Psychoanalytic Outcomes for Holocaust Survivors: Two Case Studies

Anne M. Wyatt-Brown
Program in Linguistics
PO Box 115454
University of Florida

Holocaust scholars often fail to realize how much survivors of trauma were affected by childhood and postwar experiences. Youthful difficulties frequently have led to repressed or distorted memories regarding events outside the camps themselves. Two cases: Viennese-born Ruth Kluger and Gerda Lerner were both nurtured in prosperous but unhappy families. Kluger's youth led to a maternal dependence in the camps and afterwards. A few years senior, Lerner masterminded her escape to America. Both faced poverty in the new land, but Kluger's adjustment has been more problematic. A disastrous psychiatric encounter damaged her self-esteem and heightened maternal resentment. She married unhappily but successfully reared sons. In contrast Lerner married happily and underwent a successful psychoanalysis after her husband's premature death. In their memoirs Kluger remains emotionally entangled with the memory of her difficult mother, whereas Lerner has discovered new affection for her deceased parents. We must take account of whole lives.

Holocaust scholars do not always recognize the effects of both childhood and later life on survivors of wartime traumas. For example, in 1991 Lawrence Langer (1991, p. xi) wrote empathically about "the ruins of memory," arguing "that oral Holocaust testimonies are doomed on one level to remain disrupted narratives." Much of Langer's evidence is based on oral interviews collected at Yale University by the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, a project which began in 1982. These interviews, he notes, have not lead "to further chapters in the autobiography of the witnesses, they exhaust themselves in the telling" (Ibid.) The people Langer had personally interviewed, as well as the ones whose videos he reviewed in the Yale archive, bear him out, but as Dominick LaCapra recently commented, Langer was largely "concerned with victims as victims, not as survivors or agents" (LaCapra, 2001, pp. 98-99).

Indeed the focus of most oral interviews and many memoirs has been on capturing information about the war itself. Moreover, for many who appear in the Yale videos, that interview marked a first attempt to recreate the buried and painful past. Not surprisingly after an extensive discussion of one's helplessness in the face of Nazi domination, few interviewees had the energy to say much about their more recent lives. When Langer extensively re-interviewed a couple, Mr. and Mrs. B, during a lunch break he found they could talk about their grandchild "with undisguised joy." Nonetheless, he concludes, "they are "also hostages to a humiliating and painful past that their happier future does little to curtail." "Moral formulas about learning from experience and growing through suffering," he continues, "disintegrate into meaningless fragments of rhetorical consolation" in the face of the rest of the interviews (Langer, 1991, p. xi. LaCapra, who criticizes Langer's emphasis on victimhood, like Langer himself also objects to what he calls "redemptive narratives." (LaCapra, 2001, pp. 98-99)

Still in the years since Langer's Holocaust Testimonies appeared, some memoirs have appeared that modify the assumption that most survivors suffer from a lifelong burden of what Langer called "anguished" or "humiliated" memory. Thanks partly to Langer's hard work and extensive publications, more Americans have developed some understanding of what survivors had experienced in their youth. As a result, those who in later life publish their life stories or talk to a variety of groups have often found receptive audiences. Of course, Holocaust survivors have not forgotten the pain and confusion of their youthful suffering. Nonetheless, they have learned to take pride in their ability to carve out new lives in a new country. Most married and reared children. In old age some have even found new roles to play. They have taken on the challenge of educating the next generation, as well as those older folk who grew up far from the horrors of World War II. Most appear to have relished their new importance. For some a positive response has had a healing effect.

Of course, not all survivors react the same way. In some instances youthful difficulties have led to repressed or distorted memories regarding events outside the camps themselves. It has taken nearly sixty years for some individuals to understand how their prewar lives have shaped their adult reactions to people and places. Others have still not come to terms with their childhood anger and may never do so. Two cases illustrate this point. Viennese-born Ruth Kluger and Gerda Lerner were both nurtured in prosperous but unhappy families. Both felt trapped by the demands of their immediate family and resentful of parental neglect. Their talented but troubled mothers were unable to see their daughters as anything but an extension of themselves. Despite these similarities the later emotional lives of these talented women have differed in important ways. According to the evidence of their recent memoirs, Kluger (2001) remains emotionally entangled with the memory of her difficult mother, whereas Lerner (2002) has gradually developed new affection and respect for her deceased parents. Age, luck, and psychoanalysis have all played important roles.

