Renewal of Life: Healing from the Holocaust (Book Review)
Author: Parens, Henri
Publisher: Schreiber Publishing
Reviewed By: Sophia Richman, PhD, ABPP, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 40-43
LUCKY IN MISFORTUNE: A REVIEW ESSAY
Every survivor of a disaster, whether natural or man-made feels lucky. Those of us who survived the Holocaust are only too aware that luck played a crucial role in our survival. It may have helped to be smart, resourceful, courageous and well connected, but more than any other factor, it is to luck that we owe our life.
What effect does that awareness have on our psyche? Those of us who believe in the importance of agency and choice are hard pressed to accept the fact that it is ultimately to chance that we owe our lives. Perhaps that is why so many of us have been drawn to the existential position; a philosophy that recognizes the inescapable aspects of human existence but at the same time urges us to transcend our limitations and take an active stance in our lives. We may owe our survival to luck, but we have a responsibility to make our life a meaningful one.
Writing one’s story, telling the world what happened to us is part of that responsibility. Increasingly we, the remaining survivors of the Holocaust, are experiencing a moral imperative to bear witness. But it is never without a degree of ambivalence that we do so. A wish to leave a legacy for future generations and the responsibility to preserve the memories often collide with the desire to forget or to let the painful past remain in its encapsulated internal place.
Survivors are perpetually suspended between concealment and disclosure. To tell or not to tell; to know or not to know are themes that appear and reappear in the autobiographical writings of the two psychoanalysts whose work will be reviewed in this essay.
Anna Ornstein and Henri Parens, born just one year apart in the late 1920s, both waited until 2004 to publish their wartime stories. At that point, they had many years of successful practice in the field of psychiatry with a specialty in child psychiatry. Perhaps the fact that their childhood was shaped by war influenced their desire to help children who suffered. Their dedication to a life of healing is not unusual for survivors and their children, who are well represented in the mental health field.
Their pre-war experiences were markedly different as were their wartime experiences, although both spent time in concentration camps. Nevertheless, it is striking how many similarities there are in the way that they coped, their values, and the kind of life that they were able to create post-Holocaust. Those common themes are of particular interest to me, because I have observed them in my own life and in the lives of other survivors whom I have known intimately or professionally or through their creative productions.
A frequently posed question in psychoanalytic circles is one relating to the degree of pathology following trauma. The question of whether survivors are irreparably damaged by their experience, or are resilient and able to make use of their experience, is in my mind an artificial question. It is based on dichotomous thinking and does not do justice to the complexity of responses to traumatic events. Both Anna Ornstein and Henri Parens take issue with the stereotype as I have in my earlier writings (Richman, 2002). In the 1980s, Leo and Rebecca Grinberg (1989), psychoanalysts writing about the trauma of migration and exile wrote, “It has been said, and it seems to be true that survivors of massacres such as the Holocaust and the atomic explosion of Hiroshima inevitably become so disturbed that in their mental states they are like people from another planet” (p. 155). Such pronouncements from professionals in our field have contributed to the misconceptions and stereotypes that exist. Those looking through the lens of pathology will see disturbance while those more inclined to view behavior in the context of adaptation will see resilience.
Survivors I have known, myself included, don’t fit such clear categories. We are complex individuals who are not affected in the same way by our diverse experiences. What we have in common is that we all have scars from wounds that are forever in the process of healing. These scars, which may fade with time and sometimes may be invisible to others, are permanent reminders of what we have lived through but they don’t necessarily prevent us from living productive lives. Henri Parens’s and Anna Ornstein’s rich and fulfilling lives are testaments to their resilience during and in the aftermath of severe trauma.
Anna Ornstein’s My Mother’s Eyes is a collection of stories based on her memories of events that took place in 1944, when as a young girl of seventeen she was imprisoned in Auschwitz along with her mother. The title of the book, which memorializes her bond with her mother, refers to the fact that when they arrived in Auschwitz her mother’s glasses were taken away and Anna became her mother’s eyes and hands. Her mother, in turn, used her brain and wits for both of them. The powerful bond between the two of them was an important factor in their survival.
These stories were originally told around the Seder table and they became a cherished part of her family’s Passover tradition. Each year for twenty-five years, Ornstein reached into her memories and shared a specific moment from her past with her children and the Passover guests. Taken together the stories provide a coherent picture of the author’s experiences. While most of her focus is on the events that took place during the Shoah, there are a few memories from before the war to give us a context, and there are a couple of chapters at the end of the book in which she shares her observations and ideas about the Holocaust. Throughout we see the brilliant psychoanalyst using her training and her experience to make sense of what she lived through and of its impact on her life. As she looks back she brings the wisdom and understanding of the analyst to the memories indelibly etched in her mind.
