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  • Karen L

Conspiracy of Silence--A Few Thoughts off the Couch


"Conspiracy of Silence" is a term I have heard, though I am not sure of the where or who? Googling the phrase revealed that the words were not attributed to anyone in particular. I apologize if I am usurping a catchy expression. Family, friends and acquintances know of my interest in the Holocaust, particularly the effects on the offspring of survivors. Forgiveness, remembrance, and awareness of all forms of genocide are issues that concern me. So I was shocked to discover that research regarding the survivors of trauma and their children is not a new area of scientific inquiry. Contrary to what I believed, studies of survivors and their children have been occurring at least since the middle of the 20th century. I discovered the research while writing two memoirs. A fine fellow I know who works for the United States Holocaust Museum (USHM) sent me an email in May 2021 about a virtual conference for Second Generation Survivors (2 G's). I signed up and attended, selecting those talks that peeked my curiousity. Before the first words were spoken, I was amazed. You mean we are a group? People know about us? I listened to the array of international experts. They spoke about intergenerational grief, never again, anti-semitism, the new Germany, among other subjects. Participants were invited to view movies--old and new--and listen to survivors and the children of survivors. During these presentations, streamed from Toronto, listeners chatted. For the first time, I read the words of strangers who experienced their childhoods much as I had. Women and men from the four corners of the globe described parents unable to express emotions, yet blurt out horrific events from their pasts, and deny their histories. Individuals related stories of parents who were overly indulgent or stingy, protective, secretive, prone to sudden bursts of anger, and strangely preoccupied. These behaviors occur in all populations. However, the exact combination of characteristics displayed by the participant's mothers and fathers--who were Holocaust survivors--was uncanny. Various studies document these personality attributes as common among survivors of trauma, including the Holocaust. As I participated in the conference, I learned of Helen Epstein, whose parents from Prague survived the Holocaust. Helen was born in a DP camp, grew up in New York City, and teaches and writes. I looked up her work, and I found she had written about the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Her first book--Children of the Holocaust--was published in 1979 when she was a young woman. 1979? I gasped. How did I not know about this? Never had there been a peep from rabbis, intellectuals, and most importantly psychotherapists. I was married to a man who has a PhD in Social Work, who did a dissertation on a subject related to Jews, and worked with refugees for a Jewish Social Service Agency in Boston. How did this information go unnoticed by agency directors, professors, and his colleagues? He said he was unaware of the research. Groups for 2G's were forming at Boston University in the mid-late 1970's, literally in my backyard. The most egregious omission, however, are the Jewish therapists I worked with over the years in the Washington D.C. area. Not one thought, mention, or question from these professionals occurred to link my parents' past to the description of my childhood. I should have sorted out the pieces of the puzzle, and I had to some extent. However, my psychotherapy in the 1980's was focused on my problems. I was told to assume responsibility and not blame my parents, generally excellent advice which I repeat to my children. However, disregarding a social/historical reason for quirky--often hurtful--behavior invalidates a patient's experience. Viewing personal issues from all perspectives, in my opinion, increases self-esteem and awareness in an anxious or depressed person. I have read the same argument in books about racism. Certainly African Americans must take responsibilty for their lives. But to attribute all dysfunctional behavior as individual pathology avoids the subject of racism and its profound effects. Therin lies the weakness of a psychoanalytic approach. Not all human psychopathology is caused by the aberrant thought processes of a patient. We live in and out of our heads. Ultimately, the patient is responsible for change, no matter the cause. However, understanding the context of childhood decreases self-blame and self-hatred on the part of the person seeking help. Years ago when psychoanalysis was popular, therapists were required to undergo treatment. I do not believe this is the case now. Personal transformation is damn difficult. The professional should comprehend the process in a personal sense, including awareness of their pasts and difficulties in coping with relationships. Returning to the original topic, it is unfortunate that therapists of the mid and late 20th century avoided the topic of the Holocaust due to their discomfort of or relationship to the tragedy. Not talking about the Holocaust was part of the Zeitgeist; however, for therapists, especially Jewish ones, to deny this reality was a major error. In short, a conspiracy of silence prevailed. Note: when I mention this subject, people commonly respond, "but this can be said about all parents." True, but that does not erase the fact that specific combinations of characteristics in parents--who survived the Holocaust--deeply affected their offspring in problematic ways. My points do not diminish the positive traits of people who have survived trauma.

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