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Luring the wolf from the attic

By Susan Spencer

 

Sophia Richman is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York and New Jersey. For many years, she has been involved in working with individual holocaust survivors and their children. She was, not surprisingly, herself a member of a group of holocaust survivors.

She has lectured in universities, schools and psychoanalytic institutes about her experiences during the War. But more recently, in her book A Wolf in the Attic, she has thrown her private, haunting memories into the public domain in a manner that testifi es to the powerful effect of writing on the victims and the witnesses of human atrocities.

This book is about the author writing her way to health by breaking the pattern of silence, by breaking the spell of the power of violence by telling of its unmentionable details.

The book tells of the impact of the holocaust on a woman who spent her most formative years hiding from the enemy. And Richman's story of survival is remarkable, given that 1.5 million of the 1.6 million children living in Nazi occupied Europe did not survive to tell.

Hers is the story about a child who was born into the drama of the holocaust-a word derived from Greek which, loosely translated, means "whole burnt". She was one of the millions of Hitler's targets in his drive to cleanse German occupied territories of Jews. Richman was born in Eastern Europe in Poland after the outbreak of the war, shortly whereafter this part of Poland, Lwow, became part of the Ukraine.

By the 1930's Lwow had grown into a large Polish city occupied by three major groups: the Poles, the Ukranians and the Jews. People were aware that Hitler was preparing for war and, accordingly, in 1937 Richman's parents were married and began preparing to leave. But it would still be another 12 years before the Richman family would fi nally emigrate to America because of a quota system which restricted their exit.

When the Russians took over Lwow in 1939, initially pleasing Richman's father, who was relieved that the Germans had not taken control. However it soon became clear that life under this repressive regime was far from desirable.

Richman was born in January 1941, fi ve months before Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The German's implemented a new labour law forcing all Jews between the ages of 14 and 60 to work in German establishments.

Richman's father applied for work at the Janowska work camp. Between August and October 1941 workers would arrive in the morning and leave in the evening. Then, without warning, on October 31, 1941, Janowska work camp became a concentration camp, and workers who had for months been returning home daily, were instantly incarcerated. This left Richman, now a one-year-old child, and her mother, in a vulnerable position.

Thanks to their fair complexions, the two could pass as Christians more easily than many of their family members. All told, 35 of Richamn's blood relations would perish in the holocaust. Richman's father escaped from Janowska after about a year and joined his wife and daughter. But for fear that he would be discovered by the owner of the house or the Nazis, he was hidden in the attic of the house.

His discovery would have meant certain death for himself, his wife and child, and the unwitting owners of the house in which they sheltered. Richman and her mother lived as Christians. Her mother adopted another identity and name.

But the newly verbal Richman child, now a toddler, was too young to trust with the secret of her father's presence in the house. That skeletal man in the tiny room upstairs, whom she glanced from time to time, became the "wolf in the attic". For two years her father remained hidden there.

Her mother would bath him when she could, dispose of his excrement when she could and allow him as time went by to spend longer periods out of the attic in the room shared by mother and daughter.

The wolf became an ominous symbol. Richman uses this metaphor later in her book, where she refer to times in Richman's adult life when tragedy strikes again. She reminds the reader how growing up in as dangerous a climate as she did, the wolf is never far away. She notes that her mother particularly became a pessimist waiting for disaster to strike, while the author had a greater capacity for optimism at times.

But deception, Richman's saviour through childhood, was to become her tormentor in later life. She notes:

"It has taken me years to sort out the truths, half-truths, and lies. In fact I owe my life to my mother's great ability to distort and dissemble, for I have no doubt that it was her acting skill that helped us to survive the Holocaust by living as Christians" (p.3).

Her mother would go out to work some days, leaving Richman at home with no toys to entertain herself and no adult to supervise her. Although her mother knew her father was hiding in the attic and keeping an eye on his daughter, his presence was kept a secret from the young Richman. From an early age Richman learned to be self reliant in a terrifying and pervasively stressful environment.

Writing about this experience provided the author with affi rmation and validation for her experience that had previously been minimised by a world that had found the stories undigestible. Undigestible until the 80's, that is, when the rash of popular media productions of the holocaust made it okay, even fashionable, to begin to process the holocaust on a societal level. Richman stresses the importance of acknowledging one's trauma for healing to take place. She explains:

"For many survivors, memoirs are a particularly signifi cant form of self-expression because they encourage the creation of a cohesive, integrated narrative of life while at the same time serve [sic] a crucial witnessing function. Bearing witness to the suffering of others is a driving force behind most Holocaust memoirs. The author of a memoir experiences the healing power of witnessing on two levels. First, the writer as witness fulfi ls responsibility to those murdered who cannot speak for themselves, then the reader as witness provides the writer with an affi rming, understanding presence." (p.215)

At the age of about 50 Richman had been a private practitioner for 30 years, 20 years of which had been in fulltime practice in New York. Her fl ourishing practice encouraged her to open a practice in New Jersey, which required her to sit for a state oral licensing examination. She understood this to be an elementary test.

Astonishingly, Richman failed the exam, forcing her to rescind the temporary permit she had been granted to practise in New Jersey. But the blow was something of an epiphany for Richman. She became acutely aware of the extent of the impact of the holocaust on her life. She and her family's very survival of the holocaust had been dependent upon their capacity to keep from the Nazi's and others in their community the secrets they held her strength lay in her ability to be silent. She grew up knowing that at crucial junctures, survival meant silence.

When placed in the stressful situation of the oral test and needing to articulate herself, she was unable to perform. Despite being a competent and capable psychoanalyst, she was now crippled by her inability to talk. Following letters to the relevant authorities, she explained her diffi culty in articulating herself clearly in certain contexts. She was given an opportunity to sit the oral again and performed well. This experience was instrumental in precipitating her return to therapy after 17 years, to start processing her own experiences as a holocaust survivor for the fi rst time. It was still many years before Richman's own book would be written

 

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