I had just turned 16 when I was taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Oddly, once there, I was driven by an intense curiosity to make sense of what was happening around me. Today, at almost 90, it is still curiosity about human behaviour under hardship conditions, but also the urge to prevent the world from turning upside down again, that has driven me to write my memoir, The Choice. This is also my motivation for speaking to audiences about my life as a survivor and thriver and in continuing to help patients through my psychology practice. Many of the people I treat have survived traumatic events in their own lives.
Only a few short years after being liberated from Auschwitz, I, and my new young husband, landed in America with no money, no ties, but with a determination to build a good life there and leave the past behind. I worked. I took care of my family. I struggled to learn and embrace a new language and culture. I became quiet. I became more quiet. Little by little, I began turning away from myself. Somehow, my experience in Auschwitz and other camps, my captivity and liberation - no longer seemed relevant. The time had come for silence and denial. I was neither victim nor survivor, just another immigrant trying to make the grade in the American melting pot.
However, as our financial situation eased, my restlessness and dissatisfaction increased. At forty-years-old, I decided to return to school and pursue studies in psychology. This, of course, compelled me to delve into my own history and those 15 months of abjection and horror during the war. Under the guidance of my professors at the University of Texas, I developed a theory of growth that attempts to measure how victims of concentration camps cope in the short and long term. I earned a masters degree and then a Ph.D. and, over time, set up my own clinical practice.
Intellectually, I had fulfilled my mother's wish before she was sent to the gas chambers, that I should live a full life. However, I did not feel redeemed. In 1990, I travelled back to Auschwitz on those same railroad tracks that brought countless thousands to their deaths. I went to mourn the dead and celebrate the living. I also needed to formally put an end to the denial that I had been a victim and to assign guilt to the oppressor. I needed to touch the walls and smell the latrines to re-experience my own reality, to de-grief, so to speak.
It is not always possible for victims to return to the place where pain was visited upon them. But I encourage patients to re-live the dreadful events in as much detail as memory can muster, all the while observing intensely their own emotional and physical reactions. The next step in recovery often comes from going public with one's affliction, not just as a personal catharsis but in the hope that others can benefit from it. I once asked an audience of three-hundred university students how many of them knew what happened at Auschwitz. Only four hands went up. Only four out of three-hundred university students in that audience knew about the atrocities and history of Auschwitz. How is that possible? It was then that I decided to be quiet no longer, to go public with my story.
I hope that someday, when they are ready, my great grandchildren will have the curiosity to ask their great grandmother questions about the time when the world was upside down. So that if it starts tilting again, they and millions of others can redress it before it is too late.