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  • Date: 24 Jun, 2008 at 12:08AM,
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  • Trauma and Identity


    by Gaby Glassman



    This paper will address some aspects of trauma and look at how trauma has affected four types of survivor in various ways:

    1. Current refugee and asylum seekers;
    2. Jewish women during the Holocaust;
    3. Hidden children; and
    4. Survivors of terror under communism.

I chose these four areas for particular reasons: Current refugees and asylum seekers because it is topical and universally relevant. Jewish women during the Holocaust because their role during the Holocaust as a separate subject of scientific enquiry has only very recently become of interest to Holocaust scholars; hidden children since I have always found the psychological literature relating to the identity of hidden children fascinating; and the fourth area, i.e. survivors  of terror under communist rule because it is a topic that I do not think has been mentioned here very often and a new book has just been published that seems highly relevant to the situation in Czechoslovakia prior to the Velvet Revolution. I limited myself to these four areas, but hope that other themes, such as the Romany Holocaust, will be addressed by one of the other speakers in this room today. One message that emerges is that at the end of the day we are left to our own resources and therefore we, as individuals, have to fight for our own survival: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’



Trauma is the result of a wide range of experiences, man-made as well as natural disasters. The media ensures that we hear increasingly more of disasters and major accidents that leave survivors traumatised and an increasing number of people are affected. Today, millions are forced to leave their homes and country because of conflict, persecution, torture and other violations of human rights. Their rights to freedom of expression have often been compromised. The spectrum of community versus individual precedence is wide and political. In some countries control over its population is by the establishment of fear [1] . In our so-called civilised world, we seem to behave in an increasingly less civilised way and in spite of our technological expertise some major terrorist attacks have not been prevented. Indeed, depending on one’s standpoint, it might be considered valiant to fight against a regime that says in effect ‘we know better than you what you want or what is best for you’. Perhaps the state might have recognised this in the behaviour of the signatories to Charter 77.

We have also witnessed recently an increase in soldiers being traumatised in the course of their duty to serve their country. They left as heroes and on their return found that the mood in their country had changed. In the meantime, these soldiers witnessed and were possibly accomplices in horrendous scenes. Veterans suffer similarly.

Survivors of massive and cumulative trauma have in common a sense of loss of ‘the known’ and of security, and in many cases a loss of their family, their home, their belongings and their aspirations. For some it involves separation from their family and community, often for ever.

How each person copes with such trauma will vary enormously, depending on personal factors such as their life experience and expectations before the upheaval and also cultural factors. It is dependent on the type of trauma, one’s personality before (e.g. introvert versus extrovert), one’s age at the time, the functioning of the family of origin and the support received afterwards. Often the mechanisms which supported survival militate against adaptation later. The resumption of normal life is difficult for anyone. Of people exposed to traumatic events, 15% will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [2] .According to recent research, nearly 50% of PTSD sufferers completely recover within three months after the event [3] . Their condition resembles that of some of the survivors of the Holocaust who suffered from what has become known as the ‚survivor syndrome‘, first diagnosed by Dr. William Niederland [4] in 1961. Its symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, chronic anxiety, depression, headaches and flashbacks. Nowadays symptoms that have continued for more than a month after the trauma occurred are diagnosed as PTSD. Long before the term PTSD was introduced, ailing soldiers were told they were suffering from ‘nostalgia’ or ‘railway spine’ [5] , so we seem to have come a long way.


Hierarchy of suffering

There often is a hierarchy of suffering among people who have suffered trauma, e.g. after the Holocaust survivors of extermination camps were considered to have suffered the most, then survivors of other camps, then refugees, then hidden children. For many years parents of hidden children felt that their offspring had not suffered much since they had been too young to understand their predicament, a hierarchy perhaps supporting their own agenda. After the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center there was a hierarchy of suffering between the survivors directly affected — they had survived when others died — and those who were less visible to the outsider [6] .

The trauma created by extraordinarily stressful experiences is like the waves created by a stone cast into a pond. Waves radiate across the surface of the pond from the point of contact, and under certain conditions there is some discernible impact along the shore of the pond. Trauma — the point of penetration — and its wake — the psychosocial repercussions — are normal reactions to extraordinary circumstances. Even professionals trained in working with survivors of trauma may become vicariously traumatised: this is the psychological process of therapists becoming traumatised as a consequence of empathic engagement with survivors and their traumatic stories. The symptomatology resembles that of PTSD.


Minority groups …

Asylum seekers…

Jewish women…

Hidden Children…


Reign of terror under communism

The Whisperers [7] , a book based on interviews with the last survivors of the Great Terror in Russia under Stalin has just been published in England. The author described the intimate subject matter of the interviews as having been ‘a forbidden zone where most survivors of the Terror had never dared to venture before.’ He found that fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the old anxieties were still very much alive and that those who did speak had to be helped to overcome their life-long fear of talking to strangers. Having lived in a society where millions were arrested for speaking inadvertently to informers, many older interviewees were still extremely wary of saying the wrong thing and of talking to researchers with microphones, which they associated as a device used by the KGB.’

