Oral Memoirs: The Testimony of Holocaust Survivors
Oral Memoirs: The Testimony of Holocaust Survivors
- Alan RosenAlan RosenInternational School of Holocaust Studies, Department of Literature and Testimony
- and Neal LipsitzNeal LipsitzCollege of the Holy Cross, Department of Psychology
Bearing witness to the Holocaust has taken many different forms and sought to achieve a variety of goals. Forms of testimony include structured and unstructured interviews; audio, video, and written narratives; individual and group formats; and recollections of survivors young and old—from those who testified just after the war to those who only came forth decades later. Different combinations of these distinct forms of testimony contribute to their variety. Most of the time such testimony has aimed to fill out the historical record or deepen moral reflection. Early on, they offered insight into what occurred during the Holocaust, sometimes providing vivid details that revealed the horrific experiences the survivors had endured. This early approach gave those who had not been on the scene an inside look into what actually happened during the Holocaust. Much of the testimony was by those who had experienced the Holocaust themselves. Later, the focus turned to residual trauma and how it manifested itself in the daily life of survivors. Others viewed testimony as potentially therapeutic and elicited it through engaging with survivors in sustained conversations or by encouraging them to give voice to wartime childhood memories. Ultimately, as a more positive and intergenerational perspective began to take hold in the field of psychology, trauma has been seen as something that can be transcended. Hence, some scholars have highlighted the psychological insight to be found within oral and written testimony. Important to note in this context is that a number of Holocaust survivor interview projects have been spearheaded by psychologists. Moving from the early postwar period to the present moment, this article intends to survey both the psychological insights gleaned and the projects conducted. The article will also consider the influence of postwar psychological movements on the style, emphasis, and concepts of psychologically motivated interview projects.
- History and Systems of Psychology
The Impact of Catastrophe on Personality: David Boder
Contrary to what one might expect, recorded interviews with Holocaust survivors were first undertaken not by a historian but a psychologist (Rosen, 2012). Already in summer of 1946, Latvian-born Jewish psychologist David Boder (1886–1961) had conducted 130 interviews with displaced persons. Based in Chicago, Boder was greatly influenced by the “personal document” school of the 1920s and 1930s, which led him to believe that personal narratives were key to understanding the Holocaust and empathizing with its victims (Boder, 1949).
Alert to the fact that Carl Rogers and his students had championed the recording of clinical and research interviews, Boder carried a wire recorder to the European shelters, thereby becoming the first to record Holocaust survivor testimony. Being able to listen back gave Boder, who had published on the psychology of language, the capacity to analyze the broken language of many interviewees. Fluent himself in a handful of European languages and knowledgeable in others, Boder found that the broken language revealed the trauma the survivor had endured. Boder referred to this phenomenon more generally as “the impact of catastrophe on personality,” a phrase coined by another mentor, Gordon Allport (Boder, 1954).
