Anna Rosner Blay
Foreword by Paul Valent
In this book, Anna Rosner Blay continues the journey she embarked upon in her well-received Sister, Sister. Whereas in the earlier work she focused on the Holocaust experiences of two survivors – her mother and her aunt – and their legacy, in this book she explores what we might be able learn from survivors about coping with major problems of a more ‘everyday’ nature.
The author chose four women whom she knew and respected. She believed that by listening to their recollections about migration and adjustment to Australia, she would be able to extract the essence of their resilience and wisdom, gained in the Holocaust and applied in their daily struggles throughout the years that followed. In particular, Anna wanted to learn from them how to deal with a traumatic upheaval she was undergoing in her own life: the breakdown of her marriage.
She did not believe that these women’s Holocaust experiences were directly relevant to her relatively commonplace trauma. ‘How can I compare my own troubles to those of people who really suffered?’ she asks. How could these measure up against the enormity of the Holocaust? Therefore she set out to ask her interviewees only about their post-Holocaust adjustment difficulties. The tension between Anna’s view of herself as suffering only ‘everyday’ difficulties, as against the major traumas the survivors had endured, gives this book its unique strength. Her dilemma is that ultimately she wants to learn from the Holocaust, surely the most powerful of teachers with regard to trauma and its consequences, but she does not allow herself to, because she feels that her own hardships can scarcely compare.
But to Anna’s surprise, the four women do not distinguish their Holocaust and post-Holocaust traumas as distinctly as she did. She has to acknowledge that the themes of the women’s predicaments and her own are not so dissimilar. In a sense, the fact that humans have only a certain repertoire of responses to traumas generally, is precisely what allows the Holocaust to be such an insightful teacher in everyday lives.
Of course it may be countered, ‘Yes, but the content and the intensity of the traumas, and of the responses to them, are so much greater in the Holocaust than in ordinary life.’ This may well be true, but there is another point to consider. It is that survivors struggled to survive, so that they could later struggle with everyday problems, and at last fulfil their ordinary human desires for love, family, achievement, self-esteem and meaning. Whereas during the Holocaust the immediate concern was survival, the ultimate goal was similar to Anna’s – fulfilment of one’s being. We should remember that if ‘ordinary’ life goals are not achieved, life can come to appear meaningless and futile, even to the point of suicide.
In the end Anna does learn from the survivor women, but not exactly in the way she anticipated. The importance of this journey, which the reader is invited to share (and to partake of much incidental wisdom in the process), is that it clears the way for us all to learn from the Holocaust without feeling overwhelmed by it and losing the sight of our own importance. The book is another step toward freedom, while at the same time honouring memory.
Dr Paul Valent is a retired psychotherapist, who founded the Child Survivors of the Holocaust group in Melbourne, and the Australasian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. He has written texts on traumatology, and is the author of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, now in its second edition.