September 27th, 2016

Holocaust stories: temperament and trauma [Part I]

[Hat tip: Open Blogger at Ace’s.]

[NOTE: Part II can be found here.]

Here is a fascinating interview with an elderly concentration camp survivor. If you’ve read or heard many camp survivors’ tales, the horrors he faced will not surprise you. But that’s not why I’m linking to the interview, because I assume you’re all familiar with the almost unimaginable type of brutality this man experienced.

No, I’m linking because of statements such as these:

Q: In those dark days how did you find the strength to survive? Did you ever want to give up so the suffering would end?

A: Well, the answer to that question is simply that it’s human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them.

But I didn’t think that I was any different than any other person. At least at that time, I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to survive – to get by every day, to stay out of the way, not to be as visible, because these – I don’t know what to call them – these monsters…just look for any kind of reason to pull someone out to kill them, to set an example…

And I was always very… don’t know how to say it? I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.

I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important, and I had to do everything humanly possible to survive, not to give them a reason or a cause to pull me out, and kill me.

The speaker (who is not named in the excerpt) seems to think he wasn’t unusual. But I would say he is quite unusual. In fact, since most people did not survive the camps he was in (Auschwitz and Dachau), there is no question he had unusual mental and physical strength. He says it is “human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them”—and that’s true, up to a point. But some people in the camps did give up, and it hastened their deaths (that is, if they had been spared to work in the first place; most people who arrived at death camps were killed on arrival).

The speaker had been a young man during the war, probably in his early-to-mid-teens. He was smart; he figured out that keeping a low profile would be a good thing under those circumstances, and that helped. But I think the most revealing statement he made in that passage was “I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.” He had a vigorous and naturally optimistic life force that held him in good stead throughout some of the most trying circumstances human beings can ever experience.

Perhaps he was born that way.

Perhaps it was also due in part to his happy family life, which he describes this way, “I came from a wonderful loving home, a family of 7.” This can help to give a person unusual strength of will and personality, the ability to be a survivor. And yet somewhat paradoxically it was not his happy memories that helped him, at least not consciously, although I believe the joy and loving support he had experienced while growing up gave him tremendous internal strength. But in order to get through the ordeal, his mind seems to have suppressed those loving memories and kept him in the present moment:

I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important…

He wasn’t comparing this to what had been; he was just focused on the act of survival.

After tremendous horrors, he was liberated and restored to health, and then came to America:

Q: What was your initial experience of America when you first arrived in 1947?

A: Well, when I was arrived, I was very, very overcome. I was impressed. It was just overwhelming to me.

First, I arrived in New York harbor, and of course, the skyscrapers, the lifestyle… I made a sort of promise to myself then: This is going to be the first day of your life. From this day on, there is only ONE place to go: SUCCEED. I will build a family, I will do whatever I can in my power to succeed in this United States of America.

And this was my first impression. I liked what I seen. I met people who I thought were industrious, with businesses and families and love…there’s respect. I loved what I saw in America. I became American in my heart immediately. So I adopted America, and I am glad America adopted me, and allowed me to be part of it, and become a citizen.

Again, it seems as though he had a rare ability to blot out the past and in this case to focus on a happier future. He also was one of those people who—no matter where they are born—have an American spirit and immediately recognize America as the place for them. America suited him.

The following passage in particular shows the sort of extraordinary emotional fortitude and upbeat nature this man has:

Q: Have you or any other survivors you’ve met had to deal with PTSD or other mental health issues after the war ended? How were you able to go through it?

A: Post-traumatic stress, is that what you’re saying?

I didn’t have very much of that.

I knew…there were no surprises. I knew exactly what was happening in the camps. I went through it every day.

So after liberation, I really did not have that much stress, because after going through hell, everything is paradise.

I knew I had to work hard in order to achieve my dream, to be successful in this world, but to have post-traumatic stress… I didn’t. I dunno. Maybe because i was too young, I didn’t realize. But to me, every day was a gift from heaven.

So after going through what I went through – everything was easy. It was simple.

To some people – things may look hard, like hard work, or digging ditches, or who knows what you’re doing that’s hard. To me, it was a pleasure, work. I’m doing this as a free man, a free person!

But this feeling was certainly not universal. Some survivors were so overwhelmed by what had happened to them in the camps that they committed suicide. In fact, the suicide attempt rate for Holocaust survivors living in Israel has been found in one study to be three times higher than the suicide rate in the rest of the aging population there. In addition:

Earlier studies had shattered another myth, that despite the intense suffering in the concentration camps, few inmates tried to commit suicide. These studies found that while 100 suicides per 100,000 people is considered a very high rate in normal times, the rate in the camps was about 25,000 suicides per 100,000 people, or almost one out of every four people.

