A Wolf in the Attic: The Legacy of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust (Book Review)

Author:  Richman, Sophia 
Publisher:  New York, NY: The Haworth Press, 2002
Reviewed By:  Ghislaine Boulanger, Fall 2002, pp. 38-40

Integrating A Traumatic Legacy

“The real behavior of survivors often goes unobserved because it is covert and undramatic, not at all in accord with our expectations of heroism.”
Terrence des Pres, The Survivors.

During the Division 39 meetings in Santa Fe last year I came across a piece of sculpture commemorating a massacre. It was a roughly fashioned adobe monolith some ten feet tall; stuck into the four foot plinth on which the monolith rested were fragments of everyday life, children’s plastic toys, a sock, a toothbrush, a teddy bear, plates and cups, a framed picture partly obscured. The shocking poignancy of these familiar little objects scattered in and by the enormity of the memorial conveyed at a glance a meaning that words alone must struggle to contain. How do you simultaneously describe the personal losses and the vastness of genocide? Finding a way to “tell” trauma is always a tricky business. Whether it is a memoir, a biography, or a narrative spoken to a therapist, finding the words to describe it, to relive it, to bear witness to it and ultimately to make meaning of it is no small feat. Sometimes words are too much, sounding shrill or mawkish; more often they are not enough, becoming numb and impersonal. Either way, the meaning has been leeched out of them. Sophia Richman set herself a very difficult task, not only to find the words in which to describe her life in the shadow of the Shoah, but to talk about it personally. In so doing she neither overly dramatizes nor does she alienate.

In 1941, Sophia Richman was born Zofia Reichman to an assimilated Jewish couple living in Lwow, which was at that time under Russian occupation. Within six months of her birth, the Germans had invaded Lwow and before her first birthday her father had been interned in Janowska, “the most infamous concentration camp in Galicia.” Passing herself off as a Catholic widow, Zofia’s mother moved with her baby daughter to a village outside Lwow, living in poverty and in terror of being found out. The danger of discovery was compounded when her father succeeded in escaping from the concentration camp and hid in the attic above his wife and daughter, by now a toddler. The tremendous burden of keeping this unexplained and often frightening presence a secret left an indelible mark on his little daughter. With the retreat of the Nazis, the family returned to Lwow. Of the 150,000 Jews who lived there before the Nazi invasion, Zofia, her parents, and a baby sister born while the family was in hiding, who died when she was still an infant, were among the less than 3000 who survived. Three years later Zofia is Sophie, an imaginative, shy, rather awkward French schoolgirl living in Paris, disappointed to discover that she is Jewish, and therefore not eligible for a First Communion. When she is ten the family moves again, this time to America, where Sophie is relieved to be taken for an interesting French immigrant rather than a stigmatized refugee from Poland. Five years later she is Sophia, a typical first generation American teenager, resentful of and embarrassed by her immigrant parents. By the age of twenty she is a college student more interested in her boyfriend than her studies. Within two decades she has become Dr. Sophia Richman, a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, once again a keeper of secrets.

This unlikely trajectory is made all the more unlikely by Dr. Richman’s determination to write not only about the legacy of the Holocaust but to write about it in the context of a life that has not been defined by that fact alone. Sifting through crosscutting and often contradictory affiliations and identities—Jew or Catholic, survivor of the Holocaust or of a happy childhood, emigrant or native American—some a matter of life or death, some a question of convenience, Dr. Richman describes how she finally started to locate herself in this thicket of possibilities. This journey took on increasing urgency once she had given birth to a daughter of her own.

I want to talk briefly about what this book is not because in its quiet and unassuming way it is easy to miss what it is. Too often in accounts of the Holocaust and other horrors, the writer’s subjective voice is lost. It is as if the double burden of bearing witness and the pain of reliving forces the self into a retreat. Dr. Richman’s father published a scrupulously documented account of his experiences in Janowska; his narrative wavers between the first person and the third in his determination to be objective. Extracts taken from this terse memoir show it to be devoid of a personal voice. The details of life in Janowska are horrifying, but the writer’s outrage overwhelms us in our attempt to get to know him.

I am reminded of Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) comment that the epic hero in literature, who, like the survivor is created during a period of turbulence, speaks in a voice that is inaccessible to personal experience. The epic hero, Bakhtin contends, is not a subject in his own right but a representative of a “sacred past” (p. 12). And so it can be for those who bear witness to massive psychic trauma: the task can be overwhelming, the sacred past dominates the present. Often the survivor appears to have forfeited everything else in becoming identified with the struggle to survive and to remember those who did not. Rather than offering personal details with which others can identify, the witness has no personality of her own; it is as if she has turned to stone. In the face of these accounts, the listener or reader is left diminished and helpless, awed by the horrors that have been survived, but hopeless to do anything about it. This is the struggle we analysts face daily in working with trauma. How do we become active witnesses to our patients who are themselves struggling to bear witness, without ourselves being turned to stone? How do we eventually enable these same patients to more fully inhabit their own narratives?

Bakhtin contrasts the impersonal, tragic tone of the epic with an account written subjectively in which there is a “continuing and unfinished present” (p. 30). What makes A Wolf in the Attic different from so many accounts by survivors of the Holocaust and other disasters is that the story goes beyond the family’s immediate survival, the terror of discovery, the privations and deceptions, the traumatic discontinuity of emigration and the all-absorbing task of building a life in the New World, to the present day and addresses that continuing and unfinished present.

