Case Closed: Beth Cohen Discusses her Research on Holocaust Survivors
Dr. Beth Cohen is both a psychologist and a social historian who has studied and researched the subject of Jewish refugees who settled in the United States after World War II. She received her Master’s degree in Human Development from Harvard and her PhD in Holocaust History from Clark University’s Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2003). She is also the author of Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2007) and is currently teaching at UCLA and California State University in Northridge, where she is acting interim director of the Jewish Studies program. Dr. Cohen is presently researching how children, both orphans and those who were reunited with their parents, dealt with the challenges and obstacles of being a refugee and a survivor.
Before I started graduate school, I worked as a director for the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1988 to 1998. It was during that time I became very involved with the survivor community and noticed how a number of those survivors who talked about their experiences would talk quite bitterly about how they were treated by the community when they came to the United States. When I first heard their accounts I was upset and embarrassed, of course, but didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.
Later, I entered The Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, and I was one of the first three students admitted to the PhD program. It was when I started working towards my PhD, and was looking for a topic for my dissertation, that those same comments by survivors came back to haunt me so I started doing more research on the reception of those survivors into the United States. I began looking for stories that appeared in the media from about 1946 to 1954 about refugees or “displaced persons” (DPs) who came to the US and was most struck by the happy accounts from the view of the agencies who were working with them. It was such a contrast to what the survivors had originally told me, so I wanted to further explore that gap in perception. I visited the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, in Denver Colorado where I came across case files from social workers in the later 1940’s and early 1950s. The reports that social workers wrote about their interaction with refugees who settled in Denver was the type of material that gave a wonderful insight unmediated by time, uncensored, and not heroic. They were simply honest accounts of how survivors were treated and their hopes and dreams.
I wanted to know if there were similar files in New York because it was know that fifty percent of survivors had settled there. With the help of the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a Jewish association set up to help people settle in New York, I discovered they had 40,000 files and was able to look at over 300 of these files from the period I was interested in. Looking at these hundreds of files gave me a pattern and the confidence to arrive at certain conclusions and became the starting point of my study.
When I finished my dissertation, and tried to develop it into a book, I received a fellowship from the US Holocaust Museum. There I looked at some of the videotapes from the museum and conducted my own interviews with people who dealt with the resettlement process, such as rabbis, social workers, and doctors. I didn’t interview people who were also in the case files, but the social workers, doctors, and the rabbis who mostly worked for those agencies. In my book all the names by and large (except for key figures) are either just first names or initials—the goal was to include bits and pieces of stories that coalesced into a picture and a pattern.
Throughout my work, what was particularly interesting was the frequency with which I encountered illness in the files. Sixty percent of them reported illness that had no clear organic basis. The mandate of the agencies that dealt with the survivors was to get them working as quickly as possible. On a superficial level you might think this was the right approach but it was actually more of an economic decision to spend the minimum amount of time and effort on each individual, when in reality they needed more. I was astounded to see many symptoms of anxiety and depression, insomnia, and eating problems. When their symptoms interfered with the refugee’s ability to find work they would refer them to a doctor and the doctor could find nothing wrong with the survivors, even when they were describing all these symptoms and truly felt ill. There was a fair amount of talk of suicide, compared to the triumphant narrative that was showcased in the media. The files that I read and saw were truly weighted down with the difficulties of the war. It was after coming to the United States when they were actually faced with starting a normal life, after these wartime experiences that had shattered their lives and left them in DP camps for years.
When I present at conferences someone inevitably asks if one can find fault with the professionals at a time when they had no awareness of PTSD and to be sensitive to this since words such as post traumatic stress disorder were not a part of their vocabulary. I went back and looked at meetings those professionals were attending and in the psychological literature there was quite a bit of discussion about refugees and how they might have benefitted from a different type of treatment. The question was out there and even words like “trauma” were being used. A Polish psychologist by the name of Philip Friedman who had emigrated from Europe around that time said it was not enough to tell displaced persons to put the past behind and move on. When push came to shove the professionals working with the survivors did not always take such psychological factors into account.
Perhaps one of the significant reasons for this is that some have said that psychologists (who were by and large Jewish) working with the DPs felt very guilty about having been safe during the Holocaust when so many were murdered. It was perhaps their inability to confront the Holocaust at that point, as one of the motivations for not helping the DPs with the emotional problems they were experiencing. Another reason was that it was a very difficult population to deal with. I interviewed someone who was responsible for resettling the newcomers and she told us they were very needy and difficult and essentially they had not seen anything like it. It was an unprecedented event in terms of their client population. So, it was not really a case where the refugees were so different from the people who were dealing with them but that the refugees were too similar to the parents of the psychologists and psychiatrists who, as the immigrant generation, had fled Europe earlier on.