Remembering the Holocaust Through 'Scenic Memory'

05/02/2011 01:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day, psychologist Dr. Kurt Gruenberg of the Sigmund-Freud-Institute in Frankfurt, Germany talks of the sometimes disturbing force of unconscious memory. Gruenberg has been working for the Sigmund-Freud-Institute since 1990, he also heads the initiative "9th of November" and established a meeting group for survivors of the Shoah in Germany.

Lia Petridis Maiello: How does the impact of the Holocaust trauma manifests itself within the second generation of survivors?

Dr. Kurt Gruenberg: We, at the Sigmund-Freud-Institute in Frankfurt, Germany developed a concept which we call "scenic memory" of the Shoah. That means that survivors communicate their memories not necessarily verbally, but that the passing on of the trauma happens primarily unconsciously. We are looking at the way survivors are establishing relationships, nonverbal reactions during conversations, such as a sigh, a shout, crying, tears in certain situations. That way, long-term effects psychological and psychosocial, develop in people, who have not experienced national-socialism. It manifests itself in survivors by showing extreme difficulties in certain areas of life, such as free evolvement or following their own impulses. Progeny of Holocaust survivors have a very strong bond with their parents and often experience anxiety when separating from them. They have the feeling that they shouldn't leave their parents behind who went through so much and obviously they fear the confrontation this separation would cause.

Another aspect is very well described in Jean Amery's book, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities, where he describes that Holocaust survivors suffer from a loss in basic trust. I call this phenomenon "contaminated generativity." Survivors often mediate contaminated generativity by dealing with vitality, children, with new lives on one hand, and on the other hand with their extreme trauma. Children of survivors react strongly to questions of parenthood, which is part of acquiring adulthood, by either having the mission to produce Jewish children or being afraid of having children at all, since Jewish children are considered to be particularly endangered.

And then the next question occurs: Who are the partners of the survivor's children? I am particularly interested in the situation in Germany, the land of the perpetrators, where the partners are often non-Jewish Germans. That fact causes very special conflicts, which I am describing in my book, Love after Auschwitz - The second generation in Germany.

LPM: Can you describe these specific conflicts?

KG: In general relationships are always individual and depend on different factors. But relationships between Jews of the second generation and non-Jewish Germans on the other, confront two families. One represents the victims, the other the perpetrators or followers. On the Jewish side we are dealing with deep distrust and on the non-Jewish German side a feeling of, "Is this person not permanently going to raise accusations, if not open and direct, at least indirect?" This confrontation leads to severe conflicts, because you are questioning loyalty towards the respective family.

LPM: How do you distinguish the reprocessing of the Holocaust by survivors in Germany and the USA?

KG: Survivors who emigrated to the U.S. have in most cases also lost their relatives during the Shoah. Their families were murdered leaving them the only ones who survived, obviously extremely traumatized. On top of that they lost what they might have called their home country before the persecution. Jews who fled Germany to the U.S. after 1945 often show relief that they were able to leave the old world of persecution and are under the impression they live in a more democratic world now. But of course, in the U.S. just like anywhere else, the question occurs of how far the Shoah matters today. It still seems to matter quite a lot in Germany. In fact, it is very interesting to see the manifestation of cultural conflicts in Germany. Volatile situations and quarrels occur. If I may remind you of the peace settlement over the SS graves in Bittburg during the 1980s, the Historikerstreit in Germany, or the peace price speech of Martin Walser that led to a heavy conflict with Ignaz Bubis, the former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who was scandalized by Walser's speech and rightfully so. (The German author Martin Walser pointed out in his speech from October 1998, that "the Nazi felonies are abused by certain people to hurt the Germans or to support certain political claims. Also, people who constantly make the Holocaust a subject of discussion are feeling morally superior. But Auschwitz should not reprobate to some sort of moral cudgel in particular because it is of such fatal significance.")

By reference to these examples it is interesting to see how the old conflicts are instantly reestablished, which leads me to a different question, I wonder about sometimes -- why I, as a Jew, have not left Germany a long time ago. It's probably for the same reasons why so many other survivors stayed. In a sense we maintained a close proximity to the deed and a loyalty to those who were killed.

LPM: Do you feel there is a change in Holocaust remembrance by non-Jewish, younger Germans?

KG: I believe that a normalcy accrued by being able to say "Germany" again, rather than "Federal Republic of Germany." That happened after the reunification of East and West Germany. Up to that point the division of Germany was perceived as "punishment" for the persecution of the German Jews, although that is historically obviously incorrect. The division was in a way an indicator for that, which than disappeared with the reunification. Suddenly, the "children of war" were the center of attention. A lot of people in the German general public suggested that the Jews and the US Americans were censoring, and the Germans weren't able to talk about "the war." That is only half the truth.

I believe indeed, that there was not much attention in post-war Germany for the children, whose parents and relatives were victims of bombardments. At the same time there was endless talk about "the war." One could gather the impression that the Germans or their children were the victims of the war. Just imagine the creation of terms such as "Bomb Holocaust." It is disastrous to bring the victims of the Shoah so close to victims of military force. That is an illegitimate change in remembrance. So I am trying to resolve these parallelizations and equalizations with my work.

LPM: Is there a general psychological effect in the German society from a non-accounting of the past?

KG: Raul Hilberg coined a phrase that says, "The Holocaust in Germany is initially family history." That leads to the question for the non-Jewish perpetrators in how far their own relatives were involved in the national-socialist society. Now, in order to achieve real involvement you would have to find perpetrators or followers who are openly talking about their participation. Concealment is a common practice in perpetrator/follower families, which has an impact on their descendants, because they didn't really know who they loved as their fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles. These kids often just experienced a certain atmosphere, which later led to many questions and then the student riots in 1968. And while there was silence the offspring had to rely on speculations or feelings and many of them were not interested in seeing, because it is obviously painful to see the murderer in your parents or grandparents.

So, let's say you group the descendants of the perpetrators on one side and the offspring of Jews on the other then I would assess that one group is unconsciously afraid of being the victims of persecution again, while the other side is taking into consideration the potential of repeated perpetration in certain situations of conflict. All these are unconscious occurrences. But to see that in certain controversial situations you might show similar behavior to that of your parents is painful. In order to work on these problems descendants of perpetrators often see a psychologist. Then it is interesting to see, if the therapist has the same blind spots as their clients. On the other hand there is a lot of German, non-Jewish involvement in Holocaust remembrance, so much that a lot of U.S. American Jews were perplexed when I visited New York City recently.

LPM: How do you think reconditioning of the Shoah could happen in the future?

KG: That requires the willingness to find out about things that might be very painful on both sides. It also requires talking about anti-Semitism today, how it manifests itself and that is very difficult, because the world is driven by so many other severe problems, if you look to the Middle East or Japan. I keep working on it, but the failure of it is sometimes a bitter experience that I know very well about.