Dr. Richman shows courage in writing not only about the epic events that shaped her life but particularly in revealing how she coped with the little endurances that are part of every life. It was in these small details that the dissociated Holocaust experiences began to make their affective presence known. Today psychoanalysts working with adults who have had traumatic childhoods are familiar with the ways in which split off aspects of the trauma defy narrative memory, emerging in fragments, apparently divorced from context, easy to distrust. Some early experiences thrust themselves into consciousness in bewildering enactments, bewildering because the experiences they are evoking are unformulated. Dr. Richman describes the way in which the dissociated aspects of her past emerged continually and apparently inexplicably to trip her up. For example, there was the failure to acknowledge a painful parting as an adult, which was the legacy of a small child who originally sustained that loss and had condemned that small self to silence. She recalls the puzzling pleasure she frequently took in passing as someone else. And time after time she is hampered by the voice that cannot speak up in case it betrays her. As an analysand and an analyst Dr. Richman has learned to observe and to understand these processes. She describes her ongoing work of integration, gathering up the shards and fashioning them into the continuous and unfinished present to which Bakhtin refers.

It was not always so. One thread that runs through Dr. Richman’s account of the years she spent metabolizing her past is how little help she got from the first several therapists she consulted. Initially, Dr. Richman fell victim to the uneasy relationship between psychoanalysis and the Holocaust. For many years psychoanalysts were disinterested in accounts from survivors, turning from the outside world to the battles waged within (Boulanger, 2002). But a new, more responsive psychoanalytic climate has emerged, in part propelled by the determination of those who survived trauma to be given a fair hearing and to find appropriate treatment.

In general, the broad palate of the second half of the twentieth century’s changing attitude to the Shoah is reflected in this one life. Today, close to sixty years after the Nazi concentration camps were dismantled, the public is preoccupied with the Holocaust. It is instructive to remember, however, that acts of genocide rarely enter public awareness until at least ten years have passed since they were committed. Immediately after the camps were liberated, the world held its breath and looked away, as if it had been struck dumb by a horror beyond words. Survivors were received with suspicion. Dr. Richman recalls “victims evoked mixed feelings in others; besides compassion there is often a sense of contempt for weakness. Vulnerability makes people anxious, it’s like a contagious disease, like seeing your own fragility reflected in the eyes of others” (p. 82). As is so often the way with memories that have never been spoken, Dr. Richman’s status as a survivor was both known and not known to her. On one level, the publication of The Diary of Ann Frank first alerted her to the Holocaust as it did many of us. On another level, it provided words and concepts for her to start to think about her early life. But even as she began to formulate an understanding of her parents’ status as survivors, her own experiences seemed irrelevant, and her parents concurred, reasoning that as a child, without memory and awareness, she had been spared. “Although I was on the inside I was excluded from the club. Membership was restricted to those who had suffered; I did not qualify because I was too young to have been aware of events going on around me” (p. 82).

From the late nineteen seventies into the nineteen eighties, the second generation began to digest their parents’ Holocaust experiences and to describe what it was like to live in a family emotionally disfigured by events that were barely acknowledged. With growing public interest in the Holocaust there was less shame for those who survived, “it becomes a badge of courage rather than a stigma.” Dr. Richman could partly identify with these second generation survivors, but she was faced with a particular dilemma: children of Holocaust survivors were frequently seen as “memorial candles…invested with the memories and hopes of their parents” (p. 161), she, on the other hand, was not supposed to remember her own beginnings. Finally a concept emerged that did justice her own experience and offered a framework in which to fit that experience. She met others who had been hidden as children, who like her were not supposed to have any memory of their experiences during the war; some of whom, like her, believed they had been protected from emotional hardship. As adults they were still in hiding, hiding the child self who had to pretend to be happy despite the obvious fears of the adults around them. They found themselves prey to inexplicable anxieties about traveling or running out of food; frequently they were surprised by a secret self who would start to cry when reference was made to the Holocaust.

This book, written out of a sense of urgency—in his introduction, Spyros Orfanos, Dr. Richman’s husband, calls it an act of revenge—is one more major step in coming out of hiding. It is one in a series of Holocaust related publications from the Haworth Press addressed to the lay public but, in this case, seen through a psychoanalyst’s eye. Throughout her courageous and revealing story, Dr. Richman educates her readers about the psychology of survival, and addresses questions of theory and technique. What is remarkable today is that the events she describes have become, maybe in the spirit of this review I should say are becoming, metabolized. They leave their impression, but they are not always rising to the top. As professionals, the lessons we can take from it are those we know but need to keep in mind, survivors are neither “permanently damaged nor amazingly resilient” as Dr. Richman says in her concluding lines. The self is constantly in process, the effects of trauma seek and find many forms of expression in the course of that process, but they are only part of the story.

References

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
Boulanger, G. (2002). The cost of survival: Psychoanalysis and adult onset trauma, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38, p. 17-44.
Des Pres, T. (1976). The survivor: An anatomy of life in the death camps. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reviewer Note

Ghislaine Boulanger. is a psychologist psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She is a member of the teaching and supervisory faculty in the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.

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