What I learned about trauma from Holocaust survivors: not to idealize integration

Between 2007 and 2014, I viewed over 250 Holocaust testimonies at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University (Alford, 2009, 2013). Many date from the late 1970’s, and were given before Holocaust testimony became its own genre, with its own norms. Many were talking about their experiences for the first time. Many had not spoken about their lives in the ghettos and concentration camps even with their families. It wasn’t until at least a decade later that talking about the Holocaust became widely accepted, even within the Jewish community.

One of the founders of the Archive was a psychoanalyst and child survivor, Dori Laub. He established an unstructured interviewing format that is still followed. Survivors would frequently talk for a half-hour without interruption. Most interviews lasted about two hours. A number lasted four. There was no time limit. In all this they are quite different from the interviews undertaken for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation (sfi.usc.edu).

What I learned

Extreme trauma lasts forever. People don’t get over it. They learn to live with it, alongside of it. Those who testified were, for the most part, “successful survivors.” They married or remarried (a number lost their entire families to the Holocaust), built businesses, raised families, had children and grandchildren. They survived surviving by living alongside their trauma, beside their Auschwitz self as one called it.

There are no constants among survivor testimonies, no universal themes. The two that come closest, are “no one can understand who wasn’t there,” and “even today I live a double existence.” Kraft (p. 2) argues that doubling is the near universal theme.

Almost all witnesses state that they live a double existence. There is a Balkanization of memory, where Holocaust memories and normal memories are assigned to two, sometimes hostile territories . . . . Consider a few phrases that witnesses use: “a double existence,” “another world,” “a schizophrenic division,” “two worlds,” “two different planets,” “double lives.”

Eva L. elaborates.

Who would believe if I can’t believe it myself? People ask me to tell the story, and I refuse. I can’t believe a human could go through this. . . . Every day was a year. How can they believe a human can survive under this if I can’t believe it? (Testimony 71)

For one who has lived inside it, Auschwitz is evidently incomparable. Not merely the pre-Auschwitz self, but the post-Auschwitz self can hardly believe it. In a sense, this was the Germans’ greatest and most perverse victory. They created a regime of death so horrendous that not merely those who were not there, but those who were, can hardly believe it.

Late in his career, one of the founders of trauma theory, Sándor Ferenczi stated that “forgetting” is sometimes the best path. “Now is the time for encouragement to the tasks of life and future happiness, instead of pondering and digging in the past.” Ferenczi understands that the result is to “sequester” or “encapsulate” traumatic experience. But this is now the goal (Ferenczi, 1988, p. 181; Ferenczi, 1994, pp. 260-261). This isn’t doubling, but doubling and Ferenczi’s late conclusion have more in common than divides them.

Would it not have been kinder to help survivors integrate their trauma. Judith Herman, in her classic Trauma and Recovery, says that when “the chronic trauma of captivity cannot be integrated into the person’s ongoing life story,” the traumatic memory will be more powerful in the present in its dissociated state (p. 89).

We should question the ideal of integration, and what it means. Doubling is not necessarily a version of dissociation. The narratives of most witnesses lacked the markers of extreme trauma, such as an inability to move freely between here and now and there and then. Survivors can tell a coherent story about their lives, with a beginning, middle, and end. They just can’t always believe it happened to them. Rather than dissociation, perhaps this is an accurate account of extreme experience.

About integration, Herman writes that the trauma of the Holocaust represents an opportunity for the survivor to battle at enemy worthy of his mettle, in Freud’s “eloquent description.” His illness must not stand in the way of his full existence (p. 175). In fact, the heroic battle to achieve integration and full existence is Herman’s ideal, not necessarily that of the survivor.

Even if it integration is the ideal, for most it is irrelevant, the choice unavailable. Charlotte Delbo (2001, pp. 2-3, puts it this way.

Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self. Unlike the snake’s skin, the skin of memory does not renew itself . . . Alas, I often fear lest it grow thin, crack, and the camp get hold of me again . . . . I live within a twofold being. The Auschwitz double doesn’t bother me, doesn’t interfere with my life. As though it weren’t I at all. Without this split I would not have been able to revive.

Certainly doubling is no cure. However, It allowed many survivors to live “normal” lives for decades, while remaining true to the reality of their experiences, and to history. That is not a bad trade off.

Doubling is not without consequence. It tends to work best with younger victims of extreme chronic trauma. Studies of older survivors support the observation that the symptoms of trauma that receded for decades often reappear in later years, as more and more of the “tasks of life” lie behind them (Krystal, 1995). in old age, the problem isn’t doubling; it is the failure of doubling.

Conclusion: doubling is living honestly

Doubling is not just a survival strategy. It is a way of living honestly in a world that can become not only hostile, but unbelievable in human terms. With the term “honestly” I mean not pretending that things weren’t as bad as they were, or identifying with the aggressor. I mean a willingness to live with the unthinkable, the unimaginable. One might respond that they have no choice. I think they do, and the choices are almost always worse, such as madness, suicide, or dissociation so complete that the traumatized double has lost contact with its “normal” twin. All three are rare.


C. Fred Alford, Trauma and Forgiveness (Cambridge UP, 2013).

C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust (Cambridge UP, 2009).

Charlotte Delbo. Days and Memory. (Marlboro Press/Northwestern University Press, 2001).

Sándor Ferenczi, The Clinical Diary of Sándor Ferenczi (Harvard UP, 1988). [original 1932]

Sándor Ferenczi, Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis. (London: Karnac, 1994). [original 1955]

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1997).

Robert Kraft, Memory Perceived: Recalling the Holocaust (Praeger, 2002).

Henry Krystal, “Trauma and Aging: A Thirty Year Follow Up.” In C. Caruth (Ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 1995).


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