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29 March 2000

New Book: Memories of Traumatic Experiences in the Nazi Era Significantly More Acute in Old Age

Heidelberg gerontologists Andreas Kruse and Eric Schmitt present their new book: "Wir haben uns als Deutsche gefühlt" – Findings of a study involving 248 holocaust survivors

Heidelberg gerontologists Prof. Dr. Andreas Kruse and Dr. Eric Schmitt have just published their new book: "Wir haben uns als Deutsche gefühlt. Lebensrückblick und Lebenssituation jüdischer Emigranten und Lagerhäftlinge" ("We Still Felt German. Jewish Exiles and Camp Internees Remember"). It recounts the findings of a study involving 248 holocaust survivors. 180 of these went into exile, 60 each to Argentina, Israel and the United States, about half of each group returning to Germany in their old age. 68 of the total group were interned in extermination camps. Of these 48 emigrated to Israel after their release, and 20 remained in Germany.

The book begins with a brief historical overview of Jewish emigration, interspersed with facts about the history of National Socialist concentration and extermination camps.

In a further chapter the book presents detailed biographies of five Jewish exiles, mostly in the form of direct citation. These biographies point up not only the demands and hardships connected with emigration and the long-term repercussions of National Socialist persecution, they also delineate the way in which the people in question have attempted to come to terms with those hardships and regain their bearings in a new country.

How did the traumatic experiences re-assert themselves in old age?

The authors also address the question of the extent to which traumatic memories of the Nazi dictatorship live on in the mind in old age. The analyses show that in all the exiles, especially those interned in the camps, the memories of traumatic experiences they had been through actually became sensibly more acute in old age. All the former inmates of extermination camps agreed that in old age these memories were just as vivid as immediately after their release from the death camps. Inquiry into the subjects around which the memories "clustered" showed a broad range of subject-matter specific to the Nazi era. Many of the persons interviewed also reported sudden outbreaks of apparently unmotivated fear and anxiety. In most cases the memories were spontaneous, i.e. neither predictable nor subject to influence in the course they take. In those cases where the exiles and former camp-inmates were witnesses of active xenophobia and anti-Semitism the memories and fears were substantially more distressing.

These findings show that the way the host society responds to the period of the Third Reich and the fate of the Jews has a significant bearing on the present psychological situation of the exiles and former camp detainees. Asked about this point, they said that they did not so much expect "help" from others in coming to terms with their recurrent memories but considered it important that the fate of the Jews in the Third Reich should not fall into oblivion or be presented in the wrong light. What they did expect was tact and discretion in the way their fate was discussed and a tactful bearing towards those people who had suffered this fate.

The book also inquires into how the victims themselves engage with the problem of the constantly recurring traumatic memories. Various forms of coping came to light, including "living a life of social responsibility and committing oneself to the well-being of others, notably young people". This form of engagement most typically takes the form of seeking contact with young people (e.g. in schools) and in such encounters pointing out the personal responsibility of each and every individual for sustaining democracy and avoiding/preventing discrimination and anti-Semitism. In the interviews there is frequent reference to the heartening interest taken by many young people in the fate of the Jews in the Third Reich.

Personal identification with Germany suffered

A central chapter of the book looks at the interviewees' personal relationship to Germany, its history and culture. Responses here differ greatly from one person to another. While some expressly lament the continuing presence of anti-Semitic tendencies, a factor prompting them to avoid contact with Germany and the Germans, others are of the opinion that there is no comparison between present-day Germany and the Third Reich. In all of the persons asked, however, there was a definite lapse of identification with Germany due to the events in the Third Reich, over and against a definite increase in their identification with Judaism. But for none of them was Germany – its culture, language and natural geography – a matter of indifference. Even those adopting a very critical attitude still mostly felt very personal links with the cultural history of Germany.

Andreas Kruse & Eric Schmitt (2000). Wir haben uns als Deutsche gefühlt. Lebensrückblick und Lebenssituation jüdischer Emigranten und Lagerhäftlinge. Darmstadt: Steinkopff. 286 pp. ISBN 3-7985-1035-0. DM 49,-.

Please address any inquiries to Dr. Michael Schwarz Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg phone: 063221/542310, fax:542317

Please address any inquiries to:
Prof. Dr. Andreas Kruse and Dr. Eric Schmitt
Institut für Gerontologie der Universität Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548181, fax: 545961

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 07.04.00




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