Even though Boder interviewed in makeshift settings, he maintained the usual protocol of a psychologist, conducting the interviews sitting behind the interviewee and using a rudimentary version of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).1
Over the course of the summer, he came to realize that theory and method would have to be more flexible to accommodate the extreme nature of privation and suffering he was hearing about. But such flexibility was not always easy to achieve. The following exchange gives a glimpse into Boder’s style of interviewing as well as his guarded way of responding to a challenge posed by a shrewd young survivor, Abraham Kimmelmann. Boder was skeptical that, once food became available upon liberation, the vast quantities reported by Kimmelmann could actually be consumed by a human being at one sitting:
Boder: And so, one is capable of eating ten liters of soup? Kimmelmann: Yes. Well, I want to ask you here a question. You are a professor of psychology? Boder: Yes Kimmelmann: Are the psychologists really so far advanced that they really know human nature so well, that they really understand the various human qualities? Boder: Absolutely no. Kimmelmann: You are entirely right. I didn’t ask you simply because I wanted to know, because I know it already. I just wanted to hear it from you. Because after all that what I have seen, I know that one knows nothing yet. Boder: Oh, one never should say that one knows nothing. A science covers certain aspects. Some things are known, and some things not. There is yet much more left to be learned than what man knows already. Isn’t that so? But if one says that one knows nothing one of course tells again a falsehood. Kimmelmann: No, no, I don’t mean to say that one doesn’t know anything at all. That is out of the question. Boder: But one knows very little? Kimmelmann: The psychologists, well, they have said that they have ascertained something. But after this war it became apparent that they were very wrong. Boder: Oh, no. Kimmelmann: They said that they had found out. But after this war it became apparent that they were greatly mistaken. Boder: No … Kimmelmann:/Continuing/ That they are absolutely incapable to appraise what really can happen. And although this war has revealed such things one still cannot be sure that it may not come to much worse situations. Boder: Excuse me, Abe, you [are] a very fine young man. Therefore, you should never argue about things you really don’t know. The psychologist[s] never claim[ed] that they have ascertained everything. The psychologists never said that. A psychologist, a scientific psychologist, unlike writers who call themselves psychologists, always insisted that they know very little. How could a psychologist know what will happen under Hitler when such a situation has never occurred before? Isn’t that so?(Boder, 1949)
What had been experienced in concentration camps, ghettos, and elsewhere was difficult to fathom, even for someone of Boder’s background and training. Nevertheless, Boder argued in the one major psychological article to issue from the interview project that such extreme experience could (and should) receive the empathetic understanding of the average person (Boder, 1954).
In another respect, Boder seemed prophetic regarding the path psychology would tread three decades later, in the 1980s: he created a “Traumatic index,” categorizing the multiple forms of trauma suffered by the Holocaust’s victims (Boder, 1957). Hence, trauma was on the map of interviewing survivors from the outset. But, in truth, the trauma he inventoried drew not on psychoanalytic models but rather medical ones. It would take other clinicians and researchers to turn the focus of Holocaust survivor testimony to the kind of debilitating trauma discussed in psychoanalytic literature, replete with recurring symptoms, overwhelming flashbacks, and often incurable dysfunction. For his part, Boder believed that most of his interviewees had regained the physical and psychological health that would enable them to go on with life.2
The Depths of Trauma: Dori Laub, Lauren Vlock, and the Fortunoff Video Archive
Though Boder was by birth and early training an Eastern European Jew, he pursued the interviews from the position of American academic psychologist who had, for many years before World War II, been based in North America. But other psychologists had gone through the ordeal of the Holocaust, notably Henry Krystal (1925–2015), Shamai Davidson (1926–1986), and Leo Eitinger (1912–1996). Survivors as well as trained professionals, they had witnessed the events of the Holocaust from the inside. Hence, they brought to the study of the subject their own experience and the testimony that emerged from it. Moreover, they turned the focus of psychological investigation into the aftereffects of the Holocaust to the subject of trauma, in this case understood in psychoanalytic terms (including the unconscious, ego defenses, and psychosexual stages).3
Their study was anything but detached, basing their ideas as they did on interviews with many (for Krystal, thousands) of survivors. Yet full-blown investigation into the nature and dynamics of testimony came into its own by way of another survivor clinician, Dori Laub (1937–2018). Born in Romania, Laub survived the cruelties of wartime deportation thanks to his mother’s ingenuity. Shortly after the war, mother and son immigrated to Israel, where Laub pursued medical studies and served in the army. He continued psychiatric training in Boston, MA, and remained in New England thereafter, beginning in 1969 a long career at Yale University.