Ornstein is interested in the workings of memory. She observes that memories of the past become stronger and not dimmer with time as one might expect. She notes that looking at her children and grandchildren stirs those memories. In fact, she was inspired to write the Passover stories by a suggestion from her eldest daughter Sharone, a college freshman at the time—probably around the same age as Ornstein was when she was imprisoned.
Another interesting observation that the author makes is that shared memories have an immensely cathartic effect. I myself have noted this fascinating phenomenon. When I write about emotional events, the words seem to come unencumbered with strong affect that could potentially be disorganizing. It is not until they are read out loud to a friend, or an audience that their full emotional force emerges. My theory about this is that a witness to our suffering provides us with a holding environment that facilitates a fuller integration of the experience.
When Ornstein wavers in her commitment to bring the past into the present, she motivates herself with the recognition that it is through these stories that she memorializes those who have perished. She writes:
During the last few years, each time Passover neared I decided not to write another story. But each time I changed my mind. I believe I cannot stop writing because these stories are memorials I am erecting in the minds of our children. I fear that if I stop writing, stop building the memorial, my children and everyone who reads these stories, will stop remembering the people we have lost—and those who are forgotten are truly dead. (p. 14)
Ornstein recognizes that mourning is a lifelong process, which she welcomes as a way to keep her loved ones with her forever. Through her stories we become acquainted with the lost members of her family, her father and her two older brothers. She shares with us a slice of her life before the Shoah. We also meet her husband-to-be Paul Ornstein, who wrote the preface to her book. This partnership, which has lasted through their forced separation during the war years and resumed when they found each other after the war, is now over sixty years old.
Ornstein’s capacity for joy is alive and well. In fact, she maintains that what she endured makes her appreciate life more. The sense that one gets in reading the book is that young Anna always had, and never lost, the capacity for seeing the silver lining. Remarkably, she was able to find moments of joy even under the worst of circumstances. An interesting example of this is found in the chapter titled “The Tattoo.” We are all at this point familiar with the horror of the numbers tattooed on the arms of inmates at the death factories like Auschwitz. But Ornstein’s description of the experience is quite novel. She tells us that the announcement of the tattoo filled the inmates with optimism because it meant that the Germans intended to keep them alive. She writes “We were proud of our tattoos, which gave us some sort of identity . . . we considered them to be ‘passports’ to life” (pp. 87-88). She then describes in detail how she managed to find the person who did the neatest tattoo and get on that line. She was determined that her tattoo would have small well-shaped numbers.
Anna Ornstein’s formula for survival in a concentration camp was “A bit of alertness, a bit of determination, and lots and lots of good luck” (p. 96). I would add another piece, which she implies but doesn’t directly state. I would call it a rich imaginative life and a capacity for dissociation. She describes how, when standing on those interminable lines, she and her fellow inmates would try to recover lines of a poem or piece together the plot of a novel. These mental games that took her away from her abysmal situation are beautifully described in a chapter called “The Window.” Here she describes how she created an elaborate fantasy about a small house that she passed everyday on the march out of the camp on a work detail. As she returns from hours of labor, exhausted and hungry, in shoes that don’t fit because they belonged to someone else, she finds a way with her creative mind to transport herself to another world. She focuses on the small lace-curtained window of the house and in her mind’s eye she imagines the most intricate details of a room behind the window. She furnishes the room with glowing lamps; books piled high on a night table next to an imaginary bed with clean sheets smelling of soap; she even imagines the drawers of a dresser filled with clean underwear, warm sweaters, and wool socks. Everyday, she looks forward to the fantasy, which she savors and uses to make her life a little easier to bear.
Such a story is not the usual stuff of Holocaust memoirs and gives us a little window into the heart and mind of an adolescent who managed to survive horrific conditions with an inner core of strength and determination intact.
Revisiting places where one’s trauma was experienced is for many survivors a dreaded but also necessary experience. Toward the end of her book the author writes about her return to Auschwitz with her children. She was surprised by a strange feeling of contentment. The presence of the children and grandchildren and a chance to share the memories provided a soothing background for the profound grief that was awakened by the visit. Survivors are keenly aware of the link between generations because for so many of us the link was severed. Having one’s children witness what has been endured is a way of reaffirming the link and ensuring the continuity of generations.
Ornstein’s greatest pride is in her children. She has particular difficulty with the notion of transgenerational transmission of trauma. Her three impressive adult children, all psychiatrists like their parents, are indeed a testament to the limitations of such a concept. No doubt trauma is transmitted intergenerationally, but at the same time there are some wonderful values that are transmitted as well, such as the appreciation of the small joys of life and the recognition that life is precious and never to be taken for granted.
Some have criticized Ornstein for minimizing the devastating effects of the Holocaust. I don’t agree with those so-called trauma specialists who say that she doesn’t acknowledge the tragic consequences. What I believe that she does do is highlight what is usually minimized, which is the potential for personal growth in such experiences. In her emphasis, she attempts to redress the wrongs of those who have pathologized survivors. I personally find her perspective refreshing and enlightening.
