Memories in a Holocaust Hourglass
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Memories in a Holocaust Hourglass

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The issue of whether Holocaust survivors, traumatized by the tragedy, can remember what really happened has become a focal point in the trial of John Demjanjuk in Jerusalem. His defense attorney, Mark O’Connor, is trying to pry the minutiae of their lives to show confusion, amnesia and marred recollections. He is pinning his hopes of exonerating Demjanjuk on memory lapses and inability to remember.

But it is this very inability to remember that is the product of the Holocaust’s trauma, according to Eva Fogelman, a psychotherapist who works with Holocaust survivors and is research associate and board member of the Sands Point, New York, Jerome Riker International Study of the Organized Persecution of Children. which studies child survivors, plumbing the depths of hidden memories.

Fogelman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “the very act of giving testimony for some survivors is a traumatic experience in itself, and needs a supportive atmosphere with which to alleviate some of the pain and the horror, The court situation is by no means a supportive environment in which people can remember and recount traumatic experiences where they were dehumanized.” To ensure accurate recall, she suggested that witnesses be seen privately by trained interviewers over several weeks before giving public testimony.

O’Connor has been chipping away at inconsistencies in the sworn testimony given by witnesses in the movie-theater-turned-courtroom in which more people than there is seating capacity turn out daily to wait to watch the trial, in person and on closed-screen television in an adjacent room. Radios in Israel are tuned in to the court proceedings wherever one goes, and witnesses are surely aware that their testimony is being heard by hundreds of thousands of people, and read about by millions throughout the world.


Fogelman, who has interviewed hundreds of survivors, said that “most survivors can begin to recount their experiences, and while they may not always remember specific chronology of events, the emotions and the memories, after several sessions, begin to make a coherent sequence of events. While it is true that in a one-time session there may be discrepancies between a survivor’s recall of one event or another, over several sessions a survivor begins to feel and remember what had actually happened.

“One of the ways in which the survivors have coped over the years is by suppressing some of the painful experiences that they had. When they are asked to bear witness on a witness stand, for many of them, this is the first time that they are piecing it together. It is difficult under such a stressful environment, given the trauma that they have been trying to repress all these years, and it is understandable that in trying to recall it, there will initially be discrepancies in what they recall, because it has served them in a way of coping and adapting with their life after the Holocaust.”

Thus, it is this very memory loss, subject of O’Connor’s barbs, that has protected the survivors and enabled them to get on with their lives despite their degrading experiences.

Fogelman, who made a documentary film several years ago about children of Holocaust survivors, “Breaking the Silence,” explained that “Blurting out the names of those killed makes them real again. It would be blasphemous to say that this is the reality of the survivor’s memory if that memory has failed or if it doesn’t come out right the first time, or if places are forgotten,” she said. “It is not their actual memory.

“Memory has to do with emotions. It is not separated from that. Survivors should not be brought to the trial if this is the first time that they bear witness. Every recall evokes in the survivor intense feelings, whether they be anger or helplessness, or guilt that they were unable to do enough.”


Milton and Dr. Judith Kestenberg, cofounders of the Riker Study, had much to say about the way in which witnesses could be helped immeasurably to positively identify Demjanjuk.

Milton Kestenberg, a researcher and also a lawyer, said, “As an attorney, I would bring in nine other Ukrainians in a lineup and I would ask the witness to observe them in the following way: I would ask them to say something, let’s say in German or in Ukrainian, which would be tantamount to the curses or crude orders which this defendant allegedly made while in the concentration camp.

“Your memory is based on sounds, on movements of people, their facial expressions, and the total of it gives us the identity of a person, the way a person talks, the way a person gets mad, etc. Because without a lineup, the impressions might be misleading. But I would definitely require them to behave in such way as the witnesses remember the way the defendant allegedly behaved in the camp.

“There are two kinds of movement in a person,” Kestenberg continued. “One is a gesture movement, which is typical for people from a certain background. A Ukrainian may move around differently than a Turk, for example. In addition, gesture movements are controllable. In other words, the defendant can deliberately move differently to mislead the witness.

“However, if there are posture movements — a movement where the whole body is involved in the service of a certain pattern, for example — if you show strength, if you use the strength easily in a gesture, in a posture it is very difficult to control it. It comes more naturally. The subject cannot be in full control of his postural movement, even if he would want to. And that’s one way how you can recognize it.”


Dr. Judith Kestenberg, a psychoanalyst, said, “You can get up from a chair in a certain way; or you walk in a certain manner.” Regarding the tone of voice, she observed, “There are two aspects of the way you talk: When you talk in your native language, there is a certain melody of speech that of course is native to its own language.

“But beyond this, you have an individuality, like a voice print, and that is very difficult to lose, even when you get older.”

The Kestenbergs noted that a person can be recognized by his choice of words. But in Demjanjuk’s case, Milton Kestenberg said, “It’s probably not likely, because Demjanjuk is careful in his choice of words.” They both emphasized the fact that Demjanjuk has spoken in Hebrew, not his native Ukrainian, to greet the witnesses, and most particularly when he was angry.

Milton Kestenberg said it helps “if one can get him angry enough to respond in his own language. When Eliahu Rosenberg identified him as Ivan the Terrible, why did Demjanjuk call him a liar in Hebrew? Maybe he didn’t want to say that in his own language,” because that would have lent credence to the witness.

Dr. Kestenberg said she was “struck that when a person gets angry he should express it in an entirely foreign language, so it seems that he (Demjanjuk) may have done it for effect. Or maybe he was premeditatively doing something,” mused Dr. Kestenberg.

When he spoke to another witness, said Milton Kestenberg, “He said ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew. Why?” Dr. Kestenberg said, “It looks like he’s trying to show that he’s friendly to Jews. He learns their language.”

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