Kluger's early life split into four discrete units: Viennese childhood, the camps, postwar Germany, and America. Although her childhood ended when she was deported to Theresienstadt, imprisonment and slave labor, however, did not provide her worst experience. Instead she considers childhood and her early years in America to have been almost more painful than the horrors of war. Kluger's story reveals how damaging early childhood unhappiness can be when later experiences do not bring about psychic change. Born in 1931, she, unlike many female Holocaust memorists, recalls few happy memories of family life before the war. If young Ruth had been of a domestic temperament all might have been well. She was not, preferring books to hours in the kitchen. She was also a noticing and judging child, characteristics that were not calculated to endear her to her elders. For example, she observed that her extended family was not realistic about the Nazis. They worried more about the child's manners than the dangers of incarceration. To make matters worse her mother's treatment of her was mercurial and erratic. Kluger insists that her mother also suffered from paranoid thinking, but in retrospect her mother's irrational feelings were intensified by realistic worries. Moreover, as M. P. Bender (1997) has pointed out, during the stress of World War II, few parents had the psychic energy to meet the needs of their traumatized children. These parents, Bender reminds us, had already lived through the losses of World War I. The second war intensified the earlier misery. As a result, Bender adds, many parents and children who survived World War II continue to suffer from the long term effects of unresolved pain.

Most of Kluger's childhood memories center on herself and her relationships with elders. Growing up in Vienna as an only child, she avers, was not easy. Time has not softened her sense of outrage. Even when writing her memoir in later life, she still feels distressed by her extended family's antiquated belief in hierarchy. Women and children counted for little, especially rebellious little girls who spurned family dicta regarding proper behavior. This preference for boys still embitters her. After the war, she remarks, few family members have been interested in her stories. "Wars," she notes, "and hence the memories of wars, are owned by the male of the species" (Kluger, 2001, p. 18). As she insightfully reports, her intellect and new information have challenged some childhood memories, "but my childish resentments are more deeply ingrained where the mind doesn't reach" (p. 20). In this authoritarian, traditional Viennese family, women and their stories still do not count for much, but in recent years Kluger has received a warm reception for her wartime narratives. Unfortunately, to some extent Kluger has remained trapped in her childhood emotions. She displays empathy for people of her generation and younger but still finds it hard to alter her recollections of the familial tyrants of her girlhood.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Kluger's mother was understandably preoccupied about the fates of her son and second husband. Her first husband had regained custody of their son, Schorschi, and made the boy return to Czechoslovakia, Hitler's first target (Kluger, 2001, p. 28). Early in the war both father and son were deported to Theresienstadt. From there the boy was transported to Riga and shot. Not until many years after the war did Kluger learn of her brother' fate (2001, pp. 58, 79-80, & 83). To compound her mother's worries, in 1940 just after the war broke out in earnest, Kluger's father, a physician, was arrested for performing an illegal abortion--few Jews wanted to have babies in such turbulent times. His wife was forced to promise to pay the government a Reichsfluchtsteuer, what amounted to a bribe to allow him to leave Austria. (Kluger, 2001, pp. 34-35) Unfortunately he made the mistake of settling in France instead of Italy where he first landed (Kluger, 2001, p. 39). From there he was deported to Lithuania and Estonia where he was killed. Not until publishing the German edition of this memoir, did Kluger learn exactly how her father had died (Kluger, 2001, p. 40). For years, she thought both her father and half-brother had died in Auschwitz, but lacked the definitive report necessary to come to terms with their loss. She laments, "Where there is no grave, we are condemned to go on mourning" (Kluger, 2001, p. 80). The grave does not have to be a plot of earth, she insists; definite information can be enough.

Gradually the Viennese Nazi laws separated Kluger from other children, increasing the young girl's isolation. Jewish children were thrown out of schools, refused entrance to movies, parks, and most public places. Cemeteries became the one place they could play. Kluger's mother, however, tried to confine her daughter, admonishing her not to join other children in their games (Kluger, 2001, p. 54). To make matters worse once in 1940 her mother urged her to violate the law by going to see the movie Snow White. The young girl sat next to a baker's daughter, who recognized her. After the film, the girl told her that if she ever came to the movies again, she would tell the police (Kluger, 2001, p. 46). None of her family members regarded this as an important threat. Lacking sympathy the little girl suffered alone. Compounding her insensitivity, her mother turned down the chance to send Ruth to safety on a Kindertransport, insisting that mothers and children belonged together (Kluger, 2001, p. 57). Young Ruth was not consulted.

