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Wolf in the attic contd ...

 

She reflects:

"It would have been simple to remain in hiding simple but cowardly, the cost to myself too dear Today, I feel a responsibility not only to myself, but also to those millions who perished, to be honest about my holocaust past" (p.213).

Richman started to come out of psychological hiding to explore her early childhood experiences tentatively when her father, already in his mid- 70's, published accounts of the atrocities that took place in the Janowska concentration camp. He had been held captive there for about a year, which ended with a daring escape. Her father's willingness to break the silence through his own book was understood by Richman as permission from him for her and her family to start speaking about what they had lived through during the war years. The wolf in the attic was himself speaking, providing the emotional release to Richman to begin doing the same.

The crucial realisation for Richman, though, appears to have been that she was suddenly able to realise that she had a story to tell, overriding the deeply embedded messages from her formative years that the most important thing to do would be to remain silent. After writing this book, Richman commented: "I had found my voice, and it was an exhilarating and freeing experience." (p.226).

Richman's experience of the process of writing leads her to refl ect on the changes she observed in the public perception of holocaust survivors in the 80's. During the war, Jews were dehumanised and humiliated. And it was only once the stories of survivors began to emerge and be made public that dignity could be restored. Many children had grown up like refugees in foreign countries with a sense of shame. They now had the freedom to begin feeling dignifi ed and heroic.

Richman notes: "children of holocaust survivors are 'memorial candles' to those who did not survive", (p.157) a role which has the capacity to transform survivor guilt and ambivalence into heroic witnessing.

In her writing, Richman graphically depicts the despair experienced by Jewish families being targeted by Hitler. Whereas the nazi's dehumanised and obliterated their victims, Richman brings them back to life in a most poignant and moving way. Very moving photographs in the book remind the reader of the millions of lives lost in the holocaust, people whose lives had become cheap and dispensable, but who, through this book, are accorded dignity once more.

Perhaps this image of herself as a "memorial candle" helped her to believe in the importance of telling her story for herself, for her relatives and others who were murdered in concentration camps, and principally for her daughter and husband.

In this extremely moving book Richman also speculates on the impact of trauma more generally on herself, her patients and others. She challenges the polarised views that survivors are permanently damaged or exceptionally resilient. She argues that one's response to trauma is much more complex. Different traumas happening to different people will have certain things in common. Speaking of her teenage daughter's brain tumour and subsequent operation in 1995,

Richman says:

"Although hers and my traumatic experiences were of a completely different nature, some of the issues we have struggled with are similar. The trauma each of us experienced in childhood has left a mark that separated us from the rest of humanity. For survivors, the trauma becomes a defi ning event, an identity that sets one apart and makes one feel different, like an alien in the world. It is a difference born of tragedy and associated with suffering and shame. We are members of a special club that no one wants to join. The only comfort of being on the inside is the feeling that one is not alone. " (p.212).

A Wolf in the Attic brings us very close to reliving some of the horrifying events and consequences of the holocaust for the Jewish survivors. Despite the fact that Richman's father managed to escape from a concentration camp, the atrocities and cruelty to which he was exposed left him cold, bitter and distant from people, including his daughter, who was about one year of age when he was imprisoned, and about two when he escaped and joined his family in hiding. In many ways, Richman grew up without a father, and possibly compensated for this by having a particularly close relationship with her mother.

This is a powerful book for people who have experienced severe trauma or for therapists working with such people. Richman reminds us that: "As trauma survivors, hidden children are suspended between remembering and forgetting; each individual has to come to terms with a balance." (p.172).

Therapists are reminded of their role in helping their clients to fi nd this balance, of assisting their clients in voicing their traumas, and in so doing turning their fragmented experiences into a more coherent whole. But this is also a useful text for therapists working with clients who have emigrated from their country of origin, or are refugees, as it graphically describes the sense of dislocation and isolation experienced by fl eeing or uprooting from the place of one's birth. The book reminds clinicians of the profound effect that trauma can have on individuals and on their children and on the complex mechanisms by which these are sometimes transmitted from one generation to the next.

It is a matter-of-fact, poignant mirror on the extremes of human cruelty, the extremes of human resilience and the extreme power in fi nding one's voice as a means to healing the past. Her writing is honest, courageous and gentle.

Susan Spencer is a psychologist in private practice and contributing editor to New Therapist magazine.

 

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