For this post, I am honored to have as my interviewee the distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Ira Brenner, editor of the recently published “Handbook of Psychoanalytic Holocaust Studies: International Perspectives.”
Each of the contributions to this book is written in an accessible style, and I consider the volume indispensable to all readers who want to deepen their understanding of the Holocaust and related phenomena.
Sample titles of essays in the book are “At the water’s edge; poetry and the Holocaust,” by Janet R. Kirchheimer, “On evil,” by Kathryn Ann Baselice and J. Anderson Thomson, and “Fifty years as a ‘2G’ author” by Helen Epstein.
The book’s dedication page tells us a great deal about Dr. Brenner’s intent in producing the volume. It says:
“This book is dedicated to those who hate Jews and believe that killing them will save the world. May they have life-changing experiences and become champions of universal human rights.”
Dr. Brenner, what do you most hope for people to take away from their reading of this book?
Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to tell your readers about my new book.
It is the culmination of years of collaboration with an international group of colleagues and friends. Understandably, unless one has a special interest or connection to the Holocaust, it is a subject often avoided because of the very intense negative emotions that get evoked. However, in my view, acquiring a deeper appreciation of this subject is of the greatest importance to us all, especially during these times of upheaval, uncertainty, and global changes.
I would hope that people will get a better sense of the relevance of the Holocaust as it pertains to our understanding of human nature. There is a universal vulnerability of large groups, or nations, to become regressed under authoritarian rule, which as a result, can end up in people doing things they might not do otherwise. There can be a destructive acting out on hatred of minorities, which under government “legalization” then becomes a patriotic act. Under such conditions, genocide is a likely result.
Human history is full of such examples, including what we unhappily see in the world today. Because of the unique circumstances leading up to the Holocaust, as well as the extensive documentation by both the perpetrators and the victims, it has become the most studied of the genocides. Therefore, it is imperative for people of all backgrounds who care about what we as a species are capable of, to learn about the Holocaust as much as possible. Having said that, I certainly realize the great difficulties in doing so.
And, that is why I undertook this huge project.
Please tell us about “Challenges on Stage,” one of your contributions to this book.
In “Challenges on Stage,” I write about my experiences as a consultant to a production of Charlotte Delbo‘s play “Who Will Carry the Word?”, which portrays the playwright’s survival in Nazi concentration camps. Specifically, this Delbo play shows 23 female prisoners in an Auschwitz barracks who share the goal of keeping the strongest among them alive, in order to be able to tell the world what happened to all of them.
Firstly, I should mention that when one is severely traumatized, it is by definition impossible to process. As a result, the associated memories and emotions persist in corners of the mind long afterward, and can have deleterious effects on the quality of one’s life. From the extremes of suicidal depression and anxiety to premature aging of the body, the long-term effects of traumatization can be insidious and very depleting. We have recognized that enlisting one’s creativity in the service of healing is an extremely powerful way to transform the deadliness of life-threatening experiences into life-affirming artistic expression. However, there often are challenges and complications along the way to that transformation.
My paper “Challenges on Stage” describes a most unusual, quite intriguing problem that developed during work on this production of “Who Will Carry the Word?” The problem that arose required the delicate application of psychoanalytic principles, and for me, this experience was profound and exhilirating. The all female cast consisted of highly experienced actors under the direction of a very talented and psychologically-minded director, and the play was performed in a first rate professional theater.
Despite these extremely positive factors, the cast experienced a pathological group symptom, essentially a mini mass hysteria. Additionally, they developed a distorted view of the director, in which she was perceived to have Nazi-like qualities, a shocking development which could have threatened the whole production. To a psychoanalyst, this dynamic resembled a paranoid transference. Through acquiring a deeper understanding of these dynamics, the director was then able to effectively address this totally unexpected group regression, which enabled her to work it through with the cast. The result of this psychoanalytically informed directorial work was an exceptional production of this disturbingly graphic rendition of life in a death camp. This experience was so remarkable that I had to write about it, and writing about it wound up compelling me to devote a whole section of this book to creativity.
In treating Holocaust survivors and their descendants, understanding the differences between repression and dissociation are of prime importance. How would you explain repression and dissociation – and why the difference between them is so important – to an educated layperson?
You go right to the heart of a longstanding controversy in the field, which might seem rather esoteric even to many educated laypersons!
In fact, the difference has great clinical significance because a traditional treatment approach may fail if unrecognized traumatic memories are very securely compartmentalized in the mind through dissociation.
The classic therapeutic techniques were based on the assumption that repression — or motivated forgetting — was at the root of how we psychologically protect ourselves from all unpleasant or unacceptable memories and wishes. Given the organization of that type of mind, “All roads lead to Rome”, so if one has the opportunity to say everything that comes to mind, what is repressed will emerge under the guidance of a properly trained practitioner.
