September 29th, 2016

Holocaust stories: temperament and trauma [Part II]

[NOTE: Part I can be found here.]

I can’t find the quote right now, but Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi—who wrote Survival In Auschwitz, which I consider the single most definitive and brilliant book on the camps from the point of view of someone who experienced them firsthand—said that for many ex-inmates, comparisons between what happened in the camps and their lives afterwards didn’t help (although it certainly did for the interviewee I quoted in Part I of this series). Levi said that even though the camps were exponentially worse than the rest of the more petty difficulties of life outside the camps, that each state (camps versus ordinary life) had its woes, and that survivors could still get annoyed and upset afterwards at the smaller frustrations and sorrows of ordinary existence.

That’s the human condition for most people; few are able to keep the contrast constantly in mind like the man in the Part I interview, and there’s no shame in that.

Levi was a scientist who wrote about the camps as though he were a scientist studying them: cool, dispassionate, analytical. He died as a possible suicide in a fall in 1987 at the age of 67. Whether he killed himself or died accidentally has been hotly debated and the answer is still unclear.

Levi is an author whose work I greatly admire, and I am hardly alone, as his biographer Carole Angier writes:

We feel we know and love him from his work, because we know and love his gentle, rigorous, witty, open mind. But the rest of him is completely closed. Primo Levi is, in fact, one of the most secretive writers who ever lived. And not only in his work. Though he gave hundreds of interviews, he used them not to lower the walls but to raise them still higher, by presenting a careful construct of himself almost to the end. He presented the same construct to most people throughout his life; even, as long as he could, to himself. That construct – the calm, rational, optimistic man – was his ideal: an ideal he managed to reach in much of his life, because it was both a moral imperative and a psychological necessity to him.

But it was not the reality. “I have no instincts,” he said, with his smile, “or if I do, I repress them.” But the more he repressed them, the more they resisted, and took their revenge. The man who loved and spoke to the whole of humanity found private, emotional life impossibly hard. And the man who chose optimism, because one must not spread despair, found he had locked the despair inside him; and more and more often it rose and drowned him.

Even though it is not known whether Levi killed himself, it is known that he suffered from depression. But his depression predated his Holocaust experience and represented a lifelong struggle. A different man, a different temperament, than the man interviewed in Part I. And yet Levi managed to live and work for about forty highly productive and creative post-Holocaust years until his death. If he did kill himself (and the preponderance of evidence is that he did; he certainly was depressed prior to his death) it was his own temperament, and his own unhappy family history, that probably led him to it:

…Auschwitz did not destroy him. It came very near at the time, and immediately afterwards. But after that it did almost the opposite, requiring him to understand and to communicate, the two things that kept him alive. “I am a talker,” he said. “If you stop up my mouth, I die.” When, in his last depression, he felt he could no longer communicate, he died. That is what killed him, not his memories of Auschwitz. Neither Alex the Kapo of If This Is A Man [the European title of Survival in Auschwitz], nor his heirs, should imagine they have that victory.

Angier also offers a few excerpts from Levi’s great masterpiece about the camps. Here is a passage that reflects with Levi’s usual brilliance and extraordinary clarity on the mindset in the camps that brought some small (very small, in this case) measure of optimism to a situation so full of nearly unfathomable misery:

Strange how, in some way, one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening, it is your turn for the supplement of soup so that even today, you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

22 Responses to “Holocaust stories: temperament and trauma [Part II]”

  1. Richard Saunders Says:

    When you read Levi, or the writings of any Holocaust survivor (or Gulag survivor, for that matter) you realize how obscene it is for people to say Trump or Bush are like Hitler.

  2. J.J. Says:

    I am no student of the Holocaust. I have read Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning.”

    I have studied quite a bit of POW history and accounts. My take away is that the Holocaust camps in Germany and Poland were somewhat similar to the Japanese, North Korean, and North Vietnamese POW camps. When faced with a daily dose of starvation, forced labor, brutality, and death it highlights the differences in our genetic inheritances of psychic fitness. People who have sturdy psyches tend to make it through better and often thrive after their release. Those with fragile psyches often either commit suicide or just give up and die. I tend to agree with Steven Pinker and his thesis that our five major personality traits are genetic inheritances. If we happen to inherit a fragile psyche, it will be much harder to endure the suffering and brutality of such experiences.

    During my training in the 1950s and 60s we were instructed in the history of what had happened in the North Korean and Japanese POW camps. What had surprised people was the number of people who just gave up, laid down, and died. Our training emphasized the need for POWs to stick together, to encourage one another, to keep up the hope that the U.S would not forget us, and to call upon our spiritual beliefs to help us persevere in the struggle to stay alive.

    The POWs in North Vietnam were often kept in solitary confinement and were subjected to brutality on a large scale. Due to their training they managed to maintain a supportive organization and were able to communicate with one another in clandestine ways that improved morale, the ability to maintain hope, and the survival rate. Some of those POWs were held for over seven years. A long, long time to be starved, beaten, and harassed. The post POW lives of most were better than those from the Japanese and North Korean camps because of greater support, both while POWs and after repatriation.