“As far as is known, this is the highest suicide rate in human history,” Barak said. “We’ve learned that religious people in Auschwitz and other camps made formal applications to rabbis in the camps seeking permission to commit suicide.”

People exposed to similar experiences react differently. I make no negative judgement on any of them, because what they were subjected to was so extreme that I am astounded that any of them could go on to live a relatively happy and normal life.

[Part II coming soon.]

24 Responses to “Holocaust stories: temperament and trauma [Part I]”

  1. Artfldgr Says:

    See: Logotherapy – Viktor Frankl
    a major point of his work begins from the same kind of question…

  2. Cornhead Says:

    And Islam is running the same thing on a smaller scale today while Obama does nothing.

  3. Big Maq Says:

    “He says it is “human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them”—and that’s true, up to a point. But some people in the camps did give up, and it hastened their deaths … But I think the most revealing statement he made in that passage was “I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.” He had a vigorous and naturally optimistic life force that held him in good stead throughout some of the most trying circumstances human beings can ever experience.” – Neo

    Interesting. He was not a “burn it all down” personality – he never gave up.

  4. Yancey Ward Says:

    You control that which you control. The survivor had control over whether or not to kill himself, and his attitude towards life is what got him over that hurdle. The rest of it was beyond his control.

    I can’t even imagine what it must have been like in the camps even though I am well versed in the history. I am thankful for that every time I think about it.

  5. n.n Says:

    The Nazis had their gas chambers. The left and rightwing liberals have their abortion chambers, and Planned Parenthood has its Mengele division. Each a “final solution” to address unwanted and inconvenient human lives, and their cannibalism for profit, respectively.

    A reconciliation of religious/moral, natural, and personal imperatives is a hard problem as in, apparently, intractable, that requires receiving religious/moral instruction from the twilight zone and liberal judges to rationalize their avoidance in active denial.

    Unfortunately, this is not “one-child”, but “selective-child”, and there are enough “good” Americans who will defend and defer to the special and peculiar interests of a progressive psychosis.

    I don’t believe that there will ever be a museum to exhibit the atrocities committed by the Pro-Choice Church. Well, not until progressive corruption reaches a dysfunctional convergence and the cycle is reset granting a temporary reprieve from liberalism and other unprincipled/selective ideologies.

  6. Sharon W Says:

    Very interesting. I, too, was thinking of Viktor Frankl (and his book Man’s Search for Meaning) while reading this. He treated over 30,000 people for depression, post-war. I also thought of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe who took the place of a prisoner selected for the starvation bunker. These stories of surviving/coping with dire circumstances are compelling. I find that in my Magnificat missal, when the daily meditation records reflections from a martyr or survivor of the Nazi persecution, I read more closely.

  7. Ben David Says:

    The parents of childhood friends of mine were Holocaust survivors. My friends were the second set of children for both parents.

    They lived in a semi-detached brick row house in the suburban boroughs of New York City, like Archie Bunker’s. The living-dining room was painted a vivid robins-egg blue – the color of a happy summer sky. That was an act of will.

    Over the course of our youth, we sometimes heard one of them chide/divert the other from falling into self-pity. Don’t know how often that happened.

  8. blert Says:

    My Uncle survived Dora’s sondercommando detail.

    Unlike Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor, Dora had no crematoria.

    Instead, the victims were compelled to dig their own graves, and then thrown in. Execution was always by way of a baton to the head — delivered up close an personal, of course.

    Dora, for those unaware, was the hell camp that produced the V-2, V-1 and was slated to produce an entire range of exotic weapons to reverse the course of Nazi defeat.

    It was so secret that its mail was always sent to Buchenwald — and then routed up by SS courier into the Hartz mountains.

    On paper, Dora was deemed a sub-camp of Buchenwald — which was a lie — as it was miles and miles away in its own world. ( Dora = sub-camp “D” in German military lingo. )

    You’ll see Wiki and other accounts telling of Dora prisoners being sent off to Buchenwald for cremation. That NEVER happened. All victims were buried in the forests around Dora.

    The SS was never going to haul anyone miles away for ‘disposal.’ And Buchenwald never had crematoria of any scale, either.

    Dora is often conflated with “Nordhausen,” which started with the US Army’s occupation of the complex. Such a terminology was never used by the SS.

    Even now authors write of Dora with error at every turn.

    It was also not known as Dora-Mittelbau, either, just Dora.

    Mittelbau (metal works) is a reference to the syndicate that owned the production assets — all high ranking Nazis, of course.

    “Mittelbau” was used as cover name that carried no import of what was going on or the shear scale of events. One might think it was a tiny welding shop, not a huge war plant.


    What kept my Uncle and his fellow victims going was each other.

    Each Tuesday, his SS guard would murder half of the detail with his truncheon. Consequently, the ‘turn-over’ in the Dora sondercommando details was astounding. It was a rare man that lasted three Tuesdays.

