Andriani: Echoes of the Past: Some of the Underlying Nuances of Holocaust Trauma in Israel

The Armenian Weekly
April 2010 Magazine


Those that are able to flee or survive genocide are faced with far more than an adaptive process of relocation. Not only are survivors grieving the loss of their families and friends, or dealing with the repercussions of the violence they have witnessed, but they have been uprooted from their homes, rendered essentially stateless, and in a sense, stripped of their traditional roles of identification. A discourse of trauma develops on a national level to promote action and change, but are the individual voices recounting trauma silenced or heard? If trauma is not successfully healed at the individual level, what repercussions does this have on the community? The nation?

This article explores the trauma of the Holocaust and its resonance in Israel specifically. I will aim to define trauma, both individual and collective, and the way in which trauma is appropriated and transformed. I have reviewed for this purpose key literature across disciplines, specifically in psychology, sociology, psychoanalysis, history, and political studies.

Defining psychological trauma

A traumatic experience numbs, unsettles, fosters anxiety, overwhelms, destroys trust, challenges one’s sense of safety, and creates feelings of powerlessness (Herman 1992; LaCapra 2004; Davoine and Gaudilliere 1994). The experience of trauma also affects one’s memory of it (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 1995). Dissociative symptoms are common, representing a disconnection from self, which in turn affects one’s sense of identity (Herman 1992; LaCapra 2004).

Scholars such as Dominick LaCapra (1998, 2004), Judith Herman (1992), and Cathy Caruth (1995) contend that trauma is much like a gap that cannot be filled, an open wound that will not heal, or an infectious disease: It contaminates, and spreads past boundaries of time and space, its memories refusing to sink into the past.

The “resistance” of trauma, its refusal to take its place in the past, ruptures memory and shatters identity (LaCapra 1998; Davoine and Gaudilliere 2004). Because the Holocaust remains such an indigestible experience, the inability to integrate emotions of the experience and the failure to understand the experience fully lead to flashbacks and hallucinations, as well as nightmares (Caruth 1995; LaCapra 1998; Krystal 1995). Other symptoms include hyperarousal—an over-reaction to outside stimuli, anxiety, depression, guilt, and a focus on the past (Herman 1992; Krystal 1995; Caruth 1996). These intrusive symptoms exist in conjunction with symptoms of psychic numbing, which include repression, isolation, cutting off of feelings or emotional numbness, denial, and dissociation. Many survivors no longer feel like people, but rather enter a constricted survival mode that leads to “psychological atrophy,” that is, dying psychologically while being physically alive (Herman 1992: 86).

Issues of personal representation

Representation becomes complex on several overlapping levels of emotion, content of memory, transmission, and language. First, if the memory of the trauma is transmitted through narrative, a certain emotional distance is necessary in order to convey the traumatic event without reliving it (LaCapra 2004; Caruth 1995). Secondly, the “accuracy” of traumatic memories is questionable, as memory is often affected by the terror of an experience (Young 1997: 22). Third, the disconnection from a traumatic memory that allows the victim to survive the trauma in itself creates a “crisis of truth” because the event cannot fully be processed—and cannot fully be expressed because it does not fully register in the minds of the victim (Caruth 1995: 9).

But what would happen if the full transmission or representation of trauma could occur? Trauma can be “contagious”—it is transmitted to the children of survivors, and is relived by those who experienced it (LaCapra 2004). Insidious and vicarious trauma are “transmitted” traumas. Insidious trauma is what Laura Brown labels trauma that can be found in the second generation of survivors of the Holocaust (1995). Vicarious trauma is best defined by a horizontal transmission: It is not directly experienced but is transmitted through symbolic extension and psychological identification to non-survivors (Alexander 2004: 199).

Ruptures within the community: cultural trauma

The traumatogenic change affects the culture of the community: It affects values, norms, patterns and rules, roles, ideas and beliefs, narratives and symbols, and worldviews. “Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (emphasis added, Alexander 1995:1).

While research in psychological trauma demonstrates that it exists, only a relatively small percentage of those exposed are traumatized. Cultural trauma, on the other hand, reflects a collective manifestation thereof (Meierhenrich 2007). Cultural trauma is socially mediated, and can occur at the time of the trauma or can be retrospectively attributed to a collective memory. Cultural trauma is associated with an event that is represented as “indelible” within the collective; it carries negative emotions for the group and threatens the society’s existence (Smelser 2004: 44). Cultural trauma therefore explores the social dynamics of trauma within a community rather than the psychological dynamics that affect individual identity (Meierhenrich 2007).

Additional layers: social death and natal alienation

Trauma survivors experience even those closest to them as “others” because they cannot relate, and these do not substitute for those lost during the Holocaust. Survivors are often judged by those who have no understanding of what it means to be a survivor (Herman 1992: 115). Traumatized people come to have a different worldview, a changed self, and a changed way of relating to others: They no longer live in the illusion of safety provided by culture; rather they believe something bad is bound to happen again since it has happened in the past (Erikson 1995). As Judith Herman states, “traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than the living” (1992: 52).

