Feature

The horrors of the Holocaust and the struggles many children overcame to survive Nazism have shaped the lives and work of many psychologists and their families. The Monitor recently spoke with three psychologists affected by the Holocaust -- two child survivors and one second-generation survivor -- to hear their stories.

Ervin Staub: Breaking the cycle of violence

Memories of life during the Holocaust come in fits and starts for Ervin Staub, PhD. His first memory, before his family moved underground, is of his uncle crying while kissing him goodbye. "He went to a forced labor camp" where he was murdered, Staub says with a slight break in his voice.

The internationally known scholar and psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was 5 years old in March 1944, when the Germans occupied Budapest. By then, Hitler's army had annihilated most of the major Jewish communities in Europe, except for the approximately 700,000 left in Budapest.

That July, Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat Raoul Gustav Wallenberg, chosen by the Allies to intervene on behalf of the Jews, arrived in the city. While Wallenberg was too late to save 400,000 Jewish men, women and children already sent to death camps in southern Poland, he came just in time to issue "protective passes" to tens of thousands of Jews, including Staub's mother, saving Staub's immediate family from certain death.

Using the passes, Staub, his mother and sister moved to a "safe" house. His father had been taken to a labor camp, but escaped and was reunited with his family. Staub was also hidden by a Christian woman who had worked as a maid for his parents before the war. Food was scarce, but she fed him and others bread made from dough she sneaked to a bakery for cooking.

She was stopped one time, and threatened with death by Hungarian Nazis who accused her of taking bread to Jews, Staub says. "But they let her go, and she continued to do this. She was a hero."

After the Russians liberated Hungary in 1945, Staub and his family moved back to their old apartment. His parents struggled with different businesses--including a failed attempt to restart the family trousseau business--and suffered financially. Antisemitism continued under the now-communist regime, and middle school proved problematic for Staub. "When people picked on me, I would respond," he says. "I had a good number of fights."

In September 1956, Staub started attending a technical university when the Hungarian Revolution briefly sparked and was put down that October. Three weeks later, he fled Hungary with two friends by crossing the border to Vienna, but not before being stopped at gunpoint by Russian soldiers. "I was our interpreter and told them various lies about why we were there," Staub says. "I don't think they believed us, but they let us go." He got a visa to the United States in 1959, and studied in Minnesota before moving to California to attend Stanford University, where he earned his PhD in psychology.

Staub never forgot the help he received from Wallenberg and others during the Holocaust. Their altruism, in fact, gave him his life's work. He has devoted his research career to understanding helping behavior, altruism and the roots of genocide and other collective violence. In his first job as an assistant professor at Harvard, Staub began his exhaustive study of altruism, including emergency helping, generosity and sharing in adults and children. It wasn't until he went on sabbatical in 1979--extremely fatigued after finishing three books--that he was ready to seriously read about the Holocaust, which started his work on genocide.

"In retrospect, I realize that the evolution of my work also had to do with my emotional evolution," Staub says. "I wouldn't have been ready to study genocide earlier."

His research on the Holocaust and other genocides would become "The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence" (Cambridge University Press, 1989), his most popular--and controversial--book. In it, he traced the evolutionary process that led to Germany's Nazi period, Turkey's massacre of Armenians in 1915, Cambodia's killing fields under the Pol Pot regime and Argentina's "disappeared" in the 1970s.

"I was doing something important, but for some [Holocaust survivors] it was problematic," Staub says. "Survivors, for important emotional reasons, often want to feel that what happened to them was unique. Of course it was unique. But the understanding of it and what leads to it has a lot of commonality" with similar cases.

When asked if he thinks there could be another Holocaust, Staub points to the recent ethnic conflict in Rwanda, where the Hutu leadership massacred Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"The rate of killing in Rwanda was even greater than in the Holocaust," he explains. "About 700,000 people were killed in a three-month period."

Not content to sit in an ivory tower merely analyzing genocide, Staub is now focusing on finding solutions to ethno-political conflict, which include forgiveness and reconciliation. Using a grant from the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, he and clinical psychologist Laurie Anne Pearlman, PhD, are working with the victims and perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide. Their goal: to break the cycle of violence and to help the nation heal psychologically.

"For survivors, for all of us who've suffered pain and trauma, part of moving beyond the past--to the extent we can--is to engage our experiences rather than avoid them, and to somehow make peace with them," he says.