Children of ‘enemies of the people’ were sent to orphanages and given new names. The Soviet state was now their parent. Those too young to remember their parents’ names never rediscovered their true identity.

The deliberately ambiguous title of the book refers both to those who whispered so as not to be overheard and those who whispered to the secret police to denounce neighbours, colleagues and even their own family. I am sure that this sounds all too familiar for you.

Of course here in the Czech Republic a whole nation was traumatised by having to live under the communist regime. Among the older members of the audience here today many people will have experienced persecution. Some of you may have lost close relatives who were murdered during WWII or who were executed during the Stalinist era in the 1950’ies. You or someone close to you may have been imprisoned, you may have been caught in the web of the secret police, lost your job, lost everything, faced humiliation at school or you may have struggled knowing that no decent job would be open to you or that you would not be accepted at university, all for no other reason than that you or your parents were supposed to have committed ‘crimes’ against the state. So how did parents and children in communist times balance home secrets with state demands on their patriotic loyalty?

We now know that however much your parents may have tried to protect you, exposure to terror leaves its marks also on the next generation. When a family has suffered repression, the children suffer the parents’ fear since, unconsciously, they connect with the repressed parts of their parents. It passes down the generations. Two years ago, at the Prix Irene conference, Dr. Jana Svehlova spoke about her interviews with the daughters of political prisoners — still too young to resist — which illustrated the long-lasting impact on them of their father’s imprisonment. Talking to her about their experiences helped them to confront their past and break their silence.

Today’s Prix Irene laureate Ing. Karel Holomek and also others with us here were dissidents during that period and stand out as examples of civil courage.  



In all these examples, aspects that we use to define our identity such as behaviour, profession, community, language, social status and sometimes sexuality, may have been damaged or destroyed. The self-image of people who have had experiences that have changed their view of who they are and how the world works, can be profoundly affected. This can lead to self-effacing, self-censoring of one’s personality. Strong feelings of resentment and indignation about a certain identity being superimposed are unhelpful.

For some survivors it is hard to forge a different identity that does not continue to put them in the victim role. Overwhelmed as they are by a sense of helplessness and sadness, they are more likely to respond with depressive reactions, sometimes concomitant with psychosomatic complaints. The more pathology, the less the person is able to perceive others as they are andto project onto others the qualities they want to see that will fulfill their own needs. As survivors get older, unresolved issues from the past may also make someone who had been managing, more vulnerable to new stressful life events and prone to experience acute anxiety and depression later in life.

Being able to mourn is paramount to begin to move out of one’s shadow and to liberate the spark within and regain control of oneself. The struggle for acceptance and integration of the many feelings one has, becomes part of one’s new identity, an identity that one can shape. Perhaps we can discuss how you can move to the ‘new’, if you only know the ‘old’ and not the ‘new’ and have to depend on ‘them’ to tell you about the ‘new’ and on ‘their’ statement that the ‘new’ is ‘good’. But they told you the ‘old’ was good.

Hillel’s citation ‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ in the title of my talk reminds us that if we can not reveal that ‘I’ — the part of ourselves that is unique — then who are we? What value is there to ‘me’, if it does not somehow find expression? It makes us realise that at the end of the day we are left to our own inner resources, our ‘I’.


This paper described different societies and conditions in which individuals were subjected to trauma. Particular attention was paid to how persecution and living in constant fear of one’s life can affect a person’s identity.

The focus was on today’s asylum seekers and other survivors of trauma, and then moved to women survivors of the Holocaust, hidden children and lastly to those who survived living under the terror of communist rule. The toll on all of them does not stop with the millions killed under the various regimes. We must also consider the large number of survivors whose voices were so broken that they were effectively silenced. The loss of what might have been expressed by those voices is the invisible cost of those terrible times. The world is a poorer place without these voices and the ripple effect carries on, in society at large and in their families ‘unto the Third and Fourth generation’ [8] . Hillel’s citation continues ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?’

© Gaby Glassman

3867 words

Rafael Center Conference — Prague, October 26, 2007.

Originally published by www.rafaelinstitut.cz.

[1] Burton, M. and Kagan, C., ‘Psychologists and torture: More than a question of interrogation’, The Psychologist, August 2007.

[2] Data from Emory University Health Science Center. http://www.scienceblog.com/community Archives 2003E September 2003.

[3] Trauma Can Trigger PTSD, article on website www.Rogershospital.org

[4]   Glassman, G., Obituary on Dr. William G. Niederland, formerly  Professor of Psychiatry, New York State University. In: The Guardian, August 16 1993.

[5]   Barker, D., ‘Dark Secrets’, Book review of ‘Shell shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War, by E. Jones & S. Wessely, 2005. In: The Psychologist, April 2006, Vol 19, No.4, p.228.

[6] Bone, J., September 11, 2001: Bird’s eye view of transition that changed city for ever. Circles of Hell leave survivors divided by the psychological hierarchy of suffering. The Times, September 5, 2002.

[7] Figes, O., The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. The Sunday Times, News Review, p. 5. See also   www.timesonline.co.uk/books

[8] Exodus 20:5