For Holocaust survivors who fled from genocide, the trauma was not just one of genocide as a traumatic event, but also one of loss, one of radical life change, and one of forcibly having to adapt to a new environment and identity, frequently as second-class citizens through relocation. Several studies of genocide refugees indicate that this adjustment to a new land does not equate to the creation of a new sense of home (Khattak 2002; Warriner 2007; Cainkar, Abunimah, and Raei 2004; Tribe 2005; Gozdziak 2002). Leaving the homeland does not simply represent the leaving of a physical space and security but the disconnect that thereby occurs from one’s sense of self, one’s culture, and one’s history.

Here I will borrow from Claudia Card’s work on genocide and social death (2003), in which she uses Patterson’s concept of “social death”—first used in the context of African slavery in the U.S.—to define a parallel process of disconnection in genocide. Descendants of the socially dead in turn become “natally alienated,” that is to say they are “no longer able to pass along and build upon the traditions, cultural developments (including languages), and projects of earlier generations” (Card 2003: 73). Card’s use of these terms is flexible. Her focus is on the loss of cultural heritage that results from lost family ties, dislocation, and transformations caused by genocide. This is not to question the death of individual Jewish tradition, but rather the victim’s ability to sustain connections to those traditions. Social death therefore encompasses a variety of aspects of the Holocaust: indecent deaths and the inability to bury bodies properly, loss of family ties and generational heritage, loss of communities, and loss of traditions, values, and the ability to maintain rituals. Natal alienation is the birth of children to subsequent generations in which the community has been destroyed and the ties to past generations have been severed through separation and death. For refugees of the Holocaust who immigrated to Israel, social death and natal alienation are applicable concepts that highlight the link between psychological trauma and cultural trauma.

Israel and the Holocaust

Survivors in Israel experienced increased recognition of trauma that was the result of witnessing violence and death, but an overall failure to address the ongoing trauma of being uprooted and stripped of their roles of identification and culture, that is, their social death and cultural trauma. This failure, one could speculate, is tied to the political desire to maintain a united front in the establishment and promotion of Israel (Burg 2008; Segev 1991). Zionism provided an ideology with which to transform a persecuted minority group into a migrating group that would create its own nation by resettling in Palestine (Shapira 1998: 220). This ideology, in Ben-Gurion’s mind, developed into a culture of defense, as this minority group developed into a group fighting for its freedom—therefore steering away from a narrative of trauma (Shapira 1997: 653). There was also an underlying expectation that Jewish exiles arriving in Israel would, out of loyalty to their new country, abandon their old selves in order to emulate the Sabra—the ideal Jewish-Israeli archetype (Zerubavel 2002; Segev 1991). The analysis of the survivors’ encounters with humanitarian aid institutions, Zionist activities that influenced survivors towards Zionist goals, or fought to get Jewish children back to the Jewish people regardless of what was best for the children, points to a discrepancy between survivor needs and institution interests, and highlights the intertwining of the personal and political in the aftereffects of trauma (Reick 2009).

How has this affected the Israeli psyche?

The Holocaust should be remembered, but the way in which it is being remembered in the present is interfering with Israel’s ability to experience its independence (Burg 2008). Israel gives more voice to its dead than its living, thus adopting a “sword” mentality through which everything is understood and explained by force (Burg 2008). Israel lives in a constant state of emergency. Burg’s (2008) concern as a politician is reflected in the social psychological research of Daniel Bar-Tal and his colleagues who developed the concepts of victimhood and siege mentality, and analyzed it using quantitative methodologies. Victimhood is defined as “…a state of individual and collective ethnic mind that occurs when the traditional structures that provide an individual sense of security and self-worth through membership in a group are shattered by aggressive, violent political outsiders. Victimhood can be characterized by either an extreme or persistent sense of mortal vulnerability” (Montville in Rosenberg 2003).

The components of victimhood therefore are a past of trauma and aggression that is perceived as unjustified, ongoing fear of past aggressors, and a sense of the world’s indifference to one’s plight (Rosenberg 2003). These components are present in the aftermath of the Holocaust in Israel.

Siege mentality is a derivative of victimhood, a collective symptom grounded in the “mental state in which group members hold a central belief that the rest of the world has negative behavioral intentions towards them” (Bar-Tal, in press). This belief is accompanied by ethnocentrism, which develops out of a sense that the group is “alone” in the world; this leads to a sense of threat to the group, which then justifies group self-defense by any means (Bar-Tal and Antebi 1992). Both victimhood and siege mentality paradigms acknowledge the prominence of fear and vulnerability in affecting a group’s perception of “self” and “other.”

In Israel, siege mentality was born of the Jewish past of persecution (found also in Biblical reference), which was reinforced and confirmed by the occurrence of the Holocaust—a “metaphor for Jewish history itself” (Bar-Tal and Antebi 1992: 253; 1992b). Research indicates that while siege mentality may vary in intensity over time and in different religious or political subgroups of Israel, it continues to permeate in Israeli culture (Bar-Tal and Antebi 1992b).