His focus on solutions has also led him to research violence in children. "We need to work on raising caring children," says Staub, who's writing a book on the subject. "This is not an immediate remedy, but I believe we all know what is required for this--and every person can participate."

Peter Suedfeld: 'I wanted to be a very American American'

Peter Suedfeld was 8 when his happy, secure childhood in Budapest collapsed in 1944. Germany had just taken over the country and, seemingly overnight, he went from being the beloved, youngest child in a large family of doting parents, grandparents and second cousins to a virtual orphan.

As part of the Nazi's campaign against the Jews, his father had been sent to a slave labor camp and his mother had been arrested by the Gestapo. Suedfeld was smuggled into an International Red Cross Orphanage by his mother's sister, who soon afterward was sent to the Budapest ghetto.

Life at the orphanage was extremely difficult for Suedfeld, who was forced to drop his Jewish identity and learn to behave like a Catholic.

"Most of the children there were Christians whose parents were away," remembers Suedfeld, now a retired psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. "Jewish boys had to make sure no one saw them in the bathroom," because at that time they were usually the only ones circumcised. "We couldn't reveal our real selves to anyone. That's pretty hard when you're 8 years old."

The orphans lived in cellars most of the time, and when one building became uninhabitable because of aerial bombardment or artillery fire, they had to find another. Constantly hungry, the children dug through ice and snow, foraging for food in abandoned gardens. Many times he was shot at. He didn't bathe for months. In fact, he rarely, if ever, took off his clothes, in case he had to move suddenly to a new location.

"I became fatalistic," he says. "I didn't like being hungry, filthy and in danger. I did what I had to to survive." But he adds, "I don't remember having severe emotional involvement. Maybe I'm repressing it, but I don't think so."

After the war ended, months passed and no one claimed him at the orphanage. Having a false name and now living in a different location, he feared that he'd never be found. He didn't know that his aunt (today age 93 and living in Australia) had escaped from Auschwitz and had been going from one orphanage to another, frantically searching for him. She found him in April 1945. Suedfeld was sitting on a garden wall, enjoying the sunshine, when he spotted her coming up the street.

"It was the happiest day of my life--before or since," he says with a boyish lilt, belying his 65 years.

Suedfeld was reunited with his father that fall. While he would later learn, from someone who'd known his mother in Auschwitz, that his mother died within a month or two of arriving there, he never learned the details of how she was killed. Father and son lived as refugees in Vienna before immigrating to New York, where his father's aunt and cousin lived, in 1948.

Like Staub, Suedfeld's experiences would influence his career as a psychological researcher--although it would take him more than 20 years to make the connection. He originally wanted to be a professional soldier--serving in the U.S. Army from 1955­58--partly to express his gratitude to the United States.

"I never again wanted to be defenseless against people who wanted to hurt my family," he says. "I wanted to be a very American American."

After his Army stint, he attended Queens College and, during his last term, was intellectually excited by a required course in experimental psychology. "It was the first time I'd been taught one could do research to discover what no one knew," he says.

Due to be commissioned back into the military after graduation, he "frantically got out to go to grad school."

He earned his PhD in psychology from Princeton in 1963.

The focus of Suedfeld's research has been on how people cope with and adapt to demanding, challenging and stressful experiences. His research has ranged from stimulus reduction--formerly called sensory deprivation--to archival studies of decision-making during international and personal crises. His fieldwork has taken him to the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica, and he's also done research on how Holocaust survivors have coped with their experiences during and after the war. But it wasn't until 1984, after being interviewed about being a child survivor, that he realized that his Holocaust experiences "had a lot to do with the type of psychologist I became."

This revelation led him to research post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Holocaust survivors.

"After the first 20 to 30 years after the war, the popular perception was that all survivors suffered from PTSD." Suedfeld took this notion as "hypothesis, not fact, and my research has shown that it is wrong."

His conclusions proved unpopular with many psychologists and survivors, alike.

"Most who paid attention didn't respond very positively. The psychology and Jewish communities accused me of trivializing the Holocaust by claiming people weren't all crippled by living through it," he says. "Now, I think the general understanding has changed. The evidence has become pretty convincing, even for recalcitrant people who don't like to change their minds about things."