In contrast, with dissociated mental contents, there may be altered states of consciousness, periods of getting totally lost in thought, i.e., getting ”spaced out”, and such a division in the mind that a specially-designed active approach is warranted. I have developed such a modification of outpatient treatment, after working on a specialized inpatient unit devoted to the treatment of Dissociative Disorders. This approach is designated as “Psychoactive Psychotherapy.”
The Handbook contains a moving essay, “Bearing Witness” by the Holocaust survivor and pioneering researcher Dr. Dori Laub, who unfortunately passed away recently. Did you know him personally, and if so, will you please tell us a little about him?
Yes, I knew Dori Laub quite well. His passing away was a huge loss.
He and I led the Holocaust Discussion Group at the winter meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association in NYC for almost 30 years. After the retirement of the founding triumvirate of Judith Kestenberg, Martin Bergmann, and Milton Jucovy, in 1990, I was asked to take over as Chair, and Dori was asked to be Co-Chair. In fact, he was senior to me and became an important teacher of mine. More importantly, he became a very good friend who was almost always available to discuss the issues. He was perhaps best known as co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, one of the first of its kind to interview Holocaust survivors. Dori was an indefatigable student of the Holocaust, a child survivor who knew about the suffering firsthand, and one who had the gift of being able to help others.
His last gift to me was his chapter for this book, one of the final papers he wrote before his death.
It’s of note that in your Introduction, you credit your friend Dr. Salman Akhtar – an immigrant from India — with motivating you to create this book. Please tell us something about your friendship with Dr. Akhtar.
I see you are very interested in my relationships with the contributors, which you correctly surmise is at the heart of the volume.
It would not have been possible to enlist the help of twenty-seven colleagues from four continents if I did not have connections with nearly all of them. Regarding Dr. Akhtar in particular, I would not have had the “chutzpah” to think I could have achieved such a feat, were it not for him. I have known him since the first day of my psychiatric residency at UVA in Charlottesville, back in 1976, where I had the amazing fortune of doing my first rotation on his inpatient unit. He is the consummate teacher who encouraged all of us residents to write about our clinical experiences and offered to help. I took him up on his offer back then and have continued to do so for more than 40 years! We have become very good friends, and I have described him as my Muse. An unbelievably prolific writer who has over 100 books to his name, Dr. Akhtar has covered almost every topic pertaining to the human condition. Exploring our cultural, ethnic, and religious differences in great detail over the years has helped me realize that what brings people together is their humanity, and that quality transcends everything.
For you, what were some of the most interesting aspects of editing the contributions to this book?
This book is by far the most extensive editing project I have undertaken. But, since you only ask about the most interesting aspects of editing, I will not tell you of the frustration, the doubts, the angst, the countless deadlines, the hundreds and hundreds of emails exchanged, or the software incompatibilities! Instead, I will invoke euphoric recall, as it were, and tell you only of those most wonderful aspects of being the editor of such superb contributions. Seeing it coming to fruition was truly an illustration of Aristotle’s observation that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The most remarkable aspect of it all was the cadre of contributors who enthusiastically accepted my invitation to write a chapter for what was, at the time, an unformulated book. I asked top experts in the field, who were already quite busy with their own work, to write a paper on an area of the Holocaust that I knew was of special interest to them. While I did have a rough idea of what I wanted to include, I was also guided by their ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating communication with them as their own papers started to take shape. They were also quite receptive to my editorial suggestions, for the most part! We did hit a rough spot along the way, which presented a most “interesting” challenge.
My original publishing company was bought out by a much larger one with different editorial requirements. This change occurred in the middle of the project, so things got a bit bogged down as I adjusted to these changes and informed all the authors about what else they needed to do. While the new publishers were extremely supportive and helpful, the changes needed to meet these new requirements slowed things down and caused some confusion along the way. In the end, however, we all persisted, and everyone is most pleased with the end result.
Please feel free to add any information about this book that you would like communicated to my readers.
I’d like to end by commenting about the cover, as in this case, I believe you can judge a book by its cover.
Wanting to create a book cover incorporating some personal family artifacts relating to the Holocaust, I commissioned an analytic colleague who is also a photographer.
After a number of hours adjusting the light and placement of items, she produced an extremely compelling photograph of the deportation list of the Jews of Berlin on September 13, 1939. My father, my grandfather and one of my great uncles were taken to Sachsenhausen that day.
Superimposed upon this deportation list is an artistic sculpture of welded nails that my father created about thirty years later. As a slave laborer, he had learned to weld in Auschwitz.
As you can see, this book has great personal meaning to me and my contributors. I hope that it will have meaning for you, also.