From: Manfred Gerstenfeld: Europe's Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today's Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Yad Vashem, World Jewish Congress 2003).

Europe: From Guilt to Repackaging Anti-Semitism

An Interview with Nathan Durst

Holocaust psychologist Dr. Nathan Durst claims that Hitler showed how, with respect to the Jews, the most murderous fantasies could be realized. Comparing anti-Semitism to negative attitudes levied against other groups is therefore grossly misguided. Jews must be extremely wary whenever anti-Semitism reemerges.

"There have been several occasions when oppressors have killed large numbers of people, such as the Russian revolution. The Holocaust, however, was unique. Hitler's death wish was realized: the mass murder of Europe's Jews. This genocide was thus also a major event in the Second World War from a psychological viewpoint.

"The Holocaust mass murders also satisfied the hidden desires of others, including many who did not identify with the Nazis. Among them were believers who considered themselves Christians. A great variety of reactions before and during the Second World War attest that the genocide realized an ancient wish for these people. The Jews were removed from their lives and sent to where they belonged - hell. Many of these non-Nazis eagerly aided Hitler in various ways.

"Those who dreamed of the mass murder of the Jews before the Second World War thought that it was no longer acceptable and would not take place. It might have been possible in Western Europe in the Dark Ages, hundreds of years before, or at the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia or the Ukraine, but, in cultured Western Europe, genocide was unthinkable after the French revolution. Yet Hitler accomplished it."

Post-traumatic Shock

"The Jewish survivors' return to their hometowns after the war had a major psychological impact on them and, to a lesser extent, on the surrounding society. Jews had suffered countless traumatic experiences during the war. They had been taken out of their houses and countries, terrorized and forced to watch murder, while they fought for their own survival. After liberation, those who survived hell had often to remain in their camps or move to other ones. Many were starving and ill; others died. The survivors wanted to return to their homes and prewar living conditions. The Allied forces in shattered Europe could do little more than keep them in camps again.

"Another vain expectation of the survivors was that the societies which had participated in the evils perpetrated against them would show some signs of remorse about what had transpired. Their society might have claimed they had not intended for this to happen and that they were somewhat sorry. This rarely occurred. Survivors discovered that their families had been murdered; their belongings and apartments taken.

"Many experienced post-traumatic shock, according to today's psychological terminology. They were overwhelmed and only gradually grasped the magnitude of the catastrophe, still doubting the fate of their relatives, hoping that some might be alive, but fearing the worst. Such circumstances rendered it impossible to undergo a normal grieving process of separating from the dead with rituals of mourning.

"Child-survivors fared even worse because of their age. They hardly understood what had happened to them or around them. They were adopted into new families or were cared for by organizations like the Youth Aliyah; but nobody told them about the whereabouts of their relatives. Many had to wait decades before learning about themselves, their past and the fate of their families.

The Europeans: Standing Aside Again

"Many surviving Jews were kept in displaced persons camps in Germany. As nobody took care of them, they themselves had to organize schooling, medical care, employment and rehabilitation. The Western countries were primarily interested in their own reconstruction, attempting to create some semblance of normalcy. From a psychological viewpoint, this may partially explain why nobody cared about the returning Jews. In addition, the authorities often disclaimed responsibility for the Jews' specific problems and considered that these should be somebody else's responsibility. It was not their concern who that might be.

"This behavior resembled Western society's attitude to what had occurred under Hitler. What happened to the Jews had been the Germans' business; others stood by, participating passively. The latter did not feel responsible for the Jews' deaths and, after the war, nobody wanted to be liable for the survivors either. This was a big slap in the face for the Jews of Central and Western Europe. They had been alone when they were taken away in the war. They were alone a second time when they came back after the war. Nobody cared.

"Germany was a special case because it had been divided into four occupation zones. After their defeat, Germans were wandering all over the country. They often lost contact with their original surroundings. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were taken to Poland and Russia. This embittered the German population, made them feel victimized, and enabled them to more easily 'forget' the difficulties of the Jewish survivors."

Rebuilding Societies

Says Durst: "The great powers were warned about the psychological difficulties of the survivors, but were not particularly interested in them. Becoming aware of the Jews' problems would require one to deal with them.

"The Western authorities lacked the insight and understanding that, just as some soldiers broke down under stress, camp survivors were severely traumatized. The authorities also lacked the manpower, knowledge, and resources needed to meet the troubles of the surviving Jews. They thus opted not to tackle such problems, denying their existence.