In September 1942, Ruth and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, the transport camp to hell (Kluger, 2001, p. 58). From its portals most of the prisoners were sent east to death camps. Curiously, Kluger's memories of the ghetto prison are ambivalent rather than completely unhappy. Like other children, she lived in a little house with other German-speaking youths. Proximity to other children taught her to be "a social animal," capable of getting along with age-mates (Kluger, 2001, p. 86). She made close friends with another girl named Hanna, perhaps the first friend in her life. Responsible adults in the community tried to help the children cope with the difficult situation. They attempted to educate the young, and at seventy Kluger still remembers the pleasure of her first lecture. Its subject was creation, the speaker, Rabbi Leo Baeck. Understandably, however, she resents a gentile German woman who years later told her authoritatively that "Theresienstadt wasn't all that bad" (Kluger, 2001, p. 73). Even-handed in her grievances, Kluger complains about the response of most Americans. They seem unable to understand that for her Theresienstadt was less horrible than her final isolated days in Vienna. Both kinds of listeners fall short in her opinion. Neither, she insists, has listened empathically to the tale she has to tell.

Despite the positive side of life in what the Germans called a ghetto, Kluger has other unpleasant memories of being endlessly crowded in what she calls "a mudhole, a cesspool, a sty" (2001, p. 87). As a result whenever she meets someone who was also deported there, she rebuffs any friendly overtures. The good that emerged in Theresienstadt, she concludes, was created by the Jews with no help from the Germans (Kluger, 2001, p. 86). As for the Virgilian notion of knowledge won through suffering, "Auschwitz was no instructional institution," she declares bitterly on another occasion. "Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps." The camps, she insists, provided no theatrical catharsis (2001, p. 65)

Like many others, Kluger and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, but their stay was mercifully short. A miraculous intervention saved the young girl's life. At first the deportees from Theresienstadt were kept together in a family camp in Birkenau, just as Gypsy families were. Each group met the same fate: the gypsies and the Theresienstadt family camp members were both gassed in 1944 (Rosenberg, p. 111, Kluger, p. 112). Luckily for Kluger before the annihilation of her group, a selection took place. Most selections in Birkenau determined who were sick and weak enough to be exterminated immediately. This time, however, the SS chose the young and strong to be sent to a work camp. Not too surprisingly, when Kluger told the SS officer she was twelve, he ordered her to stay behind. Normally the selection was final with no appeal to a higher court. But both Kluger and her mother believed that sufficient chaos might allow the girl to sneak back into another line to try her luck again. Her mother reassured her daughter that they would stay together come what may, but urged young Ruth to tell the officer that she was fifteen. Kluger had no intention of lying on such a grand scale, but she joined the other line. When she came toward the desk, a young clerk, another prisoner, came forward to ask her age. She advised Ruth to say she was fifteen, even though no reasonable person would believe such a claim. When the officer commented on the child's small size, the clerk pointed out that she was strong. Feeling in an expansive mood the officer agreed, and Ruth was allowed to join her mother. Considering that the clerk's gesture of solidarity saved the young girl's life, not surprisingly her memories of female guards and authority figures in the camps are more positive than many another survivor.

At this point Kluger tells a positive story about her mother but adds a barb at the end. In Birkenau a young orphan girl named Susi attached herself to her mother, and her mother chose to treat Susi as if she were family (Kluger, 2001, pp. 122-23). Recollections of such informal adoptions occurred occasionally in other memoirs—notably Betty Schimmel, To See You Again (1999)—but in that instance Schimmel described her mother's behavior with genuine gratitude. Kluger, however, insists that this newly constituted family was not always happy. At various points in their later lives, Kluger reports, her paranoid mother rejected Susi, although they were eventually reconciled at the end of her mother's life (2001, pp. 123-124). Yet, during the war, she acknowledges, her mother's paranoia and quick actions generally paid off. The Nazis evacuated their work camp on one of their infamous death marches, but on the second night Ruth, her mother, and Susi ran away from the chaotic group. Others sent on similar marches, such as Gerda Weissmann Klein, reported having no opportunity to escape (Klein, 1957, 1995). Most SS guards shot anyone who dropped by the wayside or who attempted to escape.

