Traumatization through Separation: Loss of Family and Home as Childhood Catastrophes

By Benz, Ute | Shofar, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Traumatization through Separation: Loss of Family and Home as Childhood Catastrophes


Benz, Ute, Shofar


ABSTRACT. The author examines insights into the psychological impact of separation from family and home, one of the most troubling catastrophes for children. The younger the children, the greater their suffering and the more prolonged the consequences. Through empirical research on the traumatization of children as victims of war and persecution, Hans Keilson in Holland and Anna Freud in Great Britain have transmitted fundamental insights that assist in psychoanalytic reflection on the effect of the Kindertransports. A child's processing of the psychological burdens of persecution, separation, and starting life over is one important aspect; problems of the caregivers, including physical and emotional reactions, must be taken just as seriously. The author argues that the psychoanalytical perspective on historical events is key to understanding the Kindertransports as a complex event whose consequences extend way beyond the time of rescue from persecution under National Socialism.

The recollections of children who were evacuated from National Socialist Germany show that they reacted very differently to their ordeals, even when they were siblings. For example, how is the following scene reported by Gideon Behrendt to be interpreted? He arrived in Great Britain in 1938 at the age of 14, on the first Kindertransport, "helplessly delivered according to the wishes of others and hoping for good will."(1) Quickly adjusting quite well, he received word from Scotland that he could visit his sister, who had been evacuated somewhat later, at the home of her foster family. When he finally saw her again in 1943, by which time he was 19 and she 15, he was astonished to find that while she recognized him, she turned away and clearly was afraid of him, as if it were he who could destroy her life. The brother understood that she feared being "taken away," being torn from relationships to which she had become attached. Unlike Gideon Behrendt, his sister also did not seek contact with her family later.

What is the psychological impact of the evacuation of children of persecuted minorities? What burdens do the rescued children carry, whether short, middle, or long-term? In my reflections, I do not intend to interpret the testimony of Jewish eye-witnesses. Ever since they have begun to speak openly about their lives, we as nonpersecuted Germans can only learn from them. As important as listening is on the part of the non-persecuted, because it teaches us that there can be no closure in discussing the history of National Socialism and its consequences for humanity, it is also urgent to ask questions. What makes listening so difficult, what resistances hinder broad interest in such issues and complicate understanding? What are the means, unavailable to us through our own memories or those of our families, to make understanding easier for us?

Loss is separation. Of the numerous aspects that should be considered in all kinds of loss (loss of relatives, of an area where a language is spoken, of a familiar environment), the aspect of separation from the person of reference is central.(2) It is certainly no accident that an entire field of research has emerged in recent decades dealing with the problem of trauma and separation. It makes sense to see this widespread interest in separation issues, which also emerges in psychological literature, as an expression of a concrete, collective human experience of the 20(th) century, which witnessed million-fold persecution, war, expulsion and flight.(3) It is striking that the political connection plays only a marginal role within the psychological reflections, if any role at all. In psychological research and literature, issues of separation are concentrated very much on the family and mother-child relationship and are therefore virtually isolated from the political historical and collective context, giving the impression that politics and history had no impact on individual and family. Why? …

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