How to Triumph Over Trauma
Lessons from a Holocaust survivor.
Posted Sep 11, 2019
There are many forms of trauma, each with its particular psychological repercussions. At the same time, some after-effects are shared by many who have been traumatized.
Irene Butter is one such survivor. She entered Bergen-Belsen at the age of 13. She suffered the loss of her grandparents, other relatives and her father, who died two days after a severe beating he was given just before her family was liberated.
Since her release, Irene has been able to find love, raise a family, achieve a Ph.D. in economics, and become a professor at the University of Michigan. She has given talks about her experiences and has written a memoir about the first 15 years of her life: Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope.
This is the first in a series of posts based on my conversations with Irene. Here, she reflects on the internal psychological changes that helped her triumph over trauma.
Resolve to be the opposite of those who dehumanize others. In the camp, it didn’t matter if you were young or old, a German Jew or a Roma gypsy, a Christian homosexual or a Jewish heterosexual – the Nazis did not care and all were subject to the same dehumanization and brutality. Irene resolved to become a person who would always be kind and respect everyone regardless of their gender, nationality, sexual orientation, race, or any other differences from herself, large or small. The opposite of dehumanization is to stamp out hatred, to protect the vulnerable, and to speak up for those who are oppressed and whose voices are not heard.
Become a person who helps those in need. In the camp, there was a woman called Vogeltje, “the little bird." She would search out those who needed help. She had no extra food for them, but still there were things she could and did give. She would sing to a scared and lonely child, she would go and talk to a person who needed uplifting, who had given up. She would bring hope to someone in pain. Irene chose Vogeltje as her role model.
In the camp