During the relatively short period before the end of the war, Kluger's mother and Susi both proved to be resourceful in dealing with the prejudiced German population. Susi talked a village mayor into giving them ration cards, but shortly thereafter they had to flee for their lives. Children had quizzed young Ruth about her missing father and guessed correctly that she was Jewish. Fortunately they soon found less unpleasant companions. At one point a policeman arrested them for having no identity papers, but Klüger's mother talked such elegant German that out of respect he let them go. She wrote him a note to give the Allies, asserting that he had released them as a gesture of good will. To avoid more trouble, the mother then requested identification papers from a Protestant minister, who willingly obliged. As a result, most of the time the three lived among gentiles, unmolested. Yet when the war ended Americans turned out not to be particularly welcoming. The first American soldier they met refused even to listen to their story. Unlike Gerda Klein, whose husband-to-be was one of her liberators, no such happy ending occurred.

In many ways Kluger's first encounter with an American was prophetic. America presented more obstacles than postwar Germany. Unlike Gerda Klein (2000), who hated living in Germany and expended much energy trying to get a transit visa to leave, Kluger had a relatively happy two years there once the war was over. She was allowed to return to school and later attended classes in a Roman Catholic seminary for a more advanced education. America was not so accommodating. Her ambitious but insecure German American relatives were critical of Kluger's manners. Moreover the impoverished young girl had become enough of a German that she found making American friends a difficult chore. In many ways her reactions to America mirrored those of Eva Hoffman (1989), who left communist Poland for Canada in the 1950s. Both girls were exceptionally intelligent, observant, and critical. Neither made an easy companion. Three months after arriving in the United States, Kluger entered Hunter College. At sixteen she must have been much younger than other college students. Shortly thereafter she became depressed from a combination of forces, the effort to obtain an education in a foreign language and the misery of acute culture shock.

Recognizing her daughter's misery, Kluger's mother sent her to a psychiatrist, a Viennese friend of her husband. Not too surprisingly, the therapy turned out to be a disaster. Eva Hoffman also went into therapy. Unlike Kluger she chose to do so and was considerably older. Unfortunately sixteen-year-old Kluger assumed that she had the right to complain about her mother, whose intrusive behavior she found oppressive. The doctor, she recalls, sided with the mother. He lectured young Ruth on her sins--her critical nature and her untidiness. He warned the young woman that she would never make friends, thereby undermining her confidence. Feeling betrayed by the doctor, Kluger lost an opportunity to reassess her early life, thereby better understanding her troubled mother and herself. Instead she refused further treatment. She was lucky enough to spend a summer at the University of Vermont, where she met three young women who became her friends for life.

The sad part is that skillful therapy at a later point might well have been helpful. The tone of Kluger's narrative at many points suggests an unacknowledged battle with depression. For example, when discussing her miraculous escape from death at Birkenau, Kluger refuses to rejoice even for a moment. Instead she feels compelled to "warn the reader not to invest in optimism vouchers and not to give credit, much less take credit, for the happy end of my childhood's odyssey—if indeed simple survival can be called a happy end" (2001, p. 91). Understandably a pessimist at heart—she had endured more losses at a young age than most people-- Kluger constructed a postwar life in which she has depended upon friends, but only those who can withstand her emotional demands. Unlike Anzia Yezierska the Polish-American novelist, some friends proved staunch allies. Moreover Kluger took advantage of educational opportunities in America. After graduating from Hunter College, she began graduate school in California. Apparently she left without a degree in order to marry an American war hero who had completed his Ph.D. in history. The couple had two sons, but the marriage foundered in a few years. Once again Kluger's mother played an important role. When the first son was born, her mother attempted suicide, hardly the typical reaction of a new grandmother. Ruth's uncle denounced his niece for leaving her mother to his tender mercies. Furious at the refusal of family members to support her maternal role, Kluger began to scream (2001, pp. 201-202). Soon thereafter her husband concluded that his wife was not the person he had taken her for. A divorce followed.