"The Marshall Plan, through which the United States extended economic help to Western Europe including Germany, is an indication that there were politicians who understood that one had to consider the after-effects of the destruction and how societies could be rebuilt. It is too simple to say that this plan concerned a macro-issue, whereas the Jews' problems were individual ones. Many other Western and Eastern Europeans had been displaced and returned to their countries. In France, for instance, there were organizations that helped returnees.

"Jews, however, received far less hospitality. They were, for all practical purposes, foreigners. This was seen much more clearly after the war than before. The Jew had become the so-called 'other,' a stranger, even if perhaps no longer the 'enemy' as he had been labeled during the war. There was far less understanding of psychology and the needs of victimized people then, than there is today."

Durst adds: "I do not accept the apologies of certain politicians and countries in the last few years. This is merely a fashion. One who suddenly takes responsibility, having only recently denied the Holocaust, cannot be trusted. Actions speak louder than words in this case."

Guilt Feelings

"Immediately after the war, the radio and newspapers reported numerous details about the slaughter of the Jews. The main facts were already known then; yet there was no outcry. People may have been shocked, but they were silent. I do not trust those who claim not to have understood what was going on. Perhaps they meant that they did not want to understand.

"The reason is simple: these facts about mass murder made people feel uncomfortable. Being a passive bystander during the war aroused shame and guilt feelings, even if one had not actively cooperated with the Nazis. It raised thoughts about morality, good and evil, and the hidden potential of what 'normal' human beings could inflict on others.

"Europe's postwar coolness after the slaughter indicates that people found it hard to hide how they felt about having participated in, or having been passive toward, the Jews' suffering. Worse, many people knew that they might have wanted it. When they looked back and saw how many Jews had been killed, they were shocked. Some had told their Jewish acquaintances something like: 'If all Jews would have been like you it wouldn't have happened. All the other Jews were unworthy.'

"Around 1942 many Europeans shared this sentiment. Yet after 1946, it became difficult to admit or confront. Thus silence reigned on both sides. Many Jews suffered from undigested mourning and many non-Jews had feelings of shame, and even guilt.

"Many survivors worked hard over the following years, achieving much in their lives. They did this despite the great emotional difficulties they had to overcome. After the war probably none of them imagined they could rebuild their lives so successfully."

The Establishment of Israel

"Psychologically, the establishment of the State of Israel was a very important event for many survivors. It gave even those who had been non-Zionists a sense of pride. Those survivors who had come to Israel had many pent-up emotions. They were now able to identify with a country and belong to its army. After a period of total powerlessness, they felt able to defend themselves. Living in Israel fueled this newfound identity. Being among their own made them feel whole again. They could now invest their energies in rebuilding their futures and families, directing their aggressive energy in army duty and, most of all, be in control of their own destiny.

"For those Holocaust survivors living in Western Europe or the United States, however, establishing an identity was much harder. Studies indicate important differences, such as problems of acculturation and lack of integration, being once more 'in exile.' They were again a minority and had to adapt themselves to the needs, ideals and culture of their host country. In that sense, absorption in Israel was much easier for the survivors. They were in their own free and democratic homeland. This strengthened their shattered self-worth, ideals, and identity.

"In the beginning of the 1950s, most survivors were in their late twenties or early thirties. The majority was traumatized. This manifested itself in numerous ways, such as sleep disturbances and over-sensitivity. For many, who had been totally destabilized during the war, living in Israel helped their social and mental integration."


"In the 1950s certain survivors received reparations. The German government's Wiedergutmachung program intended to improve the survivors' material wellbeing. Yet it also reopened psychological scars and stimulated more bitterness. The survivors had to bring evidence of their suffering. They were forced to prove that they were Jewish, that their relatives had been murdered, and that they had indeed survived the horrors they reported.

"Many needed the money urgently, due to severe debilitation and impoverishment. To present a health claim, however, a survivor had to complete the necessary forms in German and bring witnesses and medical certificates. In most cases, the authorities then demanded more information and evidence, a procedure that often took many years.

"The German authorities were not indisposed to pay reparation for physical injury, when it was evident that this had been sustained in the camps. However, they strongly resisted acknowledging that the survivors suffered emotional distress resulting in mental incapacities. They wished to consider these as the results of predispositions or malingering."

Psychological Torture

"Survivors were frequently subjected to humiliating interrogations in which German doctors with a Nazi background investigated them. In the 1950s West Germany was trying to rebuild itself. It needed a professionally staffed medical and judicial system. The doctors who were old enough to assume responsible positions had been Nazis, either willingly or for professional reasons. Since there was no one else suitable for such positions in postwar Germany, key positions in the medical and judicial systems were routinely filled with ex-Nazis.

