A Case of Childhood Development after trauma

Forgiving and Loving a Descendant of an Ancestor’s Murderers: Implications and Consequences
Review of: Love After Auschwitz: The Second Generation in Germany. (2006,Kurt Gr�nberg, Huguette Herrmann,Florence W. Kaslow )
Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers ISBN: 978-3-89942-442-3, 302 pp. $39.95

The horrific era of the German Holocaust, which began in 1933 with Hitler’s rise to power and continued unabated until 1945, with the ending of World War II in Europe and the liberation of the remaining skeletonlike prisoners from the unthinkable, unspeakable hell holes called concentration camps (Charny, 1982), constitutes one of the darkest, most inhumane periods in the history of civilization. It is hard to fathom that someone intent on purging the world of one entire group of people, the Jews—because of their religion—and others who were non-Aryans, like gypsies, could gather so many loyal followers and by brute force invade and conquer many countries and spread his doctrine of Aryan supremacy and racial bigotry. Jews were hunted and persecuted, their homes were looted, and they were rounded up in horrible quarters like the Warsaw Ghetto (Korman, 1973), subjected to Kristallnacht, and deported in overstuffed, unclean railway box cars to specially built death camps like Dachau, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and many more.

Miraculously, some Jewish families in Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia recognized the fast-rising menace and fled before Hitler solidified his power and was able to convince his fellow Germans that they had been mistreated in the treaty ending World War I and that, if they followed him, he would lead Germany back to being a major world power. They escaped, but they often left part of their family who considered themselves German Jews, loyal to, comfortable, and acceptable in Germany, with its high educational and intellectual standards and climate—and therefore invulnerable to what was to become an anschluss, including door-by-door witch hunts against Jews. If they escaped or succeeded in sending their children safely off on a “kindertransport” to the United States (Whiteman, 1993), they carried with them many tormented memories of torture, senseless killings, gas chambers, seeing children snatched away from parents, starvation, barbed-wire fences, the Gestapo, and SS troops. Many bore as permanent “souvenirs” the numbers tattooed on their arms when they were sent into a camp, which had further reduced their dignity when they were identified by a number and not a name. (This is one bit of lingering evidence that the Holocaust did occur that even the most vociferous denier cannot deny.)

Some others who could not, or did not, escape were fortunate enough to have someone—usually a family—sequester them. (Such people have become known as “righteous gentiles,” as they risked their lives because of their ethical and moral beliefs.) Such a story was poignantly told in The Diary of Anne Frank, and a similar one has been told recently by an American psychologist of her own personal legacy as a hidden child, and all of the sequelae with her life in the United States. She has experienced resentment, even fury, from relatives who remained in Germany, changed their names and their religion, and did not tell their second-generation children about their true identities and histories (Richman, 2002). They were appalled when the book was published and raised questions in their children’s minds on so many matters about which they had been secretive, a situation frequently encountered.

With this by way of a brief background to set the historical stage for Kurt Gr�nberg’s book, I now turn to Love After Auschwitz: The Second Generation in Germany.

Gr�nberg’s Research Project

In this scholarly treatise, Gr�nberg discusses Jewish children of survivors of the Nazi persecution of the third and fourth decades of the 20th century who currently reside in the Federal Republic of Germany. The book is dedicated to the memory of the murdered, usually estimated as totaling 6 million Jews, and to the survivors. The book also contains an enlightening Foreword (and an essay on the “Myth of Objective Research After Auschwitz”) by Eva Fogelman, who points out that Gr�nberg began his research for his doctoral dissertation, which bears the same title as the book, in 1985, the fateful year President Ronald Reagan went to Germany to help that country in its 45-year postwar struggle to achieve normalization. Thus, according to Fogelman, when Reagan placed a wreath in the Bitburg cemetery and declared that both the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht soldiers were “victims of war” (thus reframing the reality of their behavior as perpetrators), Germany, long confronted with its own barbarism, was absolved of moral responsibility for what it had inflicted on the true victims of Nazism. One wonders if one such action, even by the highly esteemed president of the United States, could obliterate all of the atrocities committed, the personal and shared memories of being part of the Hitler Youth, the plotting to carry out “the final solution” to destroy all Jews, and the stench of burning bodies from the concentration camp ovens.