Still Kluger had other resources, and her middle age turned out to be less miserable than her youth. She returned to graduate school in German literature and established a successful career as a professor, thereby supporting her two sons. She continued to assist her mother despite the older woman's sometimes irrational behavior. Luckily, advanced old age brought her mother peace in her late nineties. What struck me as remarkable was the healing role that Kluger's granddaughter played in reconciling the two difficult women. Unlike many sufferers from dementia, returning to childhood erased most of the pain of her mother's adult life. Retreating in her mind to the Czech village of her girlhood, the great-grandmother forgot her four marriages and the Nazis. She believed her daughter Ruth to be the beloved sister of her early days, not the Americanized aunt who years before had given young Ruth and her mother so much grief. Finally in her late nineties, the mother was able to enjoy the child, whose father's birth had precipitated a suicide attempt. The mother-daughter disputes evaporated, and the four-year-old great-grandchild became a beloved playmate, "ein Wunderkind!" (Kluger, 2001, p. 213). As Kluger so movingly put it in the very last paragraph, the two "met in a present that miraculously stood still for them, time frozen in space and space made human. Perhaps redeemed" (2001, p. 214). Few lose their minds in such a benign fashion, but the old woman had suffered enough. Her last days brought her peace of mind and playful moments with her beloved great-grandchild.

Unfortunately even Kluger's recollections of transcendence have turned out to be ephemeral. In January 2003, she came to Gainesville to give a reading from her memoir. After a compelling performance the speaker revealed a less pleasant side. During the question period a woman in the audience happily announced that she had gone to nursing school with Kluger's adopted sister, Susi. Kluger acknowledged the relationship, reporting that Susi had told her that a friend of hers would probably be present at the reading. Then she paused and added with more honesty than tact that she and Susi had never had much in common. Thoroughly chastened the woman subsided. Repeated comments in the memoir and her behavior at the reading reveal an important pattern in Kluger's life. She analyzes her own behavior and relationships with impressive but pitiless honesty, but intellectual acuity has not brought her even a modicum of emotional peace.

Despite the similarities of upbringing, Gerda Lerner's postwar life has been happier than Kluger's. Moreover her analysis of the past differs from Ruth Kluger's interpretations. Of course, Lerner had the benefit of age on her side. She was old enough to escape from Vienna and arrive in the United States as an impoverished refugee. Kluger was eight when the war began and sixteen when she arrived in the United States. Her youth led to an uncomfortable maternal dependence in the camps and afterwards. According to Professor Peter Erspamer (2001), Kluger's hostility to her mother may have stemmed from fear of losing her last remaining parent. "Ruth," he adds, "sees her mother not as a parent figure, but as a peer with whom she is a ruthless competitor." In contrast, Lerner was nearly nineteen when she left Austria for the United States and much better equipped than the younger woman to establish an independent life. Nonetheless it took nearly sixty years before Lerner began to reexamine and write about her life in a new way.

Born in 1920 eleven years before Kluger, Gerda Lerner masterminded her escape to America in April 1939, shortly before her nineteenth birthday. She followed her fiancé Bobby Jerusalem, a medical student, who had left for America somewhat earlier. Despite poverty and a divorce from her first husband, Lerner remarried happily, reared two children, and managed successfully until her husband died at sixty. That crisis convinced her that she needed psychiatric assistance to make sense of her whole life. The analysis must have been very helpful One sign of its efficacy is the difference between the truncated and sometimes hostile portrait she painted of her parents in A Death of One's Own (1978), her reflections on her husband's early death, and the more nuanced and compassionate portrait she paints twenty-four years later in her recent memoir, Fireweed (2002)1

In contrast to Fireweed (2002), A Death of One's Own contains only fragments of Gerda Lerner's early days. After all, the stated purpose of the earlier memoir was to "record the death of a man, a fine and dearly loved man, and its meaning to those near him." Writing about the horror of her husband Carl's eighteen-month battle with a malignant brain tumor taught her that "no one knows the experience of the dying." Instead she writes about her "experience with death, with the deaths of those I have loved, with this one very special and overwhelming death." To do the subject justice, she "imposed upon myself a demand for the kind of ruthless honesty in facing myself and my most personal feeling that one accepts in a psychoanalytic relationship, while admitting frankly the limitations of my perceptions of others" (Death, 1978, pp. 8-9).

