly start remembering distressing things from a long, long
time ago,” says Hacker Hughes. “I’ve seen cases where people reach a great
age and cognitive decline sets in, and that’s when they really start having
symptoms and feeling distressed.”

Aviva Trup, who runs the Jewish Care Holocaust Survivor’s Centre in London,
says that nightmares, anxiety and depression are common. Many believe they
have a duty to tell their story before they die, so that future generations
never forget. But the burden of retelling their trauma can also re-ignite
feelings of anguish.

“The coverage this week has created quite a few triggers for a lot of people,”
says Trup. “They say, ‘Did you see the Eichmann show on TV? Did you see
those bodies? I remember waking up and using bodies to keep me warm’. Here
that would be a normal conversation.”

Susan Pollack, who was sent to Auschwitz 70 years ago aged 14, was the only
member of her family to survive the Holocaust.

“The experience is always with me,” she says. “Were we human beings, were they
human beings? Why did they make us so inhuman and create such devastation?
I’ve been able to relegate it to a more manageable place in my psyche but
I’ve never lost it. I’ve learnt to live with it.”

On Tuesday, Pollack will visit Auschwitz for the first time. She faces the
trip with great trepidation.

“I try to remain strong,” she says. “I cry out when I think about it. When I
allow myself to get emotional I could cry non-stop, even now.”

For information about Jewish Care Holocaust Survivor’s Centre or to make a
donation, visit their website
or call 0208 922 2222

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