An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors
Book Review and Interview
While the book focuses primarily on Holocaust Survivors, it can be used and associated with other individuals who experienced genocide or mass atrocity crimes. Mass atrocity crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Acts include: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer, imprisonment, torture, rape, prostitution, or persecution based on gender, religion, race or culture. If we fast forward to modern times, examples of this would be Rwanda, Darfur, and the current situation in Syria and Iraq.
Holocaust Survivors lived through what many term as one of the ‘darkest times in history.’ They have much to share with and teach current, and future generations. Although many suffer from post traumatic symptoms such as anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, recurring traumatic memories, and a variety of health conditions; these co-exist with their strengths, adaptive coping abilities, and perseverance to rebuild their lives after the war. They settled in new countries, learned new languages, trades and professions, started new families, and built new Jewish communities.
Holocaust survivors have much in common with current survivors of mass atrocity crimes. They were not greeted well or received with ‘open arms’ when they immigrated to new countries and communities after the war. Instead they were greeted with denial, non-acceptance, ignorance, indifference, avoidance, silence, and suspicion about their experiences. Most people did not want to listen to their stories and experiences or did not believe what they heard.
And yet, in spite of this rejection, survivors turned to each other for support and action. They created a host of new organizations and contributed to the cultural, educational, religious, and institutional development of the Jewish community. They institutionalized Holocaust education and remembrance and committed themselves to fight racism and social injustice.
Today, many survivor families consist of four generations – older adults, adult children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The author points out that recovery is a lifelong process. Intrusive memories, guilt, sadness, and longing for family and friends who were killed prevail, at the same time that holidays, life events, and accomplishments are celebrated.
This book is an informative and much-needed resource and guide for practitioners, medical professionals, spiritual leaders, community leaders, and students. The author documents her strengths-based approach that stresses listening to and learning from Holocaust survivors. She draws upon current research and practice literature from social work, sociology, medicine, neuroscience, and gerontology that have helped her to develop innovative service models and programs, and apply practical techniques, and individual and group interventions to empower survivors as they recover from tragedy and adversity.
The author writes about her own family history which provides a foundation for this book. Both of her parents are Holocaust Survivors and she was born after the war in a displaced persons camp in Germany. The offspring of Holocaust survivors experience first-hand their parents’ traumatic memories through their upbringing. While some parents shared their war experiences, others did not.
Such a horrible event in history should never happen again and yet genocide and mass atrocity crimes are still committed today. Has the world not learned? Remembrance is important along with leaving a legacy for future generations through books, video testimonies, movies, documentaries, poetry, art, and discussions, and interactions with youth. In so doing, the world and future generations will learn about events that happened more than 70 years ago.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was encouraged by requests from colleagues, students, and survivors to document my professional, volunteer, and personal experiences with Holocaust survivors and their families. They helped me realize that many service providers lack knowledge about survivors’ history and diversity, their psychosocial functioning, the impact of aging on traumatic memory, and specialized survivor-assistance resources. In my research, I found books and articles about the Holocaust, the theory and pathology of severe trauma, the psychosocial effects of such experiences, and clinical treatment of associated symptoms; but not much information about survivors’ adaptation and resilience, or programs focused on recovery.
I wanted to fill this information gap by writing a practice guide for communities, health care providers, survivors, academics, and students. I also wanted to broaden the perception of survivors that moves beyond pathology by discussing their adaptive coping abilities and achievements that co-exist with their physical and psychological vulnerabilities.
How can a book written about Holocaust Survivors be applicable to other individuals or groups of people who have lived through war, mass atrocity crimes, and other traumatic experiences?
This book is intended to reach a diverse audience from a variety of backgrounds using the experience of Holocaust survivors as an example. The practice philosophy, service models, and the programs and interventions can be replicated and adapted to survivors of other mass atrocities. Topics include:
- A partial listing of mass atrocities committed during the past hundred years.
- Part V summarizes major milestones that Holocaust survivors accomplished on their journey towards recovery that are applicable to other survivor populations. I also share my thoughts about creating a national resource to assist survivors of mass atrocities.
- The discussion in this book follows a strengths-based framework when interacting with survivors and describes in detail, along with case examples, the specific skills and programs required to put this framework into action. This approach focuses on listening and learning from survivors, discovering their needs, recognizing their strengths, involving them in program creation, and encouraging them to participate in providing services and helping each other.
- The impact of prolonged victimization and interventions such as empathic listening to modulate intense feelings and enhance well-being.
- Environmental factors that reduce the impact of trauma.
- A detailed description of specialized community-based services such as individual and group services that include a long-term group trauma recovery model.
- Clinical interventions and therapeutic responses to survivors who encounter common issues, triggers, and emotional reactions.
- Eclectic therapeutic modalities, including interventions ranging from complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to techniques to help survivors achieve peace of mind.
- Activities that bring meaning and purpose such as intergenerational programming.
Unfortunately, genocide and war did not end with the Holocaust. Mass murders continue to take place around the world. Those of us who work with Holocaust survivors have learned how to respond to individuals traumatized and displaced by war. This book transfers a legacy of knowledge and experience we’ve learned in working with Holocaust survivors to survivors of other mass atrocities. To these communities I want to put forth a message of hope – that recovery is possible.
Which chapter(s) in the book provide(s) a good foundation of information for an individual who has lived through/survived a traumatic event(s)?
I receive excellent feedback from survivors. Some tell me that reading this book has helped them to better understand themselves, especially the psychological impact of their traumatic experiences (chapter 5), the association between aging and traumatic memory (chapter 7), situations that may trigger memories of their persecution (chapter 14) and common issues unique to survivors such as impact of the past, bereavement and loss, significance of family, and religious faith (chapter 7).
Survivors tell me that this book makes them feel validated and understood. Some are buying copies for their children in the hopes of being better understood by them. One survivor thanked me for “understanding the soul of the survivor.”
Who is this book written for?
The intended audience for this book is: health-care and social service providers, survivors of mass atrocity, including their families, and communities, the academic community, including students, government agencies and policy makers, and others who want to understand this population and their special needs.
Parts I and II are intended for all readers and create a background and context for understanding the survivor population. Parts III and IV can be used by practitioners as a stand alone manual or guide for service delivery so that they can easily access this information and apply the interventions or replicate the programs. Part III discusses different services and programs for survivor populations along with suggestions on how to create them. Part IV identifies interventions used by professionals to respond to specific situations.
This book responds to both practitioner and student requests for a field guide written by an experienced practitioner who is also knowledgeable about the theory of social work practice. Frequently, students tell me that their studies over-emphasize theoretical research and lack practical applications such the development of service models, examples of clinical practice, specific interventions that focus on the helping relationship, and self-care techniques. I believe this book is well suited to university students who are training to become practitioners in the field and want to relate their academic studies to the practical world. For academic objectives, the book includes references to the literature for further study.
I want to thank Myra for agreeing to a book review and for answering the interview questions. Too soon, future generations will have to rely on books, video testimonies, documentaries, and movies to learn about the Holocaust. The chance or opportunity to speak to and learn from a Holocaust survivor lessens each day as they continue to age and become frailer. Older survivors are in their late 80’s and early 90’s. Child survivors are in their 70’s and early 80’s. This book is all encompassing and provides a solid foundation for practitioners, students, and anyone interested in learning about the Holocaust while at the same time providing information, techniques, and resources that can be used to assist others who have been subjected to or witnessed violence, trauma, war, and genocide.
By Victoria Brewster, MSW