A turning point came in 1979, when Laub and media specialist Lauren Vlock began video-taped interviewing of Holocaust survivors. Over several decades, Laub, Vlock, and their team of interviewers gathered more than 4,000 testimonies. For nearly 40 years altogether, Laub wrote and lectured about the process of Holocaust testimony. In his formulation, in order to bear witness the survivor had to overcome the denial associated with massive psychic trauma. In one case, when Laub invited a survivor, Menachem S., to be interviewed, he at first refused but later agreed to participate in the project. As he went on to report in his testimony:
My initial reaction [to Laub’s invitation] was, “NO.” My wife said, “Why don’t you think it over? What are you afraid of?” “I’m scared that everything will come back, my nightmares, and so on …” She said, “You’ve been living with this thing for thirty-five years after the war, and you’re still afraid. You never talked about it. Why don’t you try the other way?” … The next night I had my nightmares again. But this time it was different … I woke up, still feeling anxious, but the anxiety was turning into a wonderful sense of fulfillment and satisfaction … I feel strongly that it has to do with the fact that I decided to open up.(Felman & Laub, 1992, pp. 89–90)
Laub provocatively argued that the survivor of trauma does not bear witness to an event that took place in the past but rather the testimony itself brings the event into being in the present. The interviewer, for his or her part, facilitates, by attentive listening, this process of experiencing for the first time the event witnessed. This set of psychoanalytically informed ideas led Laub to assert that the Holocaust was an event without a witness—a controversial stance that seemed to some critics to undermine the very basis of a project committed to gathering much Holocaust survivor testimony.4
Survivor-Centered Interviews: Henry Greenspan
American-born Henry Greenspan (b. 1948) believes the search for trauma does an injustice to survivors and the wartime testimony they “recount.” Serving for many years as a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Greenspan began interviewing survivors in 1971. Psychodynamically trained, he does not view his approach to interviewing as associated with any particular psychological school or method, but rather feels an affinity with literary interpreters of Holocaust testimony such as Terrence Des Pres. According to Greenspan,
my work was certainly influenced by my training and habits as a therapist, psychodynamically trained … it concerned a practice of ways to listen, a sense of timing, an attentiveness to multiple dimensions of retelling (how as much as what), and the experience … of the ways accounts change/evolve over time and in the context of [a] sustained relationship. For me, much less a theoretic framework than a reflection of experience talking with survivors and their own suggestions. None of this lends itself to conventional models of “getting a testimony.” (Personal communication, July 8, 2019)(Boder 1949)
As we see, Greenspan emphasizes listening to and learning from survivors rather than eliciting from their testimony a record of psychological distress or damage. He has, moreover, argued for the benefits brought by multiple interviews with the same individual, which allow for a “sustained conversation” about his or her wartime experience. Such interviews thereby become a “collaborative” venture; survivors have “shared authority” over their testimony, serving as teachers instead of those requiring professional assessment or help (Greenspan, 2011). Idiosyncratic though Greenspan’s approach may be, it builds a bridge between psychological approaches that focus on trauma and those that endeavor to transcend the emphasis on testimony as a marker of damage and impairment.
Child Survivors Come of Age: Robert Krell
Born in the Hague, Holland, in 1940, Robert Krell was hidden there by the Munnik family from 1942 to 1945. While Robert’s parents also survived in hiding, all other relatives were murdered in the Auschwitz and Sobibor death camps. In 1951, Robert and his parents emigrated to Vancouver, Canada. Robert received his medical degree in 1965 from the University of British Columbia (UBC). After training in psychiatry in Philadelphia and California, Krell returned to UBC as a faculty member in 1971, where, for 25 years, he was the director of child and family psychiatry. He continues to treat aging survivors of massive trauma. His 10 books and many articles have played a pioneering role in the study of child survivors of the Holocaust.
In 1978, as an outgrowth of his private practice treating Holocaust survivors and Dutch survivors of Japanese concentration camps, he began videotaping the stories of Holocaust survivors in the Vancouver area in 1978. By 1984 he had recorded 120 eyewitness accounts (Glassner & Krell, 2006).
