Memory disturbances and dissociative amnesia in Holocaust survivors

March 13th, 2015

The following articles provide compelling scientific evidence in support of the phenomena of dissociation and recovered memory in Holocaust survivors. In addition to supporting the phenomenon in general, these articles also counter the argument that recovered memory is (a) no more than a recent cultural “fad” and (b) specific to false accusers of sexual abuse.

DeWind, E. (1968). The confrontation with death. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 302-305.

Excerpt: “Most former inmates of Nazi concentration camps could not remember anything of the first days of imprisonment because perception of reality was so overwhelming that it would lead to a mental chaos which implies a certain death.”

Durlacher, G. L. (1991). De zoektocht [The search]. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.

Dutch sociologist Durlacher, a survivor of Birkenau, describes his search for and meetings with another 20 child survivors from this camp. Excerpt: “Misha…looks helplessly at me and admits hesitantly that the period in the camps is wiped out from his brain….With each question regarding the period between December 12, 1942 till May 7, 1945, he admits while feeling embarrassed that he cannot remember anything….Jindra…had to admit that he remembers almost nothing from his years in the camps….From the winter months of 1944 until just before the liberation in April 1945, only two words stayed with him: Dora and Nordhausen….In a flash I understand his amnesia, and shocked, I hold my tongue. Dora was the hell which almost nobody survived, was it not? Underground, without fresh air or daylight, Hitler’s secret weapon of destruction, the V-2 rocket, was made by prisoners. Only the dying or the dead came above the ground, and Kapos, and guards.”

Jaffe, R. (1968). Dissociative phenomena in former concentration camp inmates. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49(2), 310-312.

Case descriptions include amnesia for traumatic events and subsequent twilight states in which events would be relived without conscious awareness. Excerpt: “The dissociative phenomena described here turn out not to be rare, once one is on the look out for them.”

Keilson, H. (1992). Sequential traumatization in children. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

Amnesia in Jewish Dutch child survivors for the traumatic separation from their parents.

Krell, R. (1993). Child survivors of the Holocaust: Strategies of adaptation. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 384-389.

Excerpt: “The most pervasive preoccupation of child survivors is the continuing struggle with memory, whether there is too much or too little….For a child survivor today, an even more vexing problem is the intrusion of fragments of memory—most are emotionally powerful and painful but make no sense. They seem to become more frequent with time and are triggered by thousands of subtle or not so subtle events….As children they were encouraged not to tell, but to lead normal lives and forget the past….Some are able to protect themselves by splitting time into past, present, and future….The interviewer can assist in sequencing fragments of memory, sometimes even filling in gaps with historical information and other data. Fragments of memory which made no sense had often been experienced as ‘crazy’ and never shared with anyone….To achieve relief for symptomatic child survivors, the knowledgeable therapist elicits memories, assists in their integration, makes sense of the sequence and encourages the child survivor to write their story, publish it, tape, or teach it.”

Krystal, H., & Danieli, Y. (1994, Fall). Holocaust survivor studies in the context of PTSD. PTSD Research Quarterly, 5(4), 1-5.

Kuch, K., & Cox, B. J. (1992). Symptoms of PTSD in 124 survivors of the Holocaust. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 337-340.

Potential subjects with confirmed or suspected organicity, bipolar or obsessive compulsive disorder were excluded. One group (N=78) had been detained in various concentration camps for greater than 1 month. A second group (N=20) had been detained in Auschwitz and had been tattooed. A third group (N=45) had not been in labor camps, ghettos, or had hidden in the illegal underground. Psychogenic amnesia was found in 3.2% of the totals sample, in 3.8 of the general concentration camp survivors, and in 10% of tattooed survivors of Auschwitz. 17.7% (N=22) of the total sample had received psychotherapy. The tattooed survivors had a higher number of PTSD symptoms overall.

Lagnado, L. M., & Dekel, S. C. (1991). Children of the flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the untold story of the twins of Auschwitz. New York: William and Morrow & Co.

Excerpt: “A few of the twins insisted that they had no memories of Auschwitz whatsoever. Instead, they dwelt on the sadness of their postwar adult lives — their emotional upheavals, physical breakdowns, and longings for the dead parents they had hardly known.”

Laub, D., & Auerhahn, N. C. (1989). Failed empathy—A central theme in the survivor’s Holocaust experience. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6(4), 377-400.