    Yet, my Uncle survived for months.

    Eventually the PTSD got to him, and he committed suicide decades after the war.

  9. blert Says:

    When they weren’t burying their own peers, the Dora details were burying victims truncheoned to death inside the production works, or blown to bits during blasting operations to expand the tunnel complex.

    Dora was weird in one way: all victims had been processed through other hell camps first.

    Only robust men were sent to Dora.

    Then, at the end, during the Nazi collapse, that ‘system’ broke down. Both Buchenwald and Dora became the dumping ground for every victim that the SS could force march away from the Allied armies.

    At the time, our boys did not realize quite what they were looking at.

  10. huxley Says:

    These studies found that while 100 suicides per 100,000 people is considered a very high rate in normal times, the rate in the camps was about 25,000 suicides per 100,000 people, or almost one out of every four people.

    I always wondered about that. Other than occasionally reading about some poor soul who made a run for the electric fence to die, I believed the myth that few inmates committed suicide, but it never sat well with me.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    I thought the comments section gave a good view of non mainstream uses of the Holocaust, for every day people under Judaism.

    There’s always the unofficial perspective, along with the official one. I find due to the ease of use of the internet and comment threads, people will speak their true heart’s desires, when they wouldn’t in a different format.

    How some members of Judaism choose to view Christianity vis a vis the Holocaust, was what interested me.

  12. groundhog Says:

    The Japanese were no slouches at making misery on people during WWII either.

  13. huxley Says:

    From my reading on the Holocaust, the camps were designed to kill everyone and were horrifyingly effective.

    I’m sure having a positive mental attitude gave one an edge for surviving longer or possibly managing an successful escape (quite rare) as Viktor Frankl did, but the real strategy for surviving the camps — assuming one was not gassed right off the train — was to arrive at the camp late enough in the war to be rescued by the allies. Typically inmates died within 7-8 months.

    Which is not to dismiss psychological resourcefulness in the face of most dire adversity, but that wasn’t enough to guarantee survival. Who knows how many Frankls or speakers as in this article with great attitudes towards life died because they were in the camp another three or four months?

  14. neo-neocon Says:


    My condolences about your uncle. What a horrific set of cards he was dealt.

  15. neo-neocon Says:



    Some people with a great attitude died within hours of arriving at the camps.

    I have always been reluctant to criticize Frankl because (a) he’s got a lot more knowledge about the camps than I; and (b) I think there’s some truth in what he writes. However, his message has always had troubling aspects, and the main one is that it seems to blame the victims. Survivors were very very few, and in many cases survival was indeed dependent on late arrival at the camps—among many other reasons, all of which had to come together to enable a person to survive, and the confluence of all those elements did not happen often at all.

    This post is not really about camp survival, however, so much as recovering afterward and what helped people to deal with that. I am convinced that some of it was innate temperament.

  16. blert Says:


    After the US Army put the SS out of business, they put the locals to work, attending to the dead. The US Medical Corps attended to the living. ( No American trusted ANY German in such matters. )

    Our officers simply did not believe that the locals were ignorant of Dora.

    But, the German civilians WERE telling the truth.

    The SS had walled off Dora from the outside world — completely.

    It was for secrecy that the SS would not use guns to murder the victims. The mountain’s acoustics would report such discharges all the way to Nordhausen, the nearest burg.

    ( Nordhausen => North (pig) sty ) — What a strange title for a minor town.

    The whole reason for Dora’s name was to make the camp invisible even within SS records. THAT’S how secret it was. It was Area 51 for the Nazis.

    BTW, Area 51 is a US MILITARY ADDRESS exactly equivalent to Dora. The German post would send all mail to Buchenwald. Then it would go over by SS courier. Dora had extremely limited phone links to the outside world, too.

    It was the MOST secret Nazi war plant, and no effort was spared to hide its existence from BOTH the German volk and the Allied Powers.

    This is why the SS would not suffer any crematoria.

    My Uncle was not even housed in barracks !

    Instead, they slept — usually — under open skies — even in foul weather.

    There never was a call for lights-out… There were no lights, either.

    The SS didn’t want ANY visible trace of Dora’s activities to be visible to Allied spy planes.

    Dora was, simply put, the ultimate secret Nazi war plant. It had no peer.

    Even now, reading the Internet histories of Dora, it’s apparent that few discovered how Dora operated.

    As for my Uncle’s peers: without a doubt every last one was murdered by the SS before they could be saved.

    One entered the ranks of the sondercommandos by way of the selection process at the main works.

    The SS had totally systematized exploitation and murder at Dora. “Fresh ones” were folded into the ‘talent pool’ every Tuesday — having been vectored over as being of ‘promise’ by every other camp in the SS empire.

    My Uncle noted that every single peer was a Jewish male in the prime of his life. They felt sorrier for him than he did them, as he was a ‘political’, wearing a red badge of damnation.