Gr�nberg, a child of holocaust survivors who has grown up in Germany, began his research at Phillipps University of Marburg. The data provided the foundation for the book. The research took 20 years to complete; its intent is to provide information on the intimate lives of descendants of victims and perpetrators, which I think was only partially achieved. One group of research participants were German Jews; the control group was composed of German non-Jews, as it was not possible to constitute an ideal control group of German Jews whose parents had not been persecuted during the infamous Third Reich. As might be expected, Gr�nberg—like Peter Sichrovsky, who had interviewed children of Nazi families and wrote the now classic Born Guilty (1988), a collection of case studies—encountered enormous resistance from potential interviewees on the Jewish side of the tapestry. They were raised by parents who, after surviving years of humiliation and persecution, returned to live next door to the murderers of their relatives. These second- and now third-generation Jews have become “victims of their victimized parents,” inhibited, full of angst and guilt, and unable to speak freely (Sichrovsky, 1986).

As young adults, some of the second-generation Germans reported severing all relations with their parents, ashamed of their Nazi involvements in the past and wanting no part of it. Others did not want to delve into the family’s past Nazi ties, and a third group forgave their parents, preferring to rationalize what they did because it was their only way to survive during the Third Reich’s regime. My own experience as a facilitator and leader of annual Holocaust dialogue groups composed of mainly second- but also some third-generation descendants of perpetrators and victims (Kaslow, 2002), and my numerous experiences as a workshop leader in Germany, corroborate these three different reactions and styles of coping with parents’ (and grandparents’) Nazi involvements, sympathies, secrecies, denials, and other aspects of their personal legacies.

When Gr�nberg was a doctoral student at Marburg, a professor in a course on psychoanalysis and Nazism posited that the persecuted Jews were “unconscious accomplices.” No one in the class of 40 protested; all were silent bystanders in this, in the 1980s. Finally, when Gr�nberg challenged the professor, he turned it back against him and accused Gr�nberg of using “Gestapo-like slander” and “Nazi methods.” Ultimately it was necessary for Gr�nberg to finish his dissertation at another institution, with a less prejudiced faculty—the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt/Main.


Despite my keen interest in the subject matter, I found the book difficult to read. It is translated into English, as the original was written in German, and the language does not flow. Often the presentation of subject matter seems to jump around and not have a logical sequencing. I wish it had been better organized and edited to read more coherently.

Nonetheless, some important facts emerge. The issue many face over their sense of identity lingers on and is often pervasive. Is one a German who happens to be Jewish, or a Jew who lives in Germany but is always somewhat of an outsider, with the visual image of the suitcase packed so he or she is always ready to leave in case of another crisis? What makes one a German—is it citizenship? passport? culture? heritage? Can Jews ever fully relax and feel welcome, “at home,” and safe in the land of their birth after the Shoah? Many think not. Yet the Jewish communities in some German cities, like Frankfurt and Berlin, are growing; synagogues are operating openly, there are Jewish Community Centers and Councils. At the same time, neo-Nazism is flourishing in some communities (and, I add as an example, the occasion of Hitler’s birthday is celebrated annually at Eagle’s Nest with great enthusiasm and regrets that the Fuhrer did not succeed).

Gr�nberg’s study group comprised a nonclinical population; the study was carried out as a comparative inquiry with an evaluation that used both quantitative and qualitative criteria. Various methods of investigation were used, analysis of contents combined, questionnaires administered, external raters used to corroborate results, and some individual cases analyzed.

In much of the literature, second-generation Jewish children have been reported to have a very special bond with their parents, which is part of the complex problems they exhibit. The separation–individuation process usually considered to be developmentally normal is impaired as their parents cannot tolerate their breaking away. This interferes with their establishing a love relationship, and if the potential partner is German—which is frequently the situation in Germany where there is a small Jewish population—the critical issue of the partner’s family’s Nazi past almost always has to be addressed. This became very evident in the findings reported by Gr�nberg.


The previous Nazi persecution has relevance for German–Jewish love relationships and for the prospect of children born of such unions. Many Jewish parents harbor strong oppositional feelings about their children becoming involved with a descendant of the murderers of their own parents and siblings and disapprove of such unions.

