Center eases Holocaust survivors’ trauma

Mike Zacharias

The Jewish Congregation in Stockholm, Sweden, asked Hedi Fried in 1984 to start a rehabilitation center for survivors struggling with repressed trauma from the Holocaust.

“That was the time that the Jewish community realized something had to be done for the survivors,” Fried said.

The 77-year-old shared stories about her years of working with Holocaust survivors and their children in Sweden with a group of University students, faculty, children of Holocaust survivors and at least one concentration camp survivor Tuesday.

For the center’s first meeting, Swedish social workers brought together nine people who needed psychological treatment. Not all the survivors wanted to be in therapy, said Fried, an accredited psychologist since 1982.

But the survivors accepted her, not as a psychologist but as a fellow sufferer of the Holocaust. Eventually, more than 70 people frequented the center and traveled from as far away as Russia, Fried said.

Fried was a few months short of turning 20 when she was sent to Auschwitz, and by the time she was transferred to work camps with her sister, their parents already had been murdered. Near the end of the war she was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen never received official concentration camp status, but according to the Holocaust Web site, more than 18,000 Jews died there in the month of March alone. Diarrhea ran rampant among the captives, so the Nazis starved them.

“If you don’t eat, you don’t shit,” Bergen-Belsen’s first commander, Adolf Haas, reportedly said.

Following the war, more than 10,000 Jews were moved to Sweden for medical treatment, and some, including Fried, stayed.

For years, some survivors did not talk about the concentration camps, and some experienced nightmares, sleeplessness and depression, Fried said.

But at the rehabilitation center, survivors began to speak about the camps and how new losses in their lives rekindled memories of past losses, Fried said.

“They started to work through old losses,” she said.

While some Jews improved, life remained difficult for others.

One woman, who had been a part of Sweden’s Jewish community and helped bring the rehabilitation center into existence, never fully recovered from her time in Auschwitz, Fried said.

As the woman aged, she began to get suspicious of people.

“She complained that the neighbors went up to her room and they (took) her things,” Fried said. The woman did not buy any new dresses, because she feared the neighbors would rip them.

Once after falling in the street, the police took her to a hospital, Fried said. After being told to remove her clothes and personal items and leave them in a room, she began to scream.

It reminded her of Auschwitz.

The second generation

From her talks with survivors, Fried began to see a generation gap between survivors and their children. Many parents had difficulty communicating with their children about the Holocaust. And while their children could tell something had happened, they felt they shouldn’t ask about it, Fried said.

“I think the problem with the silence (between survivors and their children) is not so much the silence as the difficulty of communicating on an emotional basis,” Fried said.

Fried then started a center for the children of Holocaust survivors. Meetings were held where unrelated parents and children could speak to each other in an effort to better understand what their own family members had gone and were going through, Fried said.

The second generation of the Holocaust was having identity problems, she said. They were raised in Sweden, while their parents were displaced there after the war. One child heard so much about the
concentration camps from her mother that she thought she had lived through it herself.

The first generation had trouble seeing their kids’ difficulties as well, Fried said. Because they had been through so much, they did not understand how their children could have problems.

Vera Kovacovic, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, attended Fried’s talk. She did not hear about her mother’s experience until she was 20.

“She was glad to talk, but it wasn’t very overbearing,” Kovacovic said. “I was obviously eager to listen, because I was at the point in my life where it was really important to me.”

Although speaking with her mother went well, Kovacovic said, the support groups were

“I’m glad that she’s having these groups with people,” Kovacovic said.