In addition, Suedfeld, who has interviewed several hundred Holocaust survivors by videotape and questionnaire, has begun doing content analysis on this material. "I thought, my God, I have a treasure trove of potential data" that could be used for educational purposes. The passionate desire to prevent future holocausts is what motivated Suedfeld, former Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) president (1998­99), to co-found the APA-CPA Initiative on Ethnopolitical Warfare (EPW) with former APA president Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, nearly three years ago. The initiative's mission is to apply psychological tools to EPW, study the causes and ways to prevent the phenomenon and encourage the training of psychologists in trauma intervention and conflict resolution. Suedfeld has also edited the anthology, "Light from the Ashes: From Child Survivor of Nazi Persecution to Social Scientist," scheduled to be published in spring 2001 by the University of Michigan Press.

While reflecting further on how humanity can prevent other holocausts, Suedfeld once again swims against the tide of popular opinion in some sectors of the survivor community. He stresses the importance of protecting free speech--including the most virulent hate speech. "If you suppress [hate-mongers], they go underground," spreading their venom secretly. "I say get the rats out from under the rocks--it's the best way to defeat them."

Irving Hellman: Rising above the ashes

Growing up, Irving Hellman, PhD, rarely heard his parents talk about their Holocaust experiences--except for the one story his father told many times:

As a teen-ager who'd eluded death in a concentration camp by escaping, Hellman's dad nearly lost his life on liberation day in 1945. He was stridently marching with the partisans when shrapnel hit him in the leg. The infection almost killed him and the wound--which would trouble him until his death in 1985--changed the fate of his future family. Their hopes of immigrating to Israel were dashed when Hellman's father fell ill from the shrapnel wound and had to be hospitalized. Israel's strict immigration policies denied the young family's entry because of his father's poor health. As a result, Hellman was born in America--his parents' second choice--in 1953.

Though his parents were mostly silent about the Holocaust, Hellman, nonetheless, was deeply affected by it.

"It was more the culture I grew up in," says Hellman, now a forensic and clinical psychologist in Sacramento, Calif. He grew up in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, where the majority of the city's Jewish refugees first lived. Yiddish and Polish were spoken at home, and Hellman straddled two cultures.

"I grew up in an 'us and them' culture. 'Don't trust the others. It wouldn't be safe.' That was a pretty strong message," Hellman says. "There was also a strong focus on rising above the ashes...and finding success in America."

Boyle Heights was also a tight-knit community. All the children went to Hebrew school, and the adults often gathered to play cards after working long hours. Many of the refugees had numbers on their arms, but rarely talked about them.

Being a second-generation Holocaust survivor affected Hellman's decision to study psychology by inspiring him to understand what motivated good and evil in mankind. But it wasn't until around 1979--the year he entered graduate school--when he read Helen Epstein's book, "Children of the Holocaust," that he became conscious of the Holocaust's influence.

"Most people who go into mental health or a healing practice are partly pursuing self-healing," says Hellman, who admits to sometimes feeling like an outsider. "The experience of the 'others and us' has left a lasting impression on me. Consciously, I do my best to fit in. I wonder if that's the immigrant experience in general?

"I also have a deep sense of wanting to heal the world, Tikun Olam," he adds. "The practice of transforming hate into love is related to my Holocaust legacy."

Hellman, who got his undergraduate degree from Yale, received his PhD from the University of California, Davis, in 1984. Early in his career, he worked with Holocaust survivors through Jewish Family Services.

His experiences have also connected him viscerally to what Jung termed the "shadow"--those impulsive, negative, dominating, repressive parts of the self.

"Nazi culture was all about the shadow....As a psychologist, I'm able to recognize and work with it in other people," he says. "I have an appreciation for it in a way that I don't feel other Americans do."

This insight into the shadow is helpful in Hellman's current work as a geropsychologist, where he encounters victims and perpretrators of elder abuse.

"I consider seniors to be marginalized in our culture, and I'm interested in improving conditions for them," he says. "I have a mission to heal the world in whatever way I can."

And--as if unwittingly heeding Staub's call to raise caring children--Hellman reflects on what he wants to pass on to his daughter about his parents' Holocaust experiences.

"As a people, we weren't annihilated--I'd like her to gain inspiration and strength from that. I'd also like for her to be sensitive to other oppressed groups and to have an open heart."

Nicole S. Crawford is a writer in Washington, D.C.