Krell believes that recapturing memory and making sense of it brings about healing. Difficulties particularly arise when the events experienced as a child in what seemed to be the distant past intrude on the present. These intrusive memories commonly surface around the age of retirement, the point at which the child survivor reflects back on his or her life: “When the child survivor reflects nostalgically, memory propels [him or] her directly into the abyss of terror and hunger” (Glassner & Krell, 2006, p. 9).
In Krell’s eyes, bearing witness can help face such fraught recollections. Initially, he feared that the process of testifying might “unleash the demons of remembrance to haunt the already haunted.” But those interviewed had a different reaction: To the question “Did the taping make you feel worse in any way over the past months?” came the answer, “Worse? No. I regard the taping as a catharsis.” And another stated, “No. Except that I recently dreamed of my parents, of a tearful separation with them. I am convinced that the telling of my story is a most therapeutic undertaking” (Krell, 1985, p. 400).
In particular, Krell sees sequential testimony as a powerful tool in creating a narrative that allows child survivors to regain control of their life story: “Child survivors have a great need to reconstruct a sequence of memory that begins to make sense. When the fragments fit, more or less, into a chronology, they are less intrusive and not so disturbing” (Krell, 1997, p. 9). Krell’s idea of the lurking abyss thus differs from that of Laub’s incapacitating trauma. For Laub, the survivor first psychologically experiences the Holocaust’s traumatic events only when bearing witness to them. For Krell, the child survivor has indeed experienced them. But they remain inchoate and therefore unassimilable. Testimony is what gives them order and thereby allows one to skirt the abyss. It enables the child survivor to become, as it were, the historian of his or her own life.
Several other factors make the act of testifying a perhaps unique gateway for the child survivor to experience, in Krell’s words (1985, p. 399), “personal wellbeing, and a sense of closure.” First, “there is a growing recognition by the child survivor of the importance of their experience,” an awareness brought about by the fact that, giving testimony, “they are listened to very carefully.” Second, “in the process of telling their story, they inevitably discover accounts of personal courage, self-sacrifice, and a sense of accomplishment against overwhelming odds.” What was experienced only as an abyss of terror is shown to be a reservoir of virtue and merit. Third, the process of bearing witness often gives “insight into various peculiar habits which earlier were considered strange or even crazy” (pp. 399-400) but which, in relating one’s story, were thereafter viewed as obvious and normal consequences of their unique experiences. Not only does testimony soften the brutal sting of the past but it can also illuminate the subterranean influence of the past on the present.
The Transcending Trauma Project: The Revelatory Power of Intergenerational Interviews
A dramatically different approach to interviewing Holocaust survivors has emerged in the wake of a paradigm shift in thinking about trauma. In 1986, the Marriage Council of Philadelphia (now the Council for Relationships) held a conference titled “Shattered Promises and Broken Dreams.” The conference brought the second generation (children of survivors) and mental health professionals together. By this time, the image of the survivor as damaged and as that damage extending to the second generation was no longer considered accurate. Questions gaining attention at this time were: “What about resilience?” and “What about coping?” A study group to look at the literature on this question grew out of the conference. The research prior to the late 1980s focused on negative functioning, not positive. The Transcending Trauma Project (TTP) came out of a pilot project in 1990 that interviewed survivors and also their children. Co-directors of the project since 1993, Bea Hollander-Goldfein, PhD, a psychologist, and Nancy Isserman, PhD, anticipated high functioning, adaptation, new families, and productive lives among their interviewees. TTP established the opportunity for interdisciplinary research for a more in-depth understanding of survivors and their families.
Since the end of the 20th century, traumatic stress studies have included a multidimensional understanding of the impact of trauma. This has created a paradigm shift in the field, which, in the early 21st century, includes a full range of responses to trauma from negative to positive.5 TTP has coincided with this paradigm shift. Hollander-Goldfein and Isserman’s work is situated in the “process-oriented perspective”—a phase of research in trauma and its effects since the end of the 20th century. Their goal has been to use life histories from Holocaust survivors and their family members to better understand the underlying and complex processes involved in coping, adaptation, and resilience after Holocaust trauma. They developed a TTP model of coping and adaptation after extreme trauma and are hopeful it helps us understand human variability in coping with adversity.