    For those who survive camps there is often a deep seated survivor’s guilt, which eats away at their ability to live their life in freedom as fully as they would hope for. Also, having experienced man’s inhumanity to man at its worst, it becomes a struggle to maintain any belief in the inherent goodness of people. Deep seated anger and guilt suppressed inside turns into depression. When it becomes intolerable, suicide is often the result.

    We better understand PTSD now, but it is still a difficult problem to treat. Psychological treatment seems to work best for those who recognize that they need to change their inner thoughts and often unrecognized negative urges that are creating their depression. To recognize your inner stresses and to believe that there is a way to heal your psychic pain is the first step to recovery. The unfortunate thing for so many Holocaust survivors and Japanese/North Korean POWs is that they received little or no treatment for PTSD.

  3. sdferr Says:

    Lest our recollections should pass without remark: 75 years ago on this date, Sept. 29, 1941, at the ravine adjacent to Kiev, Ukraine known as Babi Yar began the murders by gunshot, burial and suffocation of 33,771 Jews (so the number is given us from contemporaneous records) to be accomplished over a mere two days. What’s more, there were even a small number of survivors of that event who would go on to attest to what they saw and did.

  4. kevino Says:


    You beat me by a few minutes! The remarkable thing about the sheer horror of Babi Yar (75 years ago), is the remarkable book by that name that chronicles the events. There is an unforgettable scene in the book of a young woman who was forced to strip and line up in front of the trench to be shot. She fell into the trench wounded but not killed. She played dead among the corpses and miraculously wasn’t killed by the follow-up shots. She then escaped.

    It also tells the story of the German’s efforts to cover it up toward the end of the war. It’s a tremendous book.

  5. Ann Says:

    It seems many Holocaust survivors didn’t suffer PTSD within the normal time range, which according to this article is usually about six months after a trauma, but are only now in their old age experiencing it — estimates as high as 40 to 65 percent of survivors in Israel.

    How awful.

  6. Bryan Says:

    I have only known one Holocaust survivor personally. This was the very fine violinist Paul Kling, who passed away about a decade ago. He was quite young when he was sent to Therezin, the “cultural” concentration camp. In an interview he joked that he only took his violin (they had an orchestra) and not sheet music because he had everything memorized and besides “I wasn’t planning on a long vacation.” Alas, he was then sent to Auschwitz, which he survived. All the time we played concerts together he never once mentioned his internment (I heard from other sources). But he never wore short-sleeved shirts.

  7. Ann Says:

    I watched the 1988 documentary Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie two days ago and I can’t get some of the dialogue out of my mind.

    First, here’s Barbie in an interview aboard a plane taking him to France after he’d been extradited from Bolivia:

    Interviewer: Are you still a Nazi?

    Barbie:The word Nazi doesn’t exist. It’s used…I don’t know. Can you explain to me what Nazi means?

    And then his daughter, a librarian in Austria, in an interview later in the film:

    Daughter: You say Nazi, but how clear is that?

    Interviewer: A Nazi leader — a Hitlerian leader.

    Daughter: It’s hard for me to speak of Nazis since I can’t really explain what a national socialist is. No one ever explained it to me.

    And, finally, this from Barbie:

    In war, you have to win. Losers lose everything. I’ve forgotten. If they haven’t, that’s their concern. In any case, I’ve forgotten.

    Imagine being a survivor and hearing that sort of thing. I don’t think I’d be able to maintain my sanity.

  8. huxley Says:

    It’s hard to confront the Holocaust. For me it’s a part of an attempt to understand what it is to be human.

  9. J.J. Says:

    Ann, PTSD is something that is variable as to when it may manifest. Often it occurs so long after trauma that it is not recognized as related to the trauma. And it’s not necessarily something that is completely erased by treatment. Relapses occur, but if you have dealt with it before, the odds of getting things back under control are much improved.

    Here’s one source about PTSD symptoms and diagnosis:

  10. Csimon621 Says:

    huxley– what it is to BE human? To me it is the attempt to understand the capacity of man’s INhumanity. The knowledge that the Holocaust is historical truth has never made it any easier to wrap my head around what was done to people by other humans–never mind to innocent men, women and children, never mind for no reason other than their religious beliefs, and never mind by people who defended their actions with claims they were just doing their jobs and following orders.

    I have known two survivors: a woman who was like a mother to me, but we were close for several years before, on one very hot summer day, I saw her bare arm for the first time and the numbers tatooed that were tatooed on it when she was a child. I remember forcing myself not to stare. But it was the first time the reality of stories I would heard, read about in books, or viewed in black and white jerky filmclips really literally came to life. We never discussed it, but I never forgot. This was the most sunny, kind, giving woman with the most wonderful disposition and yet she had seen such darkness that was locked away (with good reason)but I’m sure never forgotten.