Excerpt: “Holocaust survivors remember their experiences through a prism of fragmentation and usually recount them only in fragments….A curious blend often exists between almost polar experiences: Remembering minute details in their fullest color and subtlest tones, while being unable to place those details in their narrative context or specific situational reference.”

Laub, D., & Auerhahn, N. C. (1993). Knowing and not knowing massive psychic trauma: Forms of traumatic memory. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 287-302.

Excerpt: “The knowledge of trauma is fiercely defended against, for it can be a momentous, threatening, cognitive and affective task, involving an unjaundiced appraisal of events and our own injuries, failures, conflicts, and losses….To protect ourselves from affect we must, at times, avoid knowledge….Situations of horror destroy the detached sensibility necessary for articulation, analysis, elaboration….Knowing…requires a capacity for metaphor which cannot withstand atrocity….Notwithstanding the difficulties around and the struggle against knowing, the reality of traumatic events is so compelling that knowledge prevails, despite its absence to consciousness and its incompleteness….The different forms of remembering trauma range from not knowing, fugue states, fragments, transference phenomena, overpowering narratives, life themes, witnessed narratives, metaphors….These vary in degree of encapsulation versus integration of the experience and in degree of ownership of the memory, i.e., the degree to which an experiencing ‘I’ is present as subject….Erecting barriers against knowing is often the first response to such trauma. Women in Nazi concentration camps dealt with difficult interrogation by the Gestapo by derealization, by asserting ‘I did not go through it. Somebody else went through the experience.’ A case study example is included of a man in therapy who wanted to capture an elusive memory. The only remaining trace was a sense of dread on hearing the phone click. Over time, he recollected a traumatic wartime experience as a child involving the death of a doctor whom he had loved, and for which he felt partly responsible. Having recovered the memory he had lost, its intrusive fragments no longer blocked him from pursuing his life. Many of his somatic symptoms receded at the time….Unintegrable memories endure as a split-off part, a cleavage in the ego….When the balance is such that the ego cannot deal with the experience, fragmentation occurs….Simply put, therapy with those impacted by trauma involves, in part, the reinstatement of the relationship between event, memory and personality.”

Marks, J. (1995). The hidden children: The secret survivors of the Holocaust. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Excerpt: “So much of my childhood between the ages of four and nine is blank….It’s almost as if my life was smashed into little pieces….The trouble is, when I try to remember, I come up with so little. This ability to forget was probably my way of surviving emotionally as a child. Even now, whenever anything unpleasant happens to me, I have a mental garbage can in which I can put all the bad stuff and forget it….I’m still afraid of being hungry….I never leave my house without some food….Again, I don’t remember being hungry. I asked my sister and she said that we were hungry. So I must have been! I just don’t remember.”

Mazor, A., Ganpel, Y., Enright, R. D., & Ornstein, R. (1990, January). Holocaust survivors: Coping with posttraumatic memories in childhood and 40 years later. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3(1), 11-14.

Abstract: This essay deals with coping processes of childhood trauma of survivors who were children during World War II over the lifecycle in a nonclinical group. The main issues refer to: (1) responses to war memories immediately after the war and 40 years later; (2) dealing with memories and feelings at present; (3) victims’’ feelings and attitudes toward the persecutor; (4) attitudes of survivors’’ children to the war experience of their parents; and (5) coping styles immediately and 40 years after the war, including the survivors’’ responses at present. Using a semistructural interview and a qualitative content analysis of interviews, it is suggested that for most persons the reactivation of memories and the need to document their experiences enhances, in a limited scope, the recognition of their loss and brings some relief; it also discloses new ways for these adults to comprehend their traumatic past.

Modai, I. (1994). Forgetting childhood: A defense mechanism against psychosis in a Holocaust survivor. In T. L. Brink (Ed.), Holocaust survivors’ mental health. New York: Haworth Press.

In a debate about uncovering painful memories of the Holocaust, Modai’s case is of a 58

year old woman who is unable to remember her childhood.

Moskovitz, S., & Krell, R. (1990). Child survivors of the Holocaust: Psychological adaptations to survival. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Services, 27(2), 81-91.

Excerpt: “Whatever the memories, much is repressed as too fearful for recall, or suppressed by well-meaning caretakers wishing the child to forget. Without confronting the fear and recapturing the fragments of memory, the survivor cannot make the necessary connections which allow reintegration of their whole life; neither can they obtain the peace of mind that comes with closure.”