Three extensive passages in A Death of One's Own refer briefly to Lerner's early family life. In the earliest one she places the blame directly on her parents, but subsequent recollections reveal an undisguised anguish. She begins by contrasting the largely negative influence of her parents to an uncle and aunt and later to another aunt, all of whom she idolized. Her uncle by marriage was Dr. Alexander Mueller, a psychiatrist trained by Alfred Adler. His wife, Klari, her mother's sister, had been "crippled since birth with an ‘open hip'"(Lerner, 1978, p. 120). Both had shown fortitude before the war when they were officially stateless, and during it when they managed to engineer escapes from their Nazi captors. Their loyalty and bravery impressed Lerner. As she puts it, "They were after all my chosen parents. My own parents had failed me in so many ways that I had rescued myself only through my work and be remaking myself through my marriage" (1978, p. 127). Later she adds, "Klari and Mueller taught me what my parents should have taught me but did not, about the love of a man and a woman, about the potential of such love, its complexity and its simplicity" (1978, p. 132).

The second passage concerns her mother's other sister, Aunt Manci, a medical doctor, who also shared Klari and Mueller's mythic status. When imprisoned by the Nazis she was a source of strength to others. Upon arrival at Auschwitz she chose to accompany children from the train to the gas chambers even though she would have been selected to work. No doubt Lerner's admiration for the bravery of all her mother's relatives was intensified partly by survivor guilt, the recognition that she and her immediate family had been luckier. They were able to escape the time of trial by becoming refugees, a freedom not available to her mother's two sisters. News of Manci's death left Lerner in a unresolvable quandary. Lacking personal knowledge of her aunt, she found it difficult to mourn her death. "I had not really known her, but I always understood that she had died in my place. In the place I should have occupied" (Lerner, 1978, p. 229), she concludes sadly.

Ultimately in the late 1960s her uncle and aunt faced death bravely, thereby providing their niece with a remarkable example of living, loving, and dying. Yet the stories she tells about Mueller could be interpreted slightly differently. During the prewar years, he had an extended affair with a woman psychiatrist, a fellow refugee in Holland—hardly an exhibition of marital loyalty. Moreover, after Klari's death, he never answered Lerner's letters. When she and her husband traveled to Zurich hoping to see him, Mueller refused to tax his dwindling strength with a visit. After her husband fell ill, she says she understood Mueller's detachment much better. Yet when her husband was fighting his losing battle against a brain tumor, he did not withdraw so completely from family and friends until the very end.

In a third passage Lerner paints a more complex picture of her troubling mother, one which reveals the unhappiness lying behind her sometimes angry recollections. Briefly she mentions her mother's creative response to her childhood fear of the dark, the lessons she gave her daughter about using her imagination "to play with that fear and tame it" (1978, p. 158). Moreover, she contradicts her earlier assertion that her parents had not taught her about marital love. Unfortunately, their love had been full of conflict. They avoided divorce by "pretending to a marriage which did not exist." Yet, her daughter realized, her parents "were deeply attached to each other." Despite extra-marital affairs, "they were each other's most trusted friend" (1978, p. 160). It was a confusing relationship that entangled the children. Even her mother's creativity at times felt like a burden. "Of all the burdens that was perhaps the heaviest: how to become a woman capable of love, a reliable mother and yet a person." Finally she began to understand —presumably after beginning therapy-- "that the guilt for her life is not mine." Lerner was not to blame that something made her mother's "life turn to flare-up and flame and the sputtering out of a great, a real talent." "She almost destroyed me," Lerner concludes, "but she did show me what is possible. My beautiful, dark Hungarian mother" (1978, p. 164).

When Lerner once again decides to write about her life, years after the crisis of her husband's illness and death, she recognizes the changes time has wrought. In the introduction she states, "One keeps reordering the past in the light of one's current insights and so what one sets down are not the facts, but a story. An explanatory myth at worst, an entertaining tale at best" (Fireweed, 2002, p. 1). As a result, what she says about her parents and her early life differs in tone from comments in A Death of One's Own. As she puts it, "if the living change, the memory of the dead within them also changes—that is natural and that is good (Fireweed, p. 2). Most important, however, Fireweed is a political autobiography. Lerner's stated intention is to tell the story of her radical past for the first time, rather than remaining "within a closet of my own making" (Fireweed, p. 3, italics the author's). She and her husband Carl were members of the Communist Party for a number of years. Luckily for her career, her radical activities were directed toward helping children and women. Thus she could discuss her activities without drawing attention to the political basis of her concern. For the purposes of this presentation, however, Lerner's politics are not as important as her view of her parents and extended kin. The new insights into her family that appear in her last memoir are the indirect result of many years of analysis, followed by an unexpectedly successful professional life in her sixties and seventies.

