The Psychology of Holocaust Survivors

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Lingering Destructive After-Effects of the Holocaust


The Holocaust left its indelible mark on all who lived through the Hitler era and its consequences.  Not only were six million of our Jewish brothers and sisters brutally murdered and with them our optimism, our history, our very security, and the loss of safety in numbers. Our voices were stilled, our future was eradicated.  We were punished for crimes we did not commit.  We were labeled as vermin who deserved to be extinguished.  Those few of us who survived could no longer believe in justice.  Searching and self blame were not unique.  Many survivors hid their identity and others were like Coleridge’s ancient Mariner “who stoppeth one of three” to tell of the unthinkable world shaking event that was the Holocaust. The aftershocks are fear of revealing that we are Jews, the chosen people.  The people chosen for hatred, for an outlet for  sadists to be denigrated, to be shamed, to be isolated, possibly for future anti -semites' pleasure and fury.  Many of our brethren hide their religious identity and their own identity and live in fear of discovery. 

The Holocaust left its mark in more ways than are imaginable.  Intermarriage with the majority has become the unfortunate outcome of our fellow religionists.  Others seek those who belong to a different race, those who were once shunned and who most certainly cannot be labeled as Jews, like orientals and others of very different persuasions, for example agnostics and atheists.

We see ourselves as unacceptable.  By our antagonists we are viewed with the hateful eyes of the Nazis.  If we worked unusually hard and have amassed a few dollars we are Shakespeare’s Shylock, regardless of how much we give to the poor and unfortunates or those who refuse to work and want “entitlements.”  Unfortunately we too often take on the attitude of our enemies and self hatred overtakes us.  We feel like grown children given away in infancy to be punished for our very existence.  We are prone to become shadows of the person that we should rightfully be or targets for the anger and disappointment of those who are seeking an outlet for their anger, their hatred.  It is not unusual for the survivor to become the proverbial scapegoat.  Hiding is one of the methods used by those who suffer from the inner turmoil of the survivor and his kin.

Frightful nightmares are another symptom that is not unusual for folk who had the misfortune of living or of being the offspring of the survivors. In the dream the terrors are our feelings, our experiences or shadows of real experiences that end up in disastrous outcomes where we are chased by our antagonists  and find a horror ridden end. These dreams can feel very real to the person experiencing such nightmares.

There is nothing we can do to alter the past and the destruction and horrors that was the fate of those who lived during the Holocaust and its aftermath.  It is a reality that we must accept.  We can only change that which is in our future with remnants of that which is forever lurking in our past.  Let us be strong and look at our strengths, our survival.  Let us not ever accept the stones of our “Wiedersacher,” our enemies.  Let us recognize our strengths, our identities, our religion.  Most of all, let us do all we can to fight those who mean us ill and be grateful to those who are our friends.  Let us open our eyes and stop those who will do us harm.  Let us not vote for our enemies and with our intelligence welcome into our midst the just and the decent, and actively pursue equality, peace and justice.   Let us be proud of our ambitions, our identity, our accomplishments, and our Jewishness.  Let no one ever deny the Holocaust.  Let the world and all its inhabitants know that the Holocaust must never! not ever! ever happen again! 


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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