Musaph, H. (1993). Het post-concentratiekampsyndroom [The post-concentration camp syndrome]. Maandblad Geestelijke volksgezondheid [Dutch Journal of Mental Health], 28(5), 207-217.

Amnesia exists for certain Holocaust experiences, while other experiences are extremely well remembered.

Niederland, W. G. (1968). Clinical observations on the “survivor syndrome.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 313-315.

Discusses memory disturbances such as amnesia and hypermnesia.

Stein, A. (1994). Hidden children: Forgotten survivors of the Holocaust. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

A collection of interviews with child survivors who were hidden during the war. Excerpt: “Over the years I have been trying to re-experience those feelings, but they kept eluding me. I was cut off from most of my memories, and from relieving the anxiety of that time….I remember nothing about the time I spent with those people…not a face, not a voice, not a piece of furniture. As if the time I spent there had been a time out of my life….What is missing? Why can’t I conjure up those memories? I am staring into the darkness with occasional flashes of light allowing me to unearth bits and pieces of life.”

van Ravesteijn, L. (1976). Gelaagdheid van herinneringen [Layering of memories]. Tijdschrift boor Psychotherapie, 5(1), 195-205.

Excerpt: “A smell, a sound, an image evoke fragments of images or emotions, more compelling than current reality, fragments to which all experience pain, anger, fear, shame, and powerlessness have attached themselves. Must a coherent account be given, then it is often painfully apparent that this is impossible. Most often, the person is unable to present an overview of this period.”

Wagenaar, W. A., & Groeneweg, J. (1990). The memory of concentration camp survivors. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4, 77-87.

Abstract: This study is concerned with the question whether extremely emotional experiences, such as being the victim of Nazi concentration camps, leave traces in memory that cannot be extinguished. Relevant data were obtained from testimony by 78 witnesses in a case against Marinus De Rijke, who was accused of Nazi crimes in Camp Erika in The Netherlands. The testimonies were collected in the periods 1943–1947 and 1984–1987. A comparison between these two periods reveals the amount of forgetting that occurred in 40 years. Results show that camp experiences were generally well-remembered, although specific but essential details were forgotten. Among these were forgetting being maltreated, forgetting names and appearance of the torturers, and forgetting being a witness to murder. Apparently intensity of experiences is not a sufficient safeguard against forgetting. This conclusion has consequences for the forensic use of testimony by witnesses who were victims of violent crimes.

Wilson, J., Harel, Z., & Kahana, B. (1988). Human adaptation to extreme stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam. New York: Plenum Press.

Yehuda, R., Elkin, A., Binder-Brynes, K., Kahana, B., Southwick, S. M., Schmeidler, J., & Giller, E. R., Jr. (1996, July). Dissociation in aging Holocaust survivors. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153(7), 935-940.

Abstract: OBJECTIVE: This study explored relationships among dissociation, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in elderly Holocaust survivors with and without PTSD and in a demographically comparable group of nontraumatized subjects. METHOD: Holocaust survivors with PTSD (N = 35) and without PTSD (N = 25) who had been recruited from the community and a comparison group (N = 16) were studied. Dissociation was evaluated with the Dissociative Experiences Scale. Past cumulative trauma and recent stress were evaluated with the Antonovsky Life Crises Scale and the Elderly Care Research Center Recent Life Events Scale, respectively. PTSD symptoms were assessed with the Clinician- Administered PTSD Scale. RESULTS: The Holocaust survivors with PTSD showed significantly higher levels of current dissociative experiences than did the other groups. However, the extent of dissociation was substantially less than that which has been observed in other trauma survivors with PTSD. Dissociative Experiences Scale scores were significantly associated with PTSD symptom severity, but the relation between Dissociative Experiences Scale scores and exposure to trauma was not significant. CONCLUSIONS: Possible explanations for this finding include the age of the survivors, the length of time since the traumatic event, and possible unique features of the Holocaust survivor population. Nevertheless, the findings call into question the current notion that PTSD and dissociative experiences represent the same phenomenon. The findings suggest that the relationships among dissociation, trauma, and PTSD can be further clarified by longitudinal studies of trauma survivors.

Yehuda, R., Schmeidler, J., Siever, L. J., Binder-Brynes, K., & Elkin, A. (1997). Individual differences in posttraumatic stress disorder symptom profiles in Holocaust survivors in concentration camps or in hiding. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10, 453-465.

46% of 100 survivors report amnesia on PTSD measures.

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