One question kept coming up during the Warsaw premiere of “Prisoner of Her Past,” Oct. 18 in an exhibition space near the Jewish Historical Institute.
Though audience members in the SRO crowd phrased it in different ways, they kept returning to the same motif: Why didn’t my mother talk about her Holocaust trauma after the war? Why was she so silent? Wouldn’t she have avoided the disaster of her current PTSD-induced psychosis if she had just told her story? Don’t people who speak about trauma function much better than those who refuse to speak?
If only it were that simple.
For starters, the medical literature suggests that most survivors did not seek psychiatric help; that those who did generally were not helped significantly; that psychiatrists themselves cued survivors not to share the most gruesome details of their experiences (further discussion of these points can be found in my book “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich”).
In short, there was virtually no forum through which the survivors could tell their stories, nor did they feel they had the words to describe the chaos and horrors they witnessed and endured.
Yet there were other reasons not to speak, as well.
“Survivors who don’t tell stories are protecting themselves and their listeners,” said Lukasz Biedka, a psychologist who illuminated the panel discussion following the Warsaw screening.
“The listeners are as helpless to what happened as the survivors themselves. The listeners wouldn’t know what to do with this story.
“And the survivors didn’t want to expose themselves to not being understood.
“It’s impossible [for the listener] to feel empathy if you haven’t lived through this yourself. And anyway, empathy isn’t enough.”
For the survivors, added Biedka, “It’s a second trauma when you tell people what happened, and they can’t understand.”
One member of the audience – a daughter of survivors – said she would never make a film about her own mother, thereby putting her mother “under a microscope.”
But this sounded to me like an unfortunate plea for more of the old silence.
As a son and as a journalist, I feel compelled to tell this story, to unveil the truth of what happened as I discover it.
Plus, as psychologist Biedka added, “The film is not just about [Sonia’s] PTSD. It’s about Howard working through his own thoughts.”
Post script: Deep thanks to Edyta Kurek and Olga Zienkiewicz, of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and Andrew B. Paul, cultural attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, for organizing this unforgettable event.
– Howard Reich