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Lifetime of Pain Is Legacy to Children of the Holocaust

Mental health: 'Second-generation' victims live without understanding psychological scars. But more are seeking help.

January 20, 2002|GEORGE JAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

VIENNA — Robert Fleischner blocks out memories of his childhood. Stefan Strosievici recoils at the sight of fuzzy-headed chemotherapy patients and the tattooed arms of straphangers on the streetcar.

They and tens of thousands of other Jews born after the Holocaust escaped the wartime suffering of their fathers, mothers and other relatives--yet inherited a lifetime of their pain.

With the Holocaust generation now in their 70s and 80s, each year sees fewer firsthand victims alive. But the legacy of their horrors has left many of their sons and daughters emotionally disfigured.

Most of these "second-generation" victims have gone through life without understanding their psychological scars, experts say. But more are beginning to recognize they need help--and are seeking it.

"Instead of having less work treating Holocaust-related problems over the past few years, we're actually seeing our workload rise," said Dr. David Vyssoki of ESRA, a Vienna outpatient clinic that treats victims of the Nazi era.

ESRA had a dozen second-generation cases in 1996, the first year such records were kept. It treated 51 in the first nine months of 2001.

Vyssoki attributes the increase to the "time of latency"--as the years add up, untreated emotional traumas become more intense.

The typical patient knows little of his parents' ordeal.

The sufferings of the Nazis' extermination camps, the deaths of close relatives, were too horrific to discuss, creating "an oppressive climate of silence, where the children grow up carrying an unspoken burden," Vyssoki said.

Talking it out would have offered catharsis. Instead, guilt has built in the minds of children knowing they escaped the hell their parents endured.

Vyssoki cites an Israeli study documenting how women with breast cancer who were daughters of Nazi victims differed from other cancer sufferers.

"They were paralyzed; their coping mechanism self-destructed much more frequently than cancer patients who did not grow up with the unspoken terror of death," he said.

Even children of Jews who escaped the Nazi camps carry some of the Holocaust burden.

Strosievici's parents fled Vienna and the Nazis for the Soviet Union. But when pressed, he acknowledges feeling queasy when he sees chemotherapy patients who have lost their hair because of treatment. "It reminds me of concentration camp inmates."

Tattoos, says Strosievici, 44, bring back memories of relatives who survived the camps but bore identification numbers on their forearms.

Fleischner exhibits deeper hurts. His father and mother together lost more than a dozen close relatives--fathers, mothers, uncles and cousins, either sent to the gas chambers or worked to death in Nazi camps.

His mother "repressed the Holocaust completely," Fleischner said. His father blocked out his time in the camps by speaking only of episodes "where he came out looking good"--outsmarting guards in the daily survival struggle for that extra bit of food or the easier work detail.

"I have no memories of my youth," Fleischner, 55, said of growing up in Vienna, where adoring millions cheered Adolf Hitler when he visited to mark the absorption of Austria into Nazi Germany on March 15, 1938. "The only thing I remember was the fear of my mother because our district was very anti-Semitic, so she always took care to make sure that I never played with the other children.

"I built up a wall around myself, without knowing why," he added.

Painfully shy, "an observer, never a participant," Fleischner turned to ESRA--"help" in Hebrew--in the mid-1990s on advice from his younger brother, who worked there as a psychiatric nurse.

The institute, financed by the Vienna city government and the Jewish community, is one of only two of its kind in Europe, along with a similar institute in the Netherlands. It set up 3 1/2 years of individual and group therapy for Fleischner.

"People often collapsed crying," he said of some of those sessions. "Some things I just wouldn't do, like shaking hands with a psychologist pretending to be a Nazi guard."

He came away not healed but healing--still unable to remember his first 12 years but ready to embrace Judaism after rejecting God for allowing the Holocaust, and willing to reach out rather than waiting for others to make the first move.

He now can watch televised violence or Holocaust documentaries. Divorced after a "marriage of silence," he has remarried. And for the first time, he has friends.

"I realized that all this time, I felt guilty for something I had nothing to do with," he said softly. "I have been freed of a burden that I carried for as long as I can remember, without it belonging to me."

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