The difference in tone between A Death of One's Own and Fireweed is striking. In the latter Lerner fills in the gaps about her childhood and her years in America ending the memoir in 1958, the time when she finally returned to complete her education and begin her professional life. This time she provides a nuanced portrait of her parents and her family life. Although she has moments when she finds it difficult to reconstruct the past, the picture that emerges seems much more believable. Her parents had their own troubles. For example, her mother had to do battle with her husband's mother and that tyrannical woman made a worthy enemy. Moreover, her mother was unlucky in her timing. Her sister Nanci was a doctor, but she had no children nor a permanent husband. Lerner's father, Vati, wanted his wife to emulate his strong-minded but domesticated mother. To make matters worse, Ili—Lerner's mother—had only a vague notion of how to lead the literary and artistic life she desired. Not until the war when she moved to Nice, did she begin painting in earnest. Then she was struck down in her late forties with multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease which first paralyzed and then killed her at the age of fifty.

One useful way to measure the change is to compare how Lerner describes her final quarrel with her mother before she left Europe for the United States in 1939, shortly before her nineteenth birthday. In Death of One's Own, she tells the story tersely, blaming her mother for the break. Her mother, she complains, knew how desperately she needed to leave home, but refused to give her blessing. As a result Lerner had to precipitate the break. She left "gladly and with a sense of escaping the waters closing over me, and so, for the rest of my life, I had to deal with that last guilt on top of all the others" (1978, pp. 162-163). One gets the impression from this passage that the conflict was largely interpersonal. The coming war is not mentioned, just the desperate need to leave home. Thus the passage to America, she describes, "as six days of weeping, seasickness and fear." As she tells it, "deep inside I was mourning. It was a tearing out, a violent uprooting, a voyage of death" (1978, p. 163). In Fireweed, Lerner describes her parting from her mother in a more complex fashion. She gives details about the cause of their quarrel and looks back with sadness upon their unhappiness. If only she had understood her mother's need to stay in France and work, she mourns, "our tragic parting would have had a redemptive effect on both of us. But that did not happen. Our relationship expressed itself falsely, in slanted versions of the truth, in half-truths and in suppressed anger." Parting in anger, her mother's subsequent Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis, and death have left Lerner bedeviled by guilt, "guilt over having misunderstood, over having misjudged, over having been stuck in my absolutes while she set herself free in her own inimitable way." Finally she concludes, "Nothing I have ever written has been as hard to write as this account. My mother chose to pay for her art with her life. I still can't find the craft to transform this pain into something that can rebuild life. All I can do is state the bare outlines, and that's inadequate. Entirely inadequate" (Fireweed, 2002, p. 206-207).

Inadequate though she felt her statement to be, it reflects a dramatic change in Lerner's understanding of her mother. Moreover, like most guilt, it was largely unearned. Many children in their late teens who leave home for college experience the same painful breaking away. Lerner was just more unfortunate than our college-bound youth. Poverty, combined with small babies, made it impossible for her to travel to Europe during her mother's lifetime. To make matters worse, her father and sister out of love wished to spare her feelings, realizing that she lacked the money necessary to travel. For a long time Lerner had no idea how desperately ill her mother was. Exchanging letters helped but did not heal the breach completely.

These two narratives reveal that during and after the upheaval of World War II, refugees from Europe suffered mightily even though they might be physically safe. Telephone and mail services were severed during the conflict. Letters crossed in the mail or were lost. Afterwards trying to locate one's relatives was a daunting task. No wonder those who had lived on the sidelines felt guilty about their good fortune. Luckily, the influence of successful psychotherapy often extends long past the time of treatment. After severe trauma emotional growth takes time, nearly sixty years in some cases. Professional and personal success can help restore shattered self-esteem. Therapy starts the process of self-knowledge. Motivated patients have continued on their own to gain insight into the past.


1. In Death, 1978, p. 90, Lerner mentions having "professional help and psychiatric counseling" while her husband was dying in 1973. In Fireweed, 2002, p. 292, she mentions "years of work in analysis." Presumably her analysis ended in 1980, when she left New York for a tenured position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Ibid, p. 368. She started a very successful Ph.D. program in Women's History in what was then mostly a department of men.


Bender, M. P. 1997. "Bitter Harvest: The Implications of Continuing War-Related Stress on Reminiscence Theory and Practice." Ageing and Society, 337-48.

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