Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Therapist Without G-d

As a therapist without G-d what was there to say to holocaust survivors and their children?

I braced myself as I listened to their stories: A woman whose angelic child was viciously killed before her eyes; a man who had to eat insects to stay alive; a man who watched his brother being buried alive until the shoveled earth above his brothers outstretched hands finally stopped moving; and a poor soul who stood helpless as a loved one’s face was smashed into an unrecognizable pulp with one swing of a Nazi’s shovel – may his Holy blood be avenged!

The truth is that I had nothing to say to my clients.  I sat there frozen and traumatized nodding my head as if I understood. There was nothing in my training that I could draw upon; there was nothing in my American background that I could draw upon; it seemed there was nothing in the world that I could draw upon. I was alone with twenty survivors from a nightmarish world and they felt my fear.

I sat there week after week with twenty holocaust survivors and nothing to say – I was too frightened, confused, or angered to be of any real help. Meanwhile they spoke to each other in code - I was utterly lost – and they knew it. When the group meetings ended – you had to peel me off the floor - I literally couldn’t function. My soul felt murdered.  I would go home and collapse – and at night my dreams tortured me – because I had looked into Hell with no G-d to protect me.

After writing Confessions of a Psychotherapist, I was contacted by a truly remarkable woman who lives here in Israel. Yisraela was born in a DP camp. She has virtually no extended family – there are no graves for her to visit. She grew up in a constant state of fear and humiliation. She felt “spiritually raped” by her abusive and anti-religious father who survived the camps. She said about her father, “It was easy for him to blame everything on the war it meant he never had to take responsibility for his behavior.”  Yisraela told me that her father didn’t have much patience for their childish problems. He couldn’t understand how anyone who didn’t live in a concentration camp could have a problem. “But how could I express my anger to my father with all that he went through”, said Yisraela, “after all - his father was murdered!” Yisraela who is now 63 still takes care of her father who is still abusive at 98!

Yisraela told me an amazing story. She said that when she was 6 years old she was given the biggest gift of her life. One of her mother’s friends, Etta – may her Holy soul rest in peace - secretly taught her the shema. Now Prayer wasn’t something one spoke about in Yisraela’s home – “there was no G-d. G-d was my father telling us what to do - I had to say the shema in secret - but I just kept saying it… and saying it… and saying it!”  She memorized the shema when she was six years old  and has said it faithfully every night – till today -  she says that it’s saved her many times.

One night when Yisraela was 10 years old she awakened to fighting and screams - another survivor, a friend of the family had gone berserk and was trying to kill her parents with a butcher knife. Her parents were cut up pretty badly before they were miraculously rescued by a young man in the building - a non-Jewish Polish man.

After that, Yisraela said that it became clear to her that she could look at life in one of two ways: continue here...

Happy Tu B'Shvat
Dr. Zev Ballen