Between the ascension of the Nazi regime to power in Germany in 1933 and the defeat of the German army in 1945, over six million civilians perished at the hands of German forces, their military allies, and their civilian associates. The word “Holocaust,” with Greek roots meaning “destruction of life by fire” and a common translation of the Hebrew word “Shoah,” is nearly universally understood to refer to these events.
The murderous effort rested on an ideology of racial superiority and aspirations of racial “purity.” Jews were by far the largest component of the victims. Roma and Sinti (both commonly – but sometimes derogatorily – referred to as “Gypsies”) were also targeted, as were the physically disabled, the mentally disabled, and members of several religious minorities. Political opponents, as well as Slavic and Russian civilians, were also murdered in large quantities, although whether these mass atrocities constituted part of a genocide is less certain.
The Holocaust unfolded over time. When the Nazi regime came to power, it was already imbued with an ideology of racial ideology – which happened to comport with its own sense of it political enemies. It began establishing concentration camps shortly after coming to power. The regime also systematically discriminated against Jews (and other groups it perceived to be racially inferior) in the economic, political, and civic realms. November 1938 pogroms known as “Kristallnacht” demonstrated that the German police would tolerate (and, indeed, encourage) violence against Jews and their property. Once World War II broke out the following year, the German government expanded its concentration camp system, and soon converted them into an infrastructure for mass killing. Meanwhile, an even greater number of Jews and other civilians would be killed outside of the camps, either through the Nazi SS Einsatzgroppen (mobile paramilitary units) or the actions of Nazi supporters on either side of the front lines in Eastern Europe.
The Holocaust is undoubtedly the seminal event for the field of genocide studies. Even as scholars examine new and different cases from a variety of perspectives, the foundation of the field lies in effort to understand the organization, behavior, and psychology of different actors – those who killed, those who stood by, those who perished, those who attempted to help, and those who survived – the Holocaust. Many of the field’s most important scholars continue to address these issues today.
A central component of the Genocide Studies Program has been Dr. Dori Laub’s study of trauma among Holocaust victims, which makes extensive use of Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
Videotestimony Pilot Study of Psychiatrically Hospitalized Holocaust Survivors
Principal Investigator: Dori Laub, MD, Deputy Director (Trauma Studies), Genocide Studies Program. For more details please visit the Traumatic Psychosis: A Videotestimony Research Project website.
The purpose of this research is to systematically assess the effects and potential psychotherapeutic benefits of reconstructing traumatic Holocaust experiences. The reconstruction of the history of personal trauma were conducted through the creation of a videotaped testimony and a multi-disciplinary analysis of the testimony. This study addressed two hypotheses:
- Is massive psychic trauma related to chronic severe mental illness with psychotic decompensation that leads to either chronic hospitalization or multiple psychiatric hospitalizations?
- Does a therapeutic intervention such as video testimony that helps build a narrative for the traumatic experience and gives it a coherent expression help in alleviating its symptoms and changing its course? May these changes be attributed to direct intervention (through the occurrence of the testimonial event itself), or through indirect intervention (through the impact on treatment planning, involvement with family members or the survivor community, or the knowledge that the videotaped testimony will be made available to others)?
A 1993 examination of approximately 5,000 long-term psychiatric inpatients in Israel identified about 900 Holocaust survivors. These patients were not treated as unique: trauma-related illnesses were neglected in diagnosis and decades-long treatment. Evaluation by the Israeli Ministry of Health concluded some 300 of them no longer required inpatient psychiatric hospitalization; specialized hostels (similar to nursing homes) were established on the premises of three psychiatric hospitals. We hypothesize that many of these patients could have avoided lengthy if not life-long psychiatric hospitalizations, had they been able or enabled by their treaters and by society at large to more openly share their severe persecution history. Instead, their traumatic experiences remain encapsulated, causing the survivor to lead a double life: a robot-like semblance to normality with incessant haunting by nightmares and flashbacks. Attention to the particular features of these patients traumatic experiences is of particular importance in the rehabilitation and the re-evaluation of these patients whose initial hospitalization and diagnoses long predate more recent theoretical developments and clinical formulations (e.g., differential diagnosis of PTSD, testimony as therapy).
Phase II of the videotestimony study which is now underway, consists of an in-depth analysis of the videotexts by an interdisciplinary team of experts, in order to define the unique features of the traumatic psychotic disorder these patients most likely suffer from.
The Slave Labor Video Testimony Project
The Foundation for “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” has organized an international project to collect 550 video and audio testimonies from former forced and slave laborers in the German “Third Reich.” Ex-laborers from 25 different countries, mostly in Eastern Europe, are being interviewed. The project requested the GSP’s Trauma Project to conduct 20 videotestimonies with Jewish Holocaust Survivors in the United States. The names of these survivors were obtained through the Fortunoff Video Archive and through the Connecticut Child Survivor Organization. After proper preparation, the videotestimonies were filmed on the European PAL format and on the American NTSC format, in parallel with professional audiotaping. The testimonies were all given in English and lasted between two and four hours. All subjects also filled out a symptom checklist PCL-9 for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which will be repeated within a year of their testimony to see whether the testimonial event has brought about possible symptom changes and symptomotology.
The twenty videotestimonies, taken in Dr. Laub’s office in New Haven, Connecticut, have all been completed and transcribed and translated into German. The PAL videocassettes were sent to an audio visual lab in Israel to be transferred to an enhanced BETA format. After that enhancement, they were shipped to Hagen University in Ludenscheid, Germany, which coordinates this international study, along with their translated transcripts and the consent forms, as well as summaries. They were also sent to the Foundation for “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.” This project has created a substantial database, useful for future historical, psychological and linguistic studies, for which definite funding is needed.