    Camp policy for politicals was that every time any other prisoner was belted, the political was belted, too. Yes, it was policy.

    The Nazis prioritized punishments for all politicals.

    Which is why so FEW survived the SS.

    My Uncle was discovered by the US Medical Corps in the Buchenwald ‘hospital.’ ( What a perversion of the term. )

    As you might guess, the attending physicians were almost entirely German speaking Jewish-Americans.

    You can only imagine the shock experienced when a Jewish-American military doctor conducting first contact triage in the Buchenwald hospital heard my Uncle whisper his name, rank, and serial number.

    He was a living cadaver by such a time.

    After being stabilized ( IVs ) he was flown to England — to begin recovery. That went on for months. The US Army was concerned that he was still too weak to transit the Atlantic !

    It took my Grandmother’s cooking to put some real weight back on him… five to seven meals a day. That’s how tiny his stomach had become. He ate like a baby.

    So, naturally, he entered the food business after the war. He was obsessed with preventing starvation, and food, for the rest of his days.

    Food was the ONE topic that all prisoners agree was taboo. For to bring up ‘food’ was to make them even more miserable than they were already.

    This prohibition was self-generated. If the SS ever figured out how painful the thought of food was, they would’ve plastered food advertising all over the camps.

    “Food” was enough to trigger prompt suicides, too.

    It was more than enough to send prisoners clean over the edge.

    Like chanting water, water, to a fellow in the Sahara.


    BTW, the goons at Dora were uniformly huge and robust… and deranged.

    The entire enterprise was run like a medieval dungeon.

    Cruelty was its number one product.


    In modern Germany, the entire area is treated as haunted.

    It’s off limits to all development.

    Even documentary film producers shun the area.

    It’s V-2 and V-1 connections made it taboo for even America, Britain and the West, generally, to dwell on it — even years after the event. Note how “World at War” skips past it. Whereas, Dora deserves an entire episode to the Nazi atrocities committed there.

    Think of it as a hell camp — perfected — Nazi style.

  17. OM Says:

    “The Perfect German” film uses Dora as a plot device.

  18. SteveD Says:

    ‘In fact, since most people did not survive the camps he was in (Auschwitz and Dachau), there is no question he had unusual mental and physical strength.’

    I suspect that luck was the most important factor as you basically state later on in the paragraph.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    By the way, I’m having technical trouble getting to my website on a computer. I hope it will be resolved soon. I’m posting this comment from my cellphone.

  20. Esther Says:

    As luck would have it, my mother, her brother and father were deported by the Russians from Poland to the Siberian gulags. They narrowly missed the Nazi invasion that none of the rest of the family, or village, survived.

    But, in the gulag they did not know what was going on in the rest of the world. Apparently they bickered the entire time over which one of them was the idiot responsible for getting them sent there, and by the way, who was uglier and skinnier.

    My mother did not consider herself a holocaust survivor, because, she “had it good in the gulags.”

    As luck woukd have it, my uncle married a woman who was in a Nazi death camp, although she did not consider herself a holocaust survivor either, because, (I think Stalin?) bombed the camp and she escaped.

    From what I can figure, she and her sisters spent the rest of the war bickering over who was the idiot responsible for them fleeing to the forests, and how they would have been better off in the safety of the Nazi camp.

    That’s when they weren’t bickering over who was the more difficult, hysterical, insane and sickly and who was the idiot who thought it was a good idea to leave the forest and drag themselves across Europe and illegally break into British mandate Palestine.

  21. neo-neocon Says:


    That’s QUITE a story. Wow!

    I also know some people of that generation with something like that mentality. But very very feisty and they all lived to a ripe old age.

  22. Daniel in Brookline Says:


    What fascinating testimony!

    You remind me of a term Leon Uris used in his book “Exodus”. He very deliberately did not write of Holocaust survivors; he called them “graduates”. (In one memorable scene, a British officer threatens to torture a Jew to get him to divulge information. A British colleague snorts and says something like: “These people are graduates of Hitler’s concentration camps. What, exactly, do you think you can do that would scare them?”)

  23. Esther Says:

    I’m not sure ‘graduates’ was strictly metaphorical. There were literally ‘courses’ in skills like fishing, agriculture, statecraft, blockade busting, etc., given to the surviving remnant by various rescue groups during the Brieha (exodus,) called Kibbutz Hachshara, (the preparation, I think.) Courses in those skills were also taught at the DP camps in the American zone. My mom considered herself a ‘graduate.’

  24. huxley Says:

    blert & Esther: Thanks for your comments! Though “comment” is too trivial a word for what you’ve shared.

    Like so many things today which were unimaginable ffity years ago, the current hostility to Jews boggles my mind.

    When I first learned of the Holocaust as a kid, I thought it meant that anti-semitism could never happen again.

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