Why Must Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Stories?

After 60 years of silence, Dutch survivor Helene Eggers decided the time had come to open up about her past.

Grace Wermenbol
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Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer at ceremony in Auschwitz concentration camp.
Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer at ceremony in Auschwitz concentration camp. Credit: Andreas Gebert, DPA
Grace Wermenbol

More than 60 years after the Holocaust, a considerable number of survivors feels they still cannot - or do not want to - speak out about the years of horrors they endured.

Despite being encouraged to do so by many organizations, including Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, many are afraid to delve back into those five years and the psychological and physical tolls it had on them.

While many agree that remembering the Holocaust is the only way to prevent it from happening again, it nevertheless raises an important question: Do we have to face the ghosts of our past in order to move on to the future?

Recently the book "I'm Still Here," by Debby Petter, the daughter of Dutch Holocaust survivor Helene Egger was published in Holland. After keeping quiet for more than 60 years, Egger decided to open up about her past in front of the Shoah Foundation cameras, in order not to "die with a head filled with war memories," as she explained in a recent television interview. And Egger didn't stop there.

With Egger's approval, her daughter decided to write the story down for good - and for the good of future generations.

In the book, Egger confronts her past and the loss of her two brothers and father, whose deaths she had not been able to process until recently.

Egger herself was fortunate enough to escape death by going into hiding on a farm until the end of the war. After the war, Egger did her utmost to start a "normal" life: She married and had kids, but chose not to talk about the war in order not to "bother her kids with that sadness."

Today, Egger no longer avoids discussing her past; she even lectures primary school students about the subject she had avoided for so long. These lectures always start in the same way, by showing a picture of Anne Frank and herself, both the same age, but with a different fate.

During the interview, which followed the release of the book, Egger stated that she sensed relief after having had the courage to start talking about her experiences.

So why do other Holocaust survivors still have trouble facing their pasts in order to create a new beginning?

Some psychologists believe that silence can lead to (strived after) forgetfulness on the victim's part, although they say this depends on the individual's state of mind.

Some survivors may hope that by trying to suppress the memories, the pain that accompanies them will disappear as well.

Bram Enning, who recently completed his PhD on psychiatrist J. Bastiaans' treatment of German concentration and extermination camp survivors, makes an interesting point when he remarks that "forgetting always leads to keeping quiet."

"Those who choose to reminisce keep their memories alive, but this doesn't mean that these recollections should be regarded as fully accurate," said Enning. "The mind, after all, is a complex machine, which can manipulate the distant past just as much as it can do with more recent happenings."

Holocaust survivor Primo Levi once said on this matter: "Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features."

Enning gives various reasons for why some Holocaust survivors choose not to open up about their pasts. A

long with forgetfulness and indifference, some survivors have never been granted the opportunity to talk about it or are ashamed to speak to people they think might not understand.

But experts stress that choosing not to speak does not necessarily attest to something being wrong.

"It can simply fit the chosen lifestyle, be a well-thought-out decision or be the result of random circumstances," explains Enning.

On the other side of the spectrum are those survivors who do elect to speak about their history, and Enning explains that multiple reasons exist for their choices as well.

"Their motives may derive from a deep felt necessity or purely from having been granted the occasion by others. Other's feel they will be able to reach a certain political objective. And just as some people shun away from the attention they would get, others feel supported by the attention they receive when speaking about their history."

The NIOD (Dutch Institute for War Documentation) does not have specific data regarding the number of survivors who refrain from verbalizing their wartime experiences.

This number is significant, however, says Fred of the NIOD. Esther Huiteman, of the organization called Jewish Social Work, agrees that it is a common phenomenon. "There are people who [can] talk a lot about it and there are those who keep it to themselves [as long as possible]," Huiteman wrote in an E-mail. "How many people meet the latter description isn't known."

The difficulty of providing accurate figures lies in bestowing the title of "keeping silent" on someone, which isn't a straightforward task.

There are Holocaust survivors, who haven't kept completely silent about the war-years, but instead occasionally tell a story or a partial one - but never the whole thing from beginning to end. Others prefer not to talk and at times may even dismiss their Jewish background as a way to protect themselves and their families from further suffering.

Huiteman notes that the way survivors choose to deal with their war trauma also has an effect on their children. "There are children who say that their parents couldn't stop talking about the war, whose life had become determined by it," said Huiteman. "Then there are also children who sensed that their parents were carrying something with them, but with whom their parents' painful experience of the war was never discussed. To the latter, it might have felt like a family secret, which they felt it was better not to ask questions about."

It is difficult to say what the best way is to deal with war trauma. For Hélène Egger, speaking out after so many years rendered relief. Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has said he doesn't only feel he owes it to the dead, but writing also helps him "to understand."

However, for Primo Levi, who spent his life speaking and writing about the Holocaust, it didn't exorcise the pain and eventually he committed suicide, illustrating that speaking out may serve humanity, but not the individual himself.

Various experts say it is up to the survivors to decide what approach suits them best; the choice to voice their traumatic story - or keep it locked deep within their souls and hide the key ? is ultimately a personal one.



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