Leveraging Holocaust Guilt Into Meaning

Psychologist Erika Landau turned her experience as a Holocaust survivor into a method for encouraging creativity in children. She died last week at 81.

During the Yom Kippur War psychologist Erika Landau entered a room in a hospital that was treating the wounded. She had been asked to treat a young man who had been lying for three days with his eyes open, motionless and apathetic. "All I was told was that he was the only survivor from a tank that exploded; I racked my brain for something to say," she later wrote. "'Do you feel guilty that you survived and they were killed?’ I finally asked. The wounded man turned his head and asked: 'How did you know?'"

"Because I also feel guilty that my friends were killed in the Holocaust and I survived," she replied. She later wrote: "I realized that my suffering had become meaningful. Because of it I was able to help one young man."

Death preoccupied Landau, who died last week at 81. In 1973, when she was 41, she wrote a Hebrew-language children's book called "Daddy is Dead." She explained that the book "was written after many conversations with children and adults who had lost fathers, husbands, sons, brothers and uncles in the past three wars. I discussed many questions they had after their contact with death… Children are afraid to ask those closest to them because they're afraid of causing them pain. If the child doesn't ask, that doesn't mean he isn't troubled by problems and emotions."

Dealing with death enabled the Holocaust survivor from Romania, who became an educator and a psychologist and helped tens of thousands of gifted children in Israel, to deepen our understanding of a child's soul. "A child feels the reality of death much more than we imagine," Landau wrote a few years after establishing the Young Persons' Institute for the Promotion of Creativity and Excellence.

The Tel Aviv-based institute, which was founded in 1969, is still in operation. "Don't wait until the child starts to ask," she wrote. "We have to help him and lead him honestly to the reality as it is." She and her late husband Shlomo chose not to have children; one reason was her childhood in the Holocaust. But Landau dedicated her life to nurturing children.

She was born in 1931 in Czernowitz, Romania, so she was still small when World War II broke out. She spent four years in camps with her family. Her father died after the war, and in 1947 she immigrated to Israel.

"You ask why there's a tear in my right eye? From longing for what was and will never be - memories that are hard to bear about hunger, fear and helplessness for lack of hope," she wrote in 2000 in her last book, "To Give Meaning." "You ask why there's a smile in my left eye? Because I'm alive. I look into your shining and inquisitive eyes, child, because for your sake I have hope."

Long nights of despair

In the book she told her story as a child in the Holocaust. "For almost four years we lived in inhuman conditions. I don't remember specific moments or days, but heavy lumps of days full of suffering, which led to long nights of despair, which ended in a morning when we didn't know whether to be sorry we had woken up or thankful that another night had passed."

She described "unpaved roads, deep and sticky mud. I fell and had trouble getting up. The soldier shouted and beat me. My father wept and I suffered twice: from the beatings and from my father's pain. I try to remember what someone thinks about - what does someone feel who digs a grave for himself? Nature is merciful, wraps you in a fog, in a cloud. You don't think, you don't feel. You only dig and dig, and when you return you're not happy either," she wrote.

"We arrived at a river that was overflowing its banks and whose bridges had been bombed. The soldiers who were supervising us …. pushed us into the water and everyone was swept away because there was nothing to hold on to. My father held my mother and me and when the soldiers left we got out. We had been 120, but not even 20 remained.

"And I ask: What did we think, what did we feel? After all, there were only two soldiers and none of us rebelled. Today I know that after seven weeks of being hunted animals we stopped thinking, we stopped reacting like human beings."

Her training as a psychologist and an educator enabled her to deal with tough situations after the Holocaust, too. As she later described it, during World War II she asked herself, "Why did I deserve it? Why did it happen to me?" Years later she realized that this was a helpless, passive question. So during Israel's wars she asked herself, "'What can I do?' I promised myself that I wouldn't give in to things, especially not to helplessness," she wrote. "I teach to always look for another way. And I teach that there is no context ... where it's impossible to find alternatives and solutions."

She studied for her bachelor's degree in psychology and history at Tel Aviv University and wrote her doctorate on creativity at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In 1973 she published the book "Creativity," also in Hebrew, where she claimed that a person has creative forces that for social, cultural, economic and educational reasons are not expressed.

A theory on creativity

"Anyone can be a creator and all the circumstances of life are likely to arouse creativity," she wrote. "The belief that creativity is a divine gift suppresses the creative ability in many people… Creativity is a phenomenon that can be discovered in all types of people."

To illustrate her claim she described Picasso and Einstein. "Both thought in concepts that were known to other people, too, but they saw these concepts with new associations that gave rise to a new artistic school or a new scientific theory. In both the creativity did not arise ex nihilo but was based on knowledge, experience and the daring to penetrate new, unknown fields that had not yet been investigated."

To encourage creativity, Landau tried to change the teaching method in schools. "Formal education continues to emphasize the importance of intelligence; in other words, cumulative knowledge in narrow and inflexible contexts," she wrote. But she felt that "learning by accumulating information is repetitive, sterile learning that ends in forgetting."

She castigated the education system for not encouraging creativity. "They don't train independent thinking at all; they don't teach how to ask the right questions and search for interdisciplinary answers... Curiosity, the characteristic found in every person from birth, is suppressed, while conformism is nurtured and originality is hindered... For that reason, and many others, many creative children prefer to be like others and neglect their creative ability."

Her institute aims to change that state of affairs; about 40,000 gifted children from kindergarten to junior high school have studied there. "The gifted child of today will, hopefully, be the leader of tomorrow," she wrote on her website. Gifted children must be given the opportunity to become aware of their potential; they must be given the challenges to develop their talents, feel responsible for their actions and be involved in their society.

In a booklet published 40 years ago she wrote: "Even plants die. You put a seed in the ground, a stem emerges and a bud appears. And it blossoms. And inside the flower is a new seed. And then the flower wilts. The leaves fall off. The plants dies. Sometimes the wind breaks the stem and the flower wilts and dies... People, like plants, are sometimes plucked before their time.

"You see, I also ask questions. Nor do I have answers to questions about death; nobody understands what death is. And still we have to accept it. Many things happen to us in life. Happy things and sad things. When we're sad we forget that we’re also happy. When we cry we forget that we were happy. In life, light and shadow alternate, but both are part of our lives. Life and death are interrelated. Due to the sadness of death we don't see life. We’ve discussed questions about death; let's ask questions about life, too."

Eyal Toueg