Although Henri Parens and Anna Ornstein are contemporaries, Parens was a few years younger when he was caught in the maelstrom of the Holocaust because the Nazis invaded Belgium during the early part of the war and did not get to Hungary, Ornstein’s birthplace, until 1944. Henry Parens had experienced loss even before the Holocaust. His parents separated when he was a young child, and his mother relocated from Poland, where he was born, to Brussels, leaving his older brother and father behind. The bond with his mother was particularly strong, which made their ultimate separation during the Holocaust when he was just 12 years old especially traumatic for him. They had fled for safety to France but had found themselves imprisoned in a concentration camp in Vichy. Parens’s mother had the foresight to urge him to escape while she remained behind and ultimately died in Auschwitz. He found asylum with OSE, a Jewish organization in France that protected and transported refugee children to America. He arrived in America in 1942, and began a new life as a foster child with a Jewish family.
For his memoir, Parens chose the title Renewal of Life: Healing from the Holocaust. So even before we read the book, we know that his focus will be on the positive aspects of recovery from trauma. His book is divided into three sections and only the first part “What Happened to My World,” deals with his childhood trauma. In the remainder of the book he examines the impact of those early years on his adult life and choices. Like Ornstein, but somewhat less subtly, he brings his professional expertise to his self-analysis. In the last section, he gives us detailed information about the professional work that he has been engaged in. His personal experiences have undoubtedly influenced his interest in the early prevention of violence and malignant prejudice. Some readers may find the philosophical sections a bit heavy-handed and a little preachy but the feeling of hope that he communicates may be inspiring to others.
For some time now, I have been interested in the stylistic aspects of autobiographical writing, particularly when the author is not a professional writer. I have found that the most successful work is characterized by a simple understated style, which evokes the emotions in the reader rather than making them explicit in the text. I agree with Paul Ornstein when in the preface of his wife’s book he writes, “The immediacy and unembellished simplicity of her narratives draw her readers into these experiences as if they had been there” (p. 7). In contrast, Parens’s book is replete with repetitions, foreign phrases, and free associations. One wonders why the editors did not take a more active role in shaping the final product.
Although it may be somewhat laborious to get through Parens’s book, it is a challenge worth undertaking because it gives us insight into the mind and heart of a man who has made a commitment to be as honest as he can be. He lets the reader be a witness to his struggle by sharing his doubts, his failings, and his fears. One has the sense that he is working through his trauma in the process of writing about it. He sprinkles foreign phrases throughout the text in what I presume is an attempt to connect with the memories in a more immediate way. Sometimes it feels somewhat obsessive, but most of the time we appreciate the fact that he is less guarded than those who have produced more polished work.
I have found much to identify with in Parens’s work. The link between intense anxiety generated by the psychological work of revisiting the traumatic past and psychosomatic symptoms is brilliantly illustrated in his memoir. Once he decided to write his Holocaust story, he found himself continuously itching and battling severe eczema. This mind-body connection reminded me of my experience in 1990, when I was invited to testify by the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. The night before my interview, my entire body was covered with hives for the first time in my life.
In his attempt to understand the reasons for his resistance to going public with his story prior to now, the author concludes that a conscious reason is that he did not want to burden his patients with the knowledge that he is a Holocaust survivor. I too have grappled with the issue of self-disclosure and I have written about it extensively elsewhere (Richman, in press).
Those of us who have told our stories, despite our reluctance, resistance, and ambivalence are sometimes rewarded with a letter like the one that I received four years after the publication of my memoir. It was sent from Germany by a stranger who had found my book in an English bookshop in what was once East Berlin. He wrote:
I want to thank you for your impressive description of your life. As a German, born 1956, I am very interested in the contemporary witness descriptions and I regret that we haven’t more books about this issue—we couldn’t have enough! The storytelling by the witnesses is important and necessary for the post-war generations (not only) in Germany. Your stories are an admonition that we don’t forget what happened.
As contemporary witnesses, Ornstein and Parens have made a valuable contribution to the literature on the Holocaust. Their works are not only stories of courage, insight, and hope but also important documents to be passed on to future generations.
Grinsberg, L. & Grinsberg, R. (1989). Psychoanalytic perspectives on migration and exile. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ornstein, A. (2004). My mother’s eyes. Cincinnati OH: Emmis Books.
Parens, H. (2004). Renewal of life: Healing from the holocaust. Rockville, MD: Schreiber Publishing.
Richman, S. (2002). A wolf in the attic: The legacy of a hidden child of the holocaust. New York: The Haworth Press.
Richman, S. (in press). When the analyst writes a memoir: Clinical implications of biographic disclosure. Contemporary Psychoanalysis.
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