"How did a Nazi doctor or judge react to a Jew complaining of a dysfunction resulting from the Nazi past? By admitting such a claim, the investigator accused himself. How could one live with that? To escape this psychological bind, the former Nazis made it extremely difficult for the victims to prove that the cause of their complaint originated in their Holocaust experiences. For the survivor, the person who decided whether to give him money was identified with the ones who had hurt him. This was extremely painful.

"One must also realize that very little was known after the war about its psychological after-effects. The investigations of the victims were cruel. Once a government had decided to help victims, it should have realized there was a simultaneous need to understand what bothered them."

Durst comments that, although this was especially true for Germany, "many shortcomings were the same, for instance, in the Netherlands, where support legislation for war victims - linked to that for the handicapped - was only approved much later. Making the same laws for Holocaust victims as for the handicapped tells us much about the Dutch. By then, it should have been clear to the authorities that surviving the cruelties of the Holocaust had left mental scars that did not have to be proven. But nobody considered that all those who survived had been traumatized."

Some historians and Jewish leaders see the restitution process as most successful for the Jews. Durst, however, points out: "When money becomes so central to the discourse, my personal Holocaust is being trivialized. It becomes to some degree a denial of genocide. I then wonder whether one still thinks about all those who had been murdered.

"Once, when lecturing in Germany about 'psycho-trauma,' I was asked about my attitude toward Wiedergutmachung. I had not broached the subject at all and saw the question as offensive. I replied that my mother had been murdered in the Shoah. She had a gold bracelet which must still be somewhere in Germany. My mother did not return. Yet I still would have liked to have the bracelet back. I hope this gave the audience some sense of the relative proportion of the issues."

Israel's Changing Attitude Toward the Survivors.

"Survivors in Israel faced other painful issues. The Israeli government negotiated reparations with Germany for heirless property, yet paid little attention to the physical, emotional or social needs of the individual survivors. Many felt that they had been rejected not only by their former enemy, but also by their own representatives. This deepened their sense of isolation and bitterness.

"Since the 1970s, in Western Europe and North America, mainstream society has respected the Holocaust survivor, viewing him as a strong individual who had fought for his survival. The change in attitude of Israeli society toward Holocaust survivors took far longer - about 40 years. Only at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s did Israeli society develop a less ambivalent, more positive and respectful attitude toward survivors.

"Before then, the survivor was neither respected nor accepted. Perhaps Israel needed the Yom Kippur War to understand what being besieged and living with despair means. It was only a second generation of public figures in the 1980s - actors, writers, and singers - who talked about themselves and their Holocaust survivor parents and, in this way, broke the conspiracy of silence about this topic.

"A very important program has since developed in Israel: 'Everybody Has a Name,' in which the names of all the survivors are recounted. This enabled the Holocaust survivor to address Israelis publicly about his murdered relatives. The names of those murdered are read out on Holocaust Memorial Day in the Knesset. Today Israelis mourn the murdered six million together with the survivors. This has had a major impact on both Israeli society and the Holocaust survivors themselves.

"In those 40 years, we saw an attitude shift from rejection and denial, to learning the facts through the Eichmann process, and - during the 1967 and 1973 wars - to recognizing existing emotions and growing toward solidarity.

"Such new attitudes meant that the survivor did not have to hide anymore and that he could discuss his suffering openly. He was no longer seen just as a 'lamb being brought to the slaughter.' Rather he was viewed as someone who had suffered, but who had also struggled in his own unique way. Earlier, Israel had been a macho society; it was not inclined to listen or try and understand survivors. Israelis took a long time to realize that there was more to them than machoism and more to the Holocaust survivors than being passive victims. This culminated in an equalizing of the two groups."

Emotional Wounds that Never Heal

"The Holocaust survivor's emotional wounds never healed. In Israel, the permanent threat and the many wars triggered reminiscences of a gruesome past; and new anti-Semitic outbursts in Europe reopened old wounds.

"Anti-Semitism in Western Europe forever remained latent. Even if being vociferously anti-Semitic was politically incorrect, anti-Semitism was always present after the Second World War. The realization of the horrors of the Holocaust made many Europeans very uncomfortable. Some felt guilty, even if they did not assume any personal responsibility."

Says Durst: "Several events that happened at about the same time caused a change in Western attitudes. With the collapse of communism, the major enemy of the West no longer existed. In such a situation, one must redefine oneself. (When what had bound people together disappears, the feeling of belonging may fragment or disappear entirely.) The globalization process accelerated. This led to counter-developments such as the search for national self-determination, which has become a sacred value.

