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Traumatic Amnesia in Holocaust Survivors
DID/Trauma/Memory Reference List
Traumatic Amnesia in Holocaust Survivors

It wasn't until the DSM-III was published in 1980 that Holocaust survivors were considered under the diagnosis of PTSD, and even then the Holocaust literature was relatively separate from the PTSD literature. Amnesia as a symptom has only been intentionally and specifically studied in a few cohorts.  

DeWind, E. (1968). The confrontation with death. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 302-305.
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, GL (1991). De zoektocht [The search]. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.
Dutch sociologist , a survivor of Birkenau, describes his search for and meetings with another 20 child survivors from this camp. "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 surivived, 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." (P.129). 

Jaffe, R. (1968). Dissociative phenomena in former concentration camp inmates. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 49, 310-312.
Case descriptions include amnesia for traumatic events and subsequent twilight states in which events would be relived without conscious awareness. "I should like to add that the dissociative phenomena described here turn out not to be rare, once one is on the look out for them." (p. 312.) 

Keilson, H. (1979/1992). Sequential traumatization in children. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press/Hebrew University.
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.
          "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. (1994). Holocaust survivor studies in the context of PTSD. PTSD Research Quarterly, 5 (4).
"Some authors also point to disturbances of memory: amnesia, hyperamnesias and disturbances of consciousness, which in retrospect we later recognized as trances." 

Krystal, H., & Neiderland, WG (1968). Clinical observations on the survivors syndrome. In H. Krystal (Ed). Massive Psychic Trauma, 327-384. New York: International Universities Press.
Discusses problems of hypermnesia and amnesia. 

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 complusive 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, LM, & Dekel, SC (1991). Children of the flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the untold story of the twins of Auschwitz. New York: William and Morrow & Co.
"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." (p. 8). 

Laub, D., & Auerhahn, N. (1989). Failed empathy - A central theme in the survivor's Holocaust experience. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6(4), 377-400.
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 (1993). Knowing and not knowing massive psychic trauma: Forms of traumatic memory. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 287-302.
           "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 war time 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.
Ava Landy describes her amnesia: "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." (P. 188).  

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

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. Also published in: (1994) Clinical Gerontologist, 14(3), 67-71.
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.
"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." (p. 89). 

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, WG. (1968). Clinical observations on the "survivor syndrome." International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 313-315.
Discusses memory disturbances such as amnesia and hypermnesia. 

Somer, E. (1994). Hypnotherapy and regulated uncovering in the treatment of older survivors of Nazi persecution. Clinical Gerontologist, 14(3), 47-65.
Discusses hypnotherapeutic titration techniques to assist Holocaust survivors to uncover previously repressed memory of concentration camp experiences. 

Stein, A. (1994). Hidden children: Forgotten survivors of the Holocaust. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Collection of interviews with child survivors who were hidden during the war. Ervin Staub: "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." (P. 106). 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. (P. 107)....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).
"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." (p. 195). 

Wagenaar, WA, & Groenweg, J. (1990). The memory of concentration camp survivors. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 4, 77-87.
The study is concerned with whether extremely emotional experiences leave traces in memory that cannot be extinguished. Testimonies of 78 survivors are taken from 1943-1947 and for a second time during a Nazi war criminal trial (Defendant - Marins de Rijke, Camp Erika, Netherlands) from 1984-1987. The witnesses agreed about the basic facts. Three of 38 survivors tortured by De Rijke had forgotten his name on the second interview; one had known his name quite well in the original interview. The fact that the memories of the more brutal events were not more resistant against forgetting remains highly informative, even if the forgetting is aggravated by age effects. The forgotten elements are not only the unique details of events, but also some aspects to which the witnesses were exposed repeatedly. The effects of fotgetting reported above cannot easlily be situated in the stage of encoding. The forgotten elements were in many cases reported in the early testimonies. Results show camp experiences were generally well-remembered although specific but essential details were forgotten, including being maltreated, names and appearances of torturers, and being a witness to murder. Intensity of experience is NOT a sufficient safeguard against forgetting. 

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

Wilkomirski, B. (1995). Translated 1996 by CB Janeway. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. New York: Schocken Books.
I don't remember how it came about, but I found myself in a group that was going 'on the transport'....All I remember is the end of the journey, and the memory is full of holes, muddled, in broken pictures with no order to them, too many pieces missing....The others are yelling, too, I have to run, with them, now, before it's too late....This forced march went on and on and on...a farmer's wife waved a basket at us, and after that my memory just turns into a long gray fog....It wasn't till long afterward, when it had turned cold and the first snow was falling, that my mind began to work again, and I became aware of my surroundings.[He had been transported to Auschwitz]. The world was full of barracks again....I had my usual barracks again, like before, but this one seemed to be in a different place. Who brought my barracks here and why?...Everything seemed to be dissolving, murky, a blur. I didn't know enough to make sense of it....I have some shreds of memory still, like a brief flash of light, but their meaning is much less clear....My memory stops here....The next thing I have any recollection of was months later, and even that is hazy....Where they took me, and who took me - I've no idea. It's all a blur. 

Yehuda, R., Elkin, et al. (July, 1996). Dissociation in aging Holocaust survivors. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153, (7), 935-940. 

Yehuda, R., Schniedler, J, Siever, LJ, 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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