The literature across disciplines returns to these collective patterns of isolation, mistrust, hyper-reactivity, and insecurity that stem from the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a “chosen trauma” (Volkan 1997) or cultural trauma—an experience that survivors as a group have been unable to mourn and has thus become integrated into a traumatic collective memory; this leads to a collective focus on the group’s past victimization, which in turn may affect the group’s identity.

Politics of trauma: the manipulation of Holocaust memory

Collective trauma forges a collective identity through ritual and commemoration, so that even those that did not experience the trauma can remember it by participating in rituals (Giesen 2004). The memorial or museum are built within a political and cultural context that has an impact on what is memorialized and how it is memorialized, and thus what is remembered, how it is remembered, and more subtly what is also forgotten (Young 1993). In essence, according to Young (1993), these memorials tie past to present, destruction to construction of a new land, death to a new life in a new land, and victimhood to heroization. For example, Yad Vashem and its outdoor memorials built on mount Herzl reflect the conjoining narratives of the heroes and victims of the Holocaust with a focus on resistance and resilience. The observation of two minutes of silence in Israel as a ritual during Memorial Day creates both a sense of common past and common future, thus uniting all Israelis regardless of their relationship to the Holocaust.

When the personal becomes political: the ethics of trauma manipulation

While Holocaust memorialization in Israel has given voice to survivors and opened a space where the personal has become political, it has simultaneously shaped the personal into political. Holocaust museums, memorials, memorial days, and testimonies are socio-politically “edited” to meet broader political goals and fit a national discourse so that aspects of the trauma remain hidden or buried, and aspects of the personal are erased: “The progressive narrative demanded a future-oriented renewal. Zionists argued that the Jewish trauma could be redeemed, that Jews could both sanctify the victims and put the trauma behind them, only if they returned to Jerusalem. According to the Zionist worldview, if Israel were allowed to exist, it would create a new race of confident and powerful Jewish farmer-warriors, who would redeem the anti-Jewish atrocities by developing such an imposing military power that the massive murdering of the Jews would never, anywhere in the world, be allowed to happen again” (Alexander 2004: 220).

The Israeli national narrative is redemptive in nature. It is a narrative that has taken the Holocaust as a founding trauma for Israel. This discourse implies that the trauma is now over. This is where the personal and trauma are buried within the public and political. What is buried are those aspects of the personal experience that challenge the national narrative, or that threaten collective identity and cohesiveness. Social death and natal alienation are buried under the rise of a new national discourse that is rooted in the myth of returning to one’s land and denouncing exilic past. National discourse revolves around unity and integrity, but it does so by creating an image of wholeness, fullness, and closure that is imaginary because it discards the ruptures in trauma caused by mass violence, as well as the ruptures in traditions, rituals, and cultural legacies (Edkins 2003). These traditions are replaced with memorialization of the Holocaust and the ritualization of national mourning.

The psychoanalytic concept of working-through, which is applicable on an individual level, becomes increasingly complex on a cultural or collective level. A blurred understanding exists as to how the working-through is occurring and whether it has been successful. Very little in the literature agrees as to what it would mean to have successfully worked through trauma, to have successfully grieved the Holocaust.

The extensive review of literature certainly suggests that in Israel the trauma of the Holocaust has transformed, but not necessarily subsided. The recent increase in memorialization of the Holocaust indicates that it is a process that is becoming more institutionalized and not routinized or forgotten. New museums are designed to elicit strong emotions from visitors in order to more deeply induce psychological identification and broaden “symbolic extension,” thus making the process of working-through elusive (Alexander 2004: 255). In Israel, dynamics of memorialization are complexly intertwined with a political agenda for redemption and national pride.

The Holocaust has been appropriated in Israel for the broader political goals of developing collective unity and a national identity, and justifying military action (Bar-Tal and Antebi 1992a). These short-term national goals appear to have “splintered” the socio-psychological process of working-through, leading the discourse of trauma and its transformation in various directions for nationbuilding. In essence, the lessons and legacies of the Holocaust in Israel have overlooked psychic healing in favor of other lessons that have more “national currency” but lend themselves to trauma renewal in order to sustain unity.


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Cristina Andriani

Cristina Andriani

Cristina Andriani is a Ph.D. student in the psychology of genocide at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Her research interests are in the mutual impact of Holocaust trauma and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on Jewish-Israeli understanding and experience of past and present. Two key questions she seeks to answer are: How does past Holocaust trauma affect Jewish-Israelis’ current understanding and experience of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? And, how does the experience of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict affect Jewish-Israeli Holocaust memory? Recent publications include Chaitin, J., Awaad, S., and Andriani, C. (2009) “Belonging to the conflict: collective identities among Israeli and Palestinian emigres to the U.S.” in Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture; and Andriani, C. and Manning, J. (in press) “‘Negotiating With the Dead’: On the Past of Auschwitz and the Present of Oswiecim” in Psychology & Society.

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