Forschungsfeld 4

Scenic memory of the Shoah

The scenic memory of the Shoah. On the transgenerational transmission of extreme trauma in Germany

Kurt Grünberg, Ph.D.
Friedrich Markert, M.D.

The research project The scenic memory of the Shoah. On the transgenerational transmission of extreme trauma in Germany has the goal of examining how the persecution experiences of Jewish survivors were passed on to their sons and daughters, in particular under the specific conditions in the "land of the perpetrators".

That is to say, the life of Jews in post-National Socialist Germany is significantly different from the life of those survivors who managed to emigrate to other countries e.g. Israel, USA, Canada or South America. In Germany more is involved than the question of how people live with extremely traumatic experiences after their liberation and what they transmit to their progeny; the German-Jewish relationship, which is profoundly marked by the Shoah, plays a significant part in this. In this country the participation or involvement in persecution on the part of NS perpetrators, fellow travellers (“Mitläufer”) and bystanders has a very specific confrontative relation with the experiences of the victims; the gulf thus created shapes both the mutual relationship and the different channels of transmission of such experiences (cf. Grünberg 1987, 1997, 1998, 2000b, 2001, 2004a, Kaminer 1991, 1996, 1997, 2006, Rosenthal 1997, Speier 1987, 1990,1991).

In order to investigate unconscious processes of the intergenerational transmission of traumatic experiences we have placed the scenic memory of the Shoah at the center of our inquiry.

In the literature of research into the extreme trauma of the Shoah and its transmission to subsequent generations particular attention has hitherto been paid above all to the verbal utterances or the silence of the survivors (Grünberg 2000b, 1018pp.; cf. also Hans Keilson 1984, 1998: „Wohin die Sprache nicht reicht“), while the non-verbal scenic element revealed in the unconscious shaping of a situation, actions and action dialogs has not been sufficiently investigated so far. The projected study therefore focuses its particular interest on systematically investigating those scenes that are developed by survivors and their progeny, as it is precisely in these scenes – often in a multiply condensed form – that the traumatic internalized experiences of the survivors are realized as they are handed on to their progeny, scenically as well as verbally. It is obviously necessary to note that unconscious processes may also be expressed in "purely" verbal communication.

The concept of scenic memory is primarily based on the method of scenic understanding as presented by Alfred Lorenzer (1970a and 1970b, 2002) and Hermann Argelander (1967, 1968, 1970a and 1970b), who worked out essential insights into the analysis of both verbal and non-verbal processes of interaction and relation in the context of psychoanalytic treatment. It is the goal of scenic understanding to grasp both the dynamics and the meaning of such unconscious staging of experience.
Such a process of understanding, however, is probably not possible in the same way in dealing with the experience of persecution in the case of the Shoah, for when confronted with extreme trauma one finds oneself at the very limits of what can be grasped by the power of human comprehension (cf. for instance the literary works of Paul Celan or Elie Wiesel). The question thus arises of how the survivors remember experiences of extermination and how they pass them on to the next generation, for they are caught in an insoluble dilemma: they are neither capable of forgetting nor able to bring to mind and "bear" the explicit memory of what was done to themselves, their families and their people. This necessitates an examination of the survival strategies employed to make the unbearable more bearable. It is very likely that experiences of persecution cannot be registered as a whole and in an inter-connected way even at the moment of happening but must be taken apart and "buried" in deeper layers of the psyche, and partly encapsulated or dissociated (cf. Abraham and Torok 1972, Grünberg 2004b, Leuschner 2004). In this way an existential and highly unstable state is created, a permanent readiness to feel anxiety about imminent catastrophe, because there is a constant danger of available or pre-conscious memories returning, also of a reactualization in awareness of the "buried" elements and the breaking open of the encapsulation. The terrible memories, which cannot be relegated to the past and thus cannot be mourned, threaten to make an incursion into conscious experience. The fragmented and dissociated memories of the survivors, impossible for them to deal with rationally, hence manifesting themselves scenically in their relations with family members and others in their social sphere, are the object of inquiry as scenic memory of the unsayable. The insights gained into such complicated processes of dealing with unconscious trauma could thus be of fundamental importance for the further exploration of the long-term consequences of traumatic experiences, as well as for the way they are treated psychotherapeutically and socially.

The following questions are posed: How do the surviving victims of the National-Socialist extermination of the Jews remember and feel about their protracted experiences of discrimination, exclusion, deportation and persecution in ghettos, hiding places, work and concentration camps? What are the typical relationship and conflict constellations that arise in survivor families between the generations? In what way does the separation-individuation process develop?

In order to answer these questions, on the one hand the scenes manifested in the transference processes of the survivors and the Second Generation vis a vis their psychoanalysts are examined, on the other the "narratives" of patients or interviewees are studied.

The researchers investigate the psycho-social post-traumatic consequences of the Shoah specifically in Germany since about the year 1980. Their different perspectives, one being a German non-Jewish psychoanalyst and the other a Jewish psychoanalyst in Germany, are continually reflected in their joint work on the subject of research. They understand the work of taking account of scenic memory as an element of the process of individual and social mourning and coming-to-terms with the past.



Dr. Kurt Grünberg

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