The project has also elucidated clinical implications. Their work has applied to diverse populations who have been affected by trauma, such as Rwandan genocide survivors, U.S. military families, survivors of gun violence, people with disabilities, and others. Themes pertaining to coping, adaptation, family dynamics, communication styles, and intergenerational transmission of trauma speak to a wide range of individuals, families, communities, cultures, and societies. Training has been developed based on TTP findings for therapists working with veterans and their families.
Between the late 20th and early 21st centuries, TTP has conducted 305 interviews (referred to as “in-depth life histories”) with 98 Holocaust survivors, their children, and grandchildren, to better understand coping and adaptation after extreme trauma. The project has produced 1,200 hours of interviews, which have been preserved as digital archived files and are housed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem in Israel.6
The interviews are accessible in the form of transcripts, blogs, and videos. They are open-ended, fluid, and aim to get at the internal realities of the survivors’ lives. This is a shift from earlier Holocaust testimony which often emphasized external events and conditions. Instead, TTP asks survivors for their life stories and then focuses on the impact of these stories on the survivor, children, and grandchildren. For survivors, talking about how they rebuilt their lives after the war can be a powerful, self-affirming experience. For the children and grandchildren, they have the opportunity to hear what their parent or grandparent went through and discover who they are as people. The transmission of “pivotal narratives” can occur when an attribute in a survivor parent “can become an organizing value system in the developing identity of the child …” (Hollander-Goldfein, Isserman, & Goldenberg, 2012, p. 224). An example of a pivotal narrative and the TTP interview style can be seen in the following transcript of Iris’s memory of her grandmother’s long death march:
And she takes her shawl and puts it over her head and walks away from the hundred, perhaps, women, that are being marched at gunpoint. And she took it out, she took the choice, she took control of her destiny, and as I interpret it, very calmly decided how she’s going to determine the rest of her life, whatever that is.
As the interviewer asked Iris to consider the meaning of this choice, she reflected:
And she has said and has written that you know, she consciously made this very logical decision. If she turns around and walks away she’ll get shot in the back, and it will be over. And if she makes it, she’ll get to be with her kids. And there is some courage in that … that incident evokes for me courage, control, solitude; the self-reliance that I think informs a lot of what I do in my life.(Hollander-Goldfein et al., 2012, p. 225)
This short piece from a longer transcript illustrates the intergenerational nature of the TTP approach to testimony. Only a third of the interviewees were survivors but the TTP approach expands interviewing out to the children and grandchildren as well. Through this process, interviewing itself becomes intergenerational. We also see the power of a “pivotal narrative,” here transmitted to and influencing Iris’s own sense of self-reliance, rich with courage, control, and solitude.7
As a research study, TTP has used intergenerational interviews to discover why some survivors led more successful family lives than others. Overall, the findings lead to “no consistent pattern” of symptoms or family types. However, putting children’s needs first, establishing a nurturing family environment that includes empathy, emotional expression, altruism, validation and closeness, and open communication does seem to promote normal child development and stave off the ill effects of Holocaust trauma.
TTP is unique because it focuses on family dynamics as an indicator for coping and resilience, because it reveals positive stories about how hundreds of Holocaust families rebuilt their lives, and because it shows how many Holocaust survivors were able to parent their children and grandchildren in healthy ways.
Social Telling: Conversing with Those Who Already Know
The child survivors interviewed by Krell are a subset of the older and younger survivors who recounted their wartime experiences in formal sessions to psychologists and others. But many survivors have likely chosen an informal setting to tell their story—and have done so when speaking with fellow survivors (Epstein, 2010).
