A House Next Door to Trauma: Learning from Holocaust Survivors How to Respond to Atrocity

By Judith Hassan | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Personal Preparation to Confront
the Dark Shadow

Survivors and refugees I have encountered have frequently said to me that when they wanted to talk about their suffering in the Holocaust, whether they were in therapy or in any social situation, there seemed to be a reluctance to touch the subject. One survivor I met had suffered severely in a death camp and unusually had physical signs of the brutality – her fingers had been mutilated through frostbite from the extreme cold she had to endure. When she tried to tell people the real reason why she was handicapped, they did not respond. She learned to tell another story – namely, that she had been in an accident. The response was then one of sympathy rather than revulsion.

This blocking off and avoidance of the pain of a person who has suffered has contributed to what became known as a ‘conspiracy of silence’ (Danieli 1984) between the listener and the speaker. On the one hand, the survivor may feel no-one can ever really understand what he/she has been through, so why bother to speak about it? On the other hand, the non-survivor feels impotent as a sense of grief and loss threatens to overwhelm him/her.

The avoidance of asking the pertinent questions is part of what Robert Krell calls ‘a self-protective strategy’ (Krell 1989, p.217). Sometimes the survivor is blamed for the ‘failure of treatment’. This ‘self-protection,’ he says, ‘may not differ greatly from other painful subjects avoided by therapists for fear of revelations about experiences for which treatment responses are primitive or inadequate. In recent times, the dimensions of sexual abuse have become known because therapists began to pose the pertinent questions’ (p.217).

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