Remembering the Holocaust: A Psychoanalytic Moment
A forgotten appointment offers a window in to transmission of trauma.
Posted Apr 16, 2015
On Holocaust Remembrance Day I happened upon a piece of writing of mine from many years ago, long before this blog existed. I decided to share it here, as it offers a window in to the process of analysis, the function of the unconscious, and the way the Holocaust can continue to live in subsequent generations. This moment was a turning point in my analysis. In the years that followed this event, I was able to explore my family's history, to understand its impact on me and on my children, and to hear my father's story directly from him. It is through the telling of stories, in an environment of safety, that we may move forward in growth and healing.
It was early one summer morning. I drove along the quiet country road, deep in thought as I anticipated my appointment with my analyst of 5 years. A senior staff member at Austen Riggs, he had rescheduled my regular appointment to this early hour because he was running a conference. We had discussed the change two days earlier, at an appointment that had also been rescheduled because he was away for a week.
I climbed the stairs to his second floor office, already anticipating the feelings I would share. The large thick wooden door was closed. It was 7:31. I heard footsteps on the stairs and was again able to breathe, but a stranger appeared. I knocked on the door. No answer. I waited a few minutes and then went to my car to get my cell phone. "No, no one called, " my husband told me. I drove home, certain that some terrible fate had befallen my analyst. He called me at 8 am to tell me he had forgotten the appointment.
At our next session, he told me that on the morning of the forgotten appointment, he was nervous and preoccupied with thoughts about an interview he would be conducting that morning in front of an audience -the reason for our change in appointment time- with a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden by a Dutch family. Though my analyst rarely shared any information about himself, he share this information with me because he thought, "it might be related."
My father, a German Jew, left Germany in 1939, days past his 16th birthday, to live with a family in Minneapolis. His parents were in the concentration camp Theresienstadt, and when he returned to Germany as an American Soldier at the end of the war, he was able to find and rescue his parents just before a typhoid epidemic broke out. Most of the over 300 Jews from his hometown were killed by the Nazi's.
The week of the forgotten appointment, one of my teachers at the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute (where I was at the time studying as a scholar) had told me that she had just returned from the International Psychoanalytic Association meeting in Berlin. I was able to put together this information with my analyst's absence, and confirm that he had been at the same conference. In class the next week this teacher spoke with us about the conference. The title was, "Remembering , Repeating , and Working Through in Psychoanalysis and Culture today." She said it was, "60% about Germans and Jews," and ,"Iike 4 days of Yom Kippur."
So the forgotten appointment was between these two events. Might it be related? I do not know if my analyst has other patients whose grandparents were in a concentration camp, and I do not know if he also forgot other appointments. Both of these things are unlikely. I do (did) not often bring my feelings about the Holocaust to my therapy. In my family, as in the family of many survivors, the attitudes that these things are too awful to talk about, and that we must focus on the positive, prevail.
My analyst has a German last name. I believe he is not Jewish, though I am not sure. If he is not, I speculate that just as there is unconscious transmission of trauma in my family, there may be unconscious transmission of guilt in his family. As forgetting an appointment is such an unusual event for an experienced analyst, the event begs for searching for meaning. The way I see it, for some reason, he was unable to think about me just before interviewing a Holocaust survivor.
Interpreting his behavior is not the focus of my analysis, and I realize that these speculations may be an attempt to get around the enormous hurt of being forgotten. We can and will spend many sessions addressing this issue, but the facts around the forgetting demand attention. I have few answers, but many questions. I write this to see what can be learned from this event. Two things stand out. First, the juxtaposition of events confirms for me the existence and power of Freud's greatest discovery, the unconscious. Second, the horrific events of the Holocaust live in this patient and analyst, and in current and future generations, in ways many of us have yet to understand.