We refer to these recountings as “social telling”: testimony informally conveyed while at synagogues, family gatherings, community centers, and eventually at conferences, the goal of which is to bring together survivors. In the latter case, survivors are sharing their wartime ordeal with other survivors. Hence, the testimony they give is known or at least familiar. The one who tells can count on an extraordinary degree of empathy and rapport in the listener. To be sure, no recording, no transcripts, no analysis usually accompany these informal recountings. But the psychological dynamics that we gleaned in our overview can likely be found in these informal settings as well.
The psychological study of Holocaust testimony leads to insights about testimony past, present, and future. One overarching theme, unsurprising and running through all testimony, concerns the nature of trauma. The understanding of trauma within a historical context has affected how we approach testimony. David Boder, informed by his training in the early 20th century, described trauma in the 1940s as something that existed outside of the individual. His “traumatic inventory,” listing a series of external events deemed traumatic for his interviewees, exemplifies this view. Some 35 years later, Dori Laub’s psychoanalytic perspective emphasized that survivors experienced trauma not as something external but as something that originated from within. Laub listened to survivors in such a way that their trauma could be revealed to the interviewee and, through this process, could be brought forward into the present. The trauma belonged to the survivor. And once the survivor had the opportunity to articulate the ordeal that had been buried in the past, it could then be reckoned with.
Since around 1990, although the psychological study of testimony continues to focus on catastrophic experiences, studies also showed how testimony can bring a depth of insight to both the teller and the listener. Henry Greenspan’s “sustained conversations” enabled the survivor and the listener to keep a dialogue going over a number of years. By talking to a committed listener in the course of repeated meetings, the survivor discovers an opportunity to teach others about his or her experience and what can be learned from it. This approach in no way minimizes the suffering endured, but survivors need not feel trapped or imprisoned by it either.
In the early 1990s, the TTP introduced a new perspective. Testimony can help survivors move forward, going beyond traumatic experience. The focus turned to resilience, family, and legacy. The intergenerational transmission of the values and character strengths of the survivors can be seen within the pivotal narratives being passed down to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This transmission of strengths wrested by survivors from the ordeal of the Holocaust nurtures the hope that the character-building lessons will continue to be absorbed by generations to come.
Moreover, as child survivors came of age, Robert Krell and others encouraged them to believe that their wartime experience was equal to that of adult survivors, and that the now-grown children too needed to tell their story. With shifting views on the psychological power of testimony, and a paradigm shift in our understanding of trauma, this storytelling can be appreciated for its therapeutic value in enabling these survivors to work through their difficult experience and achieve healing. Through the process of giving testimony, other positive outcomes also become evident, such as valuing the wisdom gained from one’s wartime experience, perceiving the strengths that one acquired as a result of it, and owning one’s unique understanding of what it means to be human.
Yet the testimony of both child and adult Holocaust survivors is not just for their own and their families’ benefit. Pivotal narratives can also be included in the classroom and in other contexts, guiding future generations through lessons about psychological well-being rather than about illness. Testimony allows a healthier level of living by confronting the affliction at its source.
Where is psychological study of testimony headed in the future? It seems essential that there be easy access to existent testimony. Many narratives are still, as of 2020, difficult to track down and access. To this end, we imagine a comprehensive index that can guide research and researchers. Printed materials, video and audio interviews, and all other forms of testimony should be made readily accessible to psychologists, researchers, teachers, and students of the subject.
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1. TAT was developed by Henry Murray in the mid-1930s. It is a “projective” test in that patients project their personality characteristics onto ambiguous sketches that they are asked to describe. Boder’s use of the TAT while interviewing displaced persons was short-lived.
6. The TTP Archive is located in the Phil Wachs and Juliet Spitzer Archive of Life Histories at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel. The donation was made possible by the generosity of Dr. Julie Meranze Levitt and Dr. Jerry D. Levitt, who made the collection of the archive and its digitization possible.