    The other was my ex-fiancé’s father. He was from Czechoslovakia and was a twin. They were taken from their parents and assigned to Dr. Mengele for participation in his experimenta. After the war they were sent to Israel. His brother remained in Israel whle he met and married an Israeli woman and ultimately came to America to settle. He had almost no ambition– which was quite unusual in the community i which I grew up. He was satisfied with doing custodial work at a nearby hospital just until he qualified for retirement and never did much after that, It was a while before I understood that his happiness came simply from being alive, living in a sun-filled area of the country, and having a wife and three sons. That was enough.
    I can’t begin to imagine the things I never knew, nor did any of his sons. But for the numbers on his arm, and knowing where he was born, they knew almost nothing. It was never discussed.

  11. Csimon621 Says:

    @ Richard Saunders: As I was re-reading your comment it occured to me that there is more than a little bit of irony regarding those who make such comparisons as their words reveal them to be absolutists with little or no tolerance for opinions different from their own and, in that, to whom should they be compared?

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    I don’t think there’s any contradiction between what you said and what huxley said.

    Studying the Holocaust is a step towards helping us understand a little bit more what it is to be human, and it helps us understand man’s inhumanity to man—in other words, what it is to be inhumane. Because both perpetrators and victims were, in the end, human, although very different sides of that coin. It can help us understand—or at least try to understand—how it is that people can be so cruel, what steps are necessary, what type of person goes along with it and what type rebels, and how different people respond differently to the terrible and extreme conditions they face, and how they recover or don’t recover afterwards.

  13. Esther Says:

    There may be different kinds of survivor experiences. Probably my mother was right in saying she ‘had it good in the gulag,’ compared to those in the death camps.

    My mother collected the few death camp survivors she could find, as surrogate family. They made godawful chopped steer liver, delicious pickled herring and unbelievable potato latkes.. and I miss them.

    My mother had children late and hid her experiences from us until we grew up. I had no contemporaries to relate to. Though seems there are many in Israel.

    Almost every member of my mother’s (my) family perished in Treblinka, that is if they weren’t shot in the head.

    We few remaining are still finding messages from the past. Last year, finally opening packages of letters lost by the Red Cross, begging for rescue, please help, where are you? sending love, from Poland, 1940.

    Primo Levi’s quote, “Hier ist kein warum” (“Here there is no why”) is like quicksand into an existential abyss.

  14. huxley Says:

    neo: Yes. Thanks for saying that so well.

  15. bdh Says:

    This is why I read this site. The personal insight and thoughtful writing by all is so unique and appreciated.
    The writings of Solzhenitsyn and the poem Babi Yar by Yevtushenko were two things that opened my eyes to the evils of man many years ago. For a country boy from 50’s/60’s America, it was a cold truth of what had come before.

  16. neo-neocon Says:


    About those letters from Poland—if you haven’t read this post yet, please read the whole thing.

  17. Nick Says:

    I find it hard to believe that personality types or genetics account for the differences in people’s reactions to such things. I suspect that everyone had their moments of joy, strength, suicidal despair. Who’s to account for the will that some people show? A small gesture of humanity may have kept someone from giving up, and who knows, the same may be true this afternoon if we looked around more carefully. By the grace of God I’ve never been tested in a horror like that, but I can imagine myself being a cheerful survivor, or a broken victim or…a guard. We all probably lie to ourselves a lot.

  18. Elaine T Says:

    You might be interested in this:

    It was written in the forties, as the events described were still happening. The author’s grandson found a carbon copy in the attic while clearing out the family house. Just published this week in the US.

  19. Esther Says:

    Neo, thank you for the link to the post about letters from Poland. Not just my family then, :-(. So heartbreaking.

    My aunt’s husband had gone to then British Palestine to start a taxi business before the war started. She had a tailor shop, where she hid with her little girl until they ran out of food. Their son was shot by German soldiers when he jumped from the window of the train.

    She and the girl went to the countryside and gave money to a farmer to hide them, he shot them when their money ran out.

    Her husband never got the letters, or knew what happened to wife and children. His sister survived in Israel too. A few years ago her daughter went to Poland to track down what happened and found the letters. The farmer told her he had murdered them.

    She couldn’t open the letters because it was too painful. We only had them translated recently, and it was as sad as you’d think.

    Before my uncle left, he taken many photographs of the family to bring with him. He was an amateur photographer, so I have many beautiful pictures of them.

    Shana Tova

  20. neo-neocon Says:


    So sorry about what happened to your family. So many heartbreaking stories.

    I didn’t put in some of the most heart-wrenching stuff from those letters in my in-laws’ family, which involved the man in Poland describing his children, their wonderful qualities, and how well they would do in America if given half a chance. They never got the chance.

    Have you ever seen the movie “Run Boy Run?” Since I wrote that post, it’s appeared on YouTube so it’s easy to watch. See this. I don’t recommend watching the trailers; they give way too much away. The plot is based on a true story but parts of it are somewhat fictionalized. It’s a very fine movie.

  21. Esther Says:

    Thanks Neo, I’ll check it out. And thank you for the opportunity to comment about this.

  22. Esther Says:

    Movie wasn’t on YouTube, only found the trailers. But I just rented it on amazon. Wow, intense.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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