The discussion and perspectives chapter, based on the empirical analysis of the data, was the most succinctly written. Herein Gr�nberg indicates that his investigation confirmed that “the descendants of Jewish survivors of the National Socialist (Nazi) persecution of the Jews are more strongly bound, in the sense of being emotionally entangled, to their parents than is the case with the paired parallel control group of non-Jewish Germans” (p. 211). Many of the second generation feel and believe they cannot dare to express any aggressive or rebellious impulses or distance themselves from their parents, whom they experience as helpless and dependent on them. Some adults have, or use, children to replace loved ones lost in the Holocaust. Desires for separation evoke extreme anxiety reactions and strong guilt feelings in these children. When they reach adulthood, detachment is difficult, as they realize their parents may not be able to tolerate it.

The Jewish study participants exhibited more clarity and knowledge about the actual experiences of their progenitors during the Shoah, whereas the German control group perceived themselves as facing the experiences of their parents in their private lives, not as embedded in a National Socialist history. The study did not determine if their parents had hidden the truth about their active or passive participation in the Holocaust, lied about or denied it, or tried to be honest about it.

In terms of their love relationships, the Jewish participants experienced greater parental pressure to choose partners with a Jewish heritage and also felt more direct and indirect influence of “tradition.” The 5 Jewish participants who selected Jewish partners had remained together. Only 3 of the 10 Jews who had a non-Jewish partner were still sharing their homes at the time of the study (no mention of how long any were together). Many fewer mixed religious couples had children than couples who were both Jewish.

Gr�nberg concludes that German–Jewish relations continue to be strained (although it is 61 years since World War II ended). A rift remains between descendants of victims and perpetrators, encumbered by a legacy of willful genocide and extermination that has probably become part of the collective “ethnic unconscious” (p. 221) of each group. I have heard and seen all of these findings expressed by participants in my annual Holocaust dialogue groups (Kaslow, 2002). However, I have also come to believe there are some thoughtful, humane people on both sides trying to reach across the schism to build a modicum of understanding, mutual respect, and ultimately trust, so that the present and future will be different and better. One cannot forget history; this is neither wise nor realistic. But many can and are trying to build a different tomorrow. Books like this one and Sichrovsky’s (1986, 1988), and groups like mine and those of Bar-On (1993) and others, are attempts to turn the tide in that direction.

This book should be of value to anyone interested in the phenomenon of the Holocaust and other genocides, wars fought in the name of ethnic cleansing, and other such traumatic internecine battles, which affect everyone in the world in some way. This would include all psychologists, particularly those interested in conflict resolution, peace, international psychology, and child and family development and relationships. The lengthy aftermath and the many sequelae of the Holocaust are similar across many genocides when the children of succeeding generations meet at school, on the playing field, and in social activities, become friends, and later want to become partners. They are socializing with the enemy, the murderers of their ancestors. To work toward peace and reconciliation is a noble undertaking; an understanding of what led to the hostilities is what may be possible. But forgetting and forgiving are not so easy when the crimes have led to the annihilation of one’s relatives and the destruction of one’s family. Love relationships are difficult enough to nurture in the best of circumstances; but love relationships between adult children of the former enemy tribe pose an enormous challenge to all involved and affected by the crossing of an invisible line, perhaps defiantly, into uncharted and sometimes hostile terrain. Gr�nberg’s portrayal fits today’s focus on reality.


1. Bar-On, D., (1993) First encounters between children of survivors and children of perpetrators of the Holocaust, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 33, 6-14.

2. Charny, I. W., (1982) How can we commit the unthinkable? Genocide: The human cancer, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

3. Kaslow, F. W., Kaslow, F. W. & Lebow, J., (2002) A dialogue group approach with descendants of holocaust perpetrators and victims, Integrative and eclectic therapies, Vol. IV, 477-498. New York: Wiley.

4. Korman, G., (1973) Hunter and hunted: Human history of the Holocaust, New York: Dell.

5. Richman, S., (2002) A wolf in the attic: The legacy of a hidden child of the Holocaust, New York: Haworth Press.

6. Sichrovsky, P., (1986) Strangers in their own land: Young Jews in Germany and Austria today, New York: Basic Books.

7. Sichrovsky, P., (1988) Born guilty: Children of Nazi families, New York: Basic Books.

8. Whiteman, D. B., (1993) The uprooted: A Hitler legacy, New York: Plenum.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: