Obsessing on the horrors of the past

As I’ve noted before, my mother spent the war years interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Java.  These camps were not Nazi death camps, but they were no picnic either, with a horrible attrition rate from disease, starvation, overwork and abuse.  (See here for more information about one of the camps my Mom was in, Tjideng.)  My Mom (obviously) survived the camp but, for decades, it also seemed as if she had survived the devastating depression that so quickly enveloped some camp survivors, especially survivors of the death camps.  People have always commented on her energy, and she brought that energy to bear on child rearing, running a home and art.  She talked about her experience in the camps, but didn’t obsess about those experiences.  Indeed, she was very forgiving towards the Japanese, even though they never paid reparations, on the ground that there is a difference between a “traditional” concentration camp aimed at segregating civilians, no matter how brutal it is, and a Nazi death camp, aimed at genocide.

It’s been surprising and sad, therefore, that in the past few years, my mother has been obsessing more and more about her concentration camp years.  I had naively thought that, as those years recede in the past, and as she finds herself in a secure, comfortable environment, the terror of those years would diminish.  Instead, she can’t stop talking about the horrors visited upon her in her youth.  I have been sympathetic but, as I said, confused by what struck me as counterintuitive mental behavior.  It turns out, though, that Mom’s memories, and her inability to block some of the worst ones, are completely consistent with her age.  Psychiatrists and psychologists who work at Jewish Homes for the Aged, which have large numbers of Holocaust survivors, have discovered that age weakens our ability to screen unpleasant memories:

In recent years, a body of research has sprung from the lives of Holocaust survivors like Kane as caregivers and mental health professionals work to understand and alleviate the pain of old age and remembered trauma. But when she first began to relive her past, the territory was largely uncharted.

“There has never been a group of genocide survivors live to this age in history,” said Paula David, editor of the manual “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors.” Their experiences offer a rare window into the confluence of trauma and aging.

One clear lesson from this shrinking group, whose median age is more than 70, is that “resilience ages, too,” David said, “and diminishes along with hearing and vision.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging has the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the West, according to nursing home officials. There were 63 such patients at latest count, although that number could rise to nearly 90 when a new building opens later this summer.

Although every Holocaust survivor is different, Kane’s end-of-life experiences are a good illustration of the kinds of things they can go through, said Chaya Berci, the Jewish Home’s executive director of nursing.

As people age and their grasp on the present weakens, events from the distant past can seem as real as anything unfolding today. For those who lived through severe early trauma, the memories that come rushing back are often of their most harrowing experiences.

Certainly I see the truth of this as I watch my mother.  It’s so sad.  These people have finally found safety and security, and they are incapable of enjoying it because they are assaulted by the ghosts of their pasts.


9 Responses

  1. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article Sphere: Related Content | Trackback URL […]

  2. Bookworm –

    I’m so sorry for your mom. And you and your family. I know from personal experience that the memories one has of their loved one’s later years can at times overwhelm your ability to remember all the good times.

    I hadn’t really thought about what the likely consequences would be for those people who had survived the unspeakable and then get to that point in their life when they have a lot of time on their hands and are prone to reflection. It makes perfect sense though.

    I hope that all the goodness and light and joy that has been in your mom’s life can stay forever present in her mind. She sounds pretty amazing.


  3. Are these repressed memories, Book, or simply memories she has spoken of before but now continue to repeat?

  4. The latter, Y.

  5. Sorry, Book. How sad.

    My mom has become more and more negative in recent years — I wonder if Great Depression and WWII memories are overwhelming her, or if it’s just being an Inside the Beltway liberal in the Bush years.

    Incredible Wife thinks your mom was so busy being busy and happy during her middle years that perhaps she never worked through her difficulties with this, and if she had confronted her demons sooner, she might not be dealing with them now.

  6. I think Incredible Wife is right. Part of being busy was a positive personality trait, and part of it was a deflecting mechanism.

  7. When we are tired and ill, we are more likely to be haunted by thoughts. A cataclysmic experience imprints itself on the brain, and though a person can temporarily block it or push it aside, it is easily pushed forward by triggering events. I believe that most survivors think/thought about the Holocaust daily throughout their lives after the war ended. They were younger and busier, somehow it was easier to cover up the anguish.
    Also, many survivors feel an urgency to discuss their ordeals as they age. Life is nearing its end. If these stories aren’t told now, when will they be?
    My heart breaks for those people who relive these devastating traumas.

  8. I’ve often heard and read people who discuss those who have lived very difficult adult lives, but are blessed when, as they age, they regress into memories of childhood that are filled with golden times and happy innocence. This article makes me realize that they may be right.

    How sad to have survived a traumatic childhood and overcome it, and lived a full and golden adult life, only to regress into a childhood that was traumatic. It’s always been terrible to contemplate suffering children, and this is another reason to hate allowing the children to suffer.

  9. Hello Bookworm,

    Wow, You just described my Mother to a ‘T’.

    She also survived Tjideng. Same thing happened in the final months before she died.

    Would be nice to talk to you.

    cmjamesatshaw.ca (replace at)


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