"Many other groups, like radical black Americans, saw Holocaust survivors receiving financial reparations. Their jealousy concerning this became their new uniting factor. The Jews thus evolved into a subject of envy for some groups which nothing else bound together. A new common denominator emerged - the Jew one could envy and hate - as became so clear at the United Nations Anti-racism Conference in Durban in 2001. The old stereotypes returned: Jews never learning their lessons; Jews always seeking and finding money, being in control of the media, and wanting to rule the world."

The European Left

"Left-wing groups in affluent countries politically use the Palestinians - by identifying with them - to develop their own identities. This enables them to fulfill deeper wishes, such as their desire to fight an oppressor. For this they have to define targets: the Americans, the globalizers, the multi-nationals, Western capitalism and, of course, Israel.

"In the past, when Israel and the Jews were seen as eternal victims, reminding the world about the evil done to them, left-wingers could easily identify with Israel. They claim to have higher ideals and moral values, wanting to change society, help minorities, assist oppressed people and bring social justice. But now, even in times of suicide bombers, it is still politically correct to identify with the Palestinian people as the accepted victim, even if this comes at the price of twisting the facts in the name of morality and emotions, even if this might lead to new persecution.

"Postmodernism has become identified with a progressive political outlook. This also includes giving credit to those cultures or people who have been undervalued throughout the ages. It prevents one from accusing oppressed cultures of holding unjust views. One encounters here a double standard. It is only permitted to criticize those who are in power and not the oppressed. Such an attitude lacks intellectual integrity.

"Once left-wing groups had defined Palestinians as the real victim, they became a love object in certain Western European circles. Then it is not difficult to establish a hate object: Israel. Not necessarily all members of these groups are anti-Semites. The discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and oppression or the liberation of the territories are politically legitimate. Many anti-Semites, however, are happy with the conflict. Now they can publicly criticize Israel and the people connected to it: the Jews. Prejudice comes first and justifying it is easy. In an uncommon coalition, the extremes on the right and left, usually fighting each other, find themselves standing on the same side against the Jews.

"Outbursts with anti-Semitic undertones are also connected to Europe's guilt vis-?-vis the Holocaust. If the guilty person is bad, the Jewish victim becomes good. The moment it can be shown the latter is bad too, the 'other' - that is, the European - is relieved of his guilt feelings. To claim that Israelis behave like Nazis reduces the sin of the grandparents. Then the children of the victims can no longer be the accusers. This equalizes everybody.

"Some Europeans thus have to claim that Jews are capable of doing what was done to them. The Portuguese author Jos? Saramago, who paralleled Ramallah and Auschwitz, did precisely this. When one calls everything Auschwitz, you deny the Holocaust. As everything becomes terrible, there is no absolute evil anymore. This is a great relief for the heirs of guilt."

The Indigestible Lessons of the Shoah

"Some argue that Israel's behavior causes anti-Semitism; others explain anti-Semitism as stemming from Jewish claims for financial reparations. Both theories are incorrect. Where anti-Semitism is not latently present, it cannot emerge. Once it exists, if one issue does not make it surface, another will. People are not born anti-Semites, they learn it from their school, home or society."

Durst concludes that it is impossible to digest the Shoah's lessons intellectually: "One cannot believe that one's father, grandfather or so many others of their contemporaries were eager murderers, or their assistants and supporters. It is impossible to live with the feeling that 'my grandfather has quietly murdered people.' Very few books admit 'we have been guilty.'

"It may take several more generations to learn how to digest this information. The Jew can live with latent anti-Semitism, but knowing recent history, one realizes that this can lead to mass destruction. Within the collective Jewish memory, it becomes difficult to think in terms of objectivity. We have been in extreme situations of helplessness and we would not like to repeat that experience. Lately, anti-Semitism has violently surfaced again; synagogues are again being set on fire. It seems that there are three options for Jews: to protest (without much success), to emigrate to Israel, or to give up Judaism.

"I often speak to Germans. They want Israel to be a 'light unto the nations.' When we do not live up to their illusory standards, we become demons again. Others project similar desires upon us. That is the core of the double standard toward Israel and an expression of anti-Semitism. The aftermath of the Holocaust and the not so 'new' anti-Semitism are thus directly linked."

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Dr. Nathan Durst was born in Berlin and came to the Netherlands in 1939. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Groningen University. He came to Israel in 1971 and worked as chief psychologist in a psychiatric hospital for 15 years. He is a past chairman of the Israeli Psychotherapeutic Association and teaches at Tel Aviv University. He is co-founder of AMCHA (Israeli Center for Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation) and works as its clinical director. He lectures in Israel, the United States and in Europe - mostly in Germany - about trauma and the Shoah.

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.