Interview by Nathalie Pade, Goldberg online journal, Denmark August 13th, 2018. Dansk version er tilgængelig her
“In order to restore confidence in people, society and life, it is vital to connect with other people, to be met with a friendly look and to feel able to contribute. You need to feel that you have come to a safer place.”
This is the statement made by Judith Beermann Zeligson, a psychotherapist specializing in the generational effects of flight, persecution and war. In addition, she has many years’ experience working as a supervisor for trauma therapists, both for the Red Cross and other centres for rehabilitation of victims of torture as well as conducting therapy groups for the off-spring of Holocaust survivors or of members of the Resistance Movement.
With her background as the child of a Polish-Jewish refugee, she is convinced that when we receive refugees from other countries today, we can learn a lot from the experience of the Danish Jews who fled from persecution during World War II. She believes that the lesson to be learnt from the Danish Jews’ flight in 1943 is that flight involves a risk of experiencing a new trauma: Not being able to lead a normal life.
This is what she tells Journalist Nathalie Ania Delvaux Pade in this article and video film now available in the online magazine Goldberg. Read, listen and watch here:
The term ‘secondary traumatisation’ means not having the opportunity to embark on a new life after a flight that has often been dramatic and led to much suffering. Judith Beermann Zeligson, now having her own practice near Elsinore, Denmark, works as a psychotherapist specializing in the generational effects of flight, persecution and war. As a Jew with insight into the psychological after-effects for Holocaust survivors’ children and grandchildren and with her many years’ experience as a supervisor for trauma therapists at the Red Cross and Oasis torture victim centres, her message is quite clear:
“It is not only the flight in itself that automatically results in a trauma – the way refugees are received in the country they have fled to is also of vital importance.”
“The Danish Jews returned to Denmark after WW2 – and led a relatively good life. In some cases, they could return to their own homes after the war, perhaps finding that someone had even watered their plants while they were away. But fleeing leaves a permanent mark on you, and today we have gained an understanding that can form the basis for a better reception of refugees in present-day society,” she says.
After a dangerous journey fleeing from their home countries, and with a cautious hope for the future, many refugees today face the situation of being sequestered in refugee centres where they are kept isolated from society and told that their stay will not be permanent. On top of that, they have to suffer the indignity of being regarded with suspicion, problematized and subjected to a refugee policy whose prime objective – in the words of Judith Beermann – “is to keep them out.” She goes on to quote the words of some Jewish refugees who fled to Sweden during the war:
“Thank God that no refugee policy existed at the time. If such a policy had in fact existed, it is unlikely that we would have been able to start working or studying as quickly as we actually did, with a feeling of being bid welcome. Or, at any rate, being included.”
During her work for the Red Cross – after the war in the former Yugoslavia – Judith Beermann heard a professor of political science say, “If only I could get a paper delivery job. Doing nothing drives me crazy.” This illustrates the trauma resulting from not being allowed to contribute and being a part of the community in the new country. With no prospects of putting down roots at some time in the future.
“The main concern for a newly arrived refugee is to be able to live a normal life. In other words, being allowed to work, study or use your educational background and make contacts in your everyday life,” she says, and mentions a refugee who – after many years in this country – finally experienced one day that a neighbour said hello to him when they met on the stairs in the block of flats where he lived. For the first time, he felt as a human being.”
“A friendly look from the receiving society is immensely important; as well as focusing on the things that work and allowing children to go to school and participate in society,” says Judith Beermann.
Damage to the ‘trust nerve’
“But you didn’t actually experience it yourself,” is a common response from people when they are told that the children of refugees and Holocaust survivors need therapy, says Judith. For many years she used a metaphor to describe these people’s situation, namely that both parents and children seem to have suffered damage to their ‘trust nerve’.
“It was a breakthrough for me when, 30 years after I had started practising and during a training in trauma therapy, I realized that this nerve – what I call the trust nerve – actually exists in some form, and is associated with our sense of security, danger or threat. Without us really noticing, our nervous system continuously scans our surroundings and affects the way we perceive the world around us and our actions.”
”Refugees then and now bring the experience with them that the threat comes from society and from other people. This is what distinguishes their trauma from other life crises that may also have traumatic after-effects. This experience often filters through to the minds of their children, even though they have not experienced the situation themselves,” says Judith Beermann, who goes on to say that some children of refugees from 1943 have developed physical symptoms because of the latent threat passed on to them by their parents – although it was not usually mentioned directly in their homes.
“A woman was repeatedly suffering from stomach pains and had undergone surgery when she started on therapy in a theme group for children of Holocaust survivors. She grew up with an indefinable feeling that something terrible could happen because her parents’ reaction to all problems was, “As long as things aren’t worse….” Even though they had ‘only’ fled to Sweden and had led a good life – after the war returning to their flat where the begonias had been watered in the meantime – this woman’s symptoms were worse than those seen among many of the children of Auschwitz survivors.”
The price of silence
After the war, the driving mechanism for many Jewish refugee families was to get on with life, the result being that their experiences were sealed off and stowed away in a box to which no-one had the key. The parents did not talk about their suffering, but their children could perceive it from the way they reacted.
“If you have experienced war, flight and persecution, it is not easy to teach your children to trust other people. The children grow up with an uneasy feeling that something bad could happen, or, if something good happens, that it might be taken from you,” says Judith, who has led therapy groups for children of survivors for many years, helping them to relate to their own history bit by bit and to acknowledge how their parents’ history has affected them, for better or worse.
“Whether you can talk with others about it also depends on the interest shown by your surroundings. But in the aftermath of the war, the general opinion – also among experts – was, “Forget it and get on with your life.”
“The general understanding of the sufferings of refugees is not always complete. A woman told her neighbours that she had been in several camps, including Bergen-Belsen, and the reaction was, “Well, you have certainly travelled a lot!”
Judith Beermann has dealt with these problems herself. She is the daughter of a Polish Jew who was interned in a Russian prison camp because he was a business owner and therefore considered part of the bourgeoisie – while his wife and three children were arrested by the Germans and deported to Treblinka, where they were killed. He survived and went to Sweden, where he started a family again. Judith – or Brita, as she was called at the time – was a result of the new marriage.
“It was very common to give your Jewish children original Swedish names, but as I grew up, I felt that the name didn’t suit me any longer,” she says, adding that the silence was never broken completely. Today, she is only acquainted with fragments of her father’s history before and after the war.
“Frequently, a cloud passed over my father’s face, and at other times he mumbled, “If I could survive Stalin, I can also survive this,” she continues.
When she was 30, she decided that she wanted to be called Judith; a name that she felt suited her better. When she told her father, a cloud passed over his face again, “That was the name of my youngest daughter,” he said, and she thought that she would have to let it go. She did not want to constantly remind him of the pain of losing his family.
“But the following day, a magical thing happened – he called and left a message, “I would like to talk to my daughter, Judith.” Thus, things came out right in the end, and a balance had been found between lightness and darkness and between the past and the present.” In most cases, the children felt that they should protect their parents and spare them from the pain of having to answer questions about suffering and loss. On their part, the parents also wanted to spare their children,” she says.
“In response to the question why they kept their experience to themselves, the parents usually replied that the children did not ask them about it. In this way, a double wall was raised between them, even in families where parents and children could talk openly about a lot of other things. Most refugee families today are familiar with this wall of silence.”
”I had bought a fancy tape recorder for the purpose of interviewing my father. But we only got a little way before we both changed the subject. Later I realized that I was perhaps sparing myself at least as much as him,” she says today.
“It can be unbearable to hear about another human being’s suffering when you are close to them. But in some cases, the grandchildren can help unlock the closed box. They don’t have the same reservations, the subject is not just as touchy when shifted a generation, and the grandparents can in fact see that life has gone on, despite everything. People are happier when they have both children and grandchildren.”
Five years after her father’s death, Judith is holding her own new-born child and is confronted with the question, “How can you lose a child in that way and continue to live, sing, laugh, dance and feel pleasure in life?”
40 years in the desert
It is highly symbolic, says Judith Beermann, that it was to take 40 years before the inherent strength of the surviving families – and not only the problems – was addressed. “It is comparable to wandering for 40 years in the desert in the biblical sense – it takes time for things to be recorded and processed in our minds,” she says.
“Many Jews assimilated themselves into society after the war, gave their children non-Jewish names and did not uphold their ties to the Jewish environment,” she says, and continues,
“In my therapy groups, we try to hold some Jewish ceremonies to find back to our roots. We poured a Jewish Shabbat wine, but it had gone bad. However, the reaction was exactly as you could expect, “That is what it is like being a Jew,” she smiles.
Many Danish Jews who fled during the war felt that they were not entitled to suffer – because the general attitude seemed to be that Danish Jews had had an easy time. They ’only’ had to flee, were not deported to a concentration camp and had actually led a pretty good life in Sweden. But flight is life-threatening and leaves its mark.
“The sense of security is fragile. What has happened once could happen again. And I have never met anybody, whether young or old, who has not taken a look around their circle of friends and acquaintances and thought to themselves, “Who would be willing to help?” As the Danish philosopher and theologian Løgstrup said, “When you have contact with a person, you are holding some of that person’s destiny in your hand.”
For all refugees, there is a before and an after. You can never be the same person after fleeing your country.
The refugees’ stories continue where words cease, and it is essential to recognize that fleeing leaves its mark and that it takes time for all refugees to reconcile themselves with their current situation. In addition, the reception given them by the community and the way refugees are viewed by the surrounding world is of significant importance.
“In order to restore confidence in people, society and life, it is vital to connect with other people, to be met with a friendly look and to feel able to contribute. You need to feel that you have come to a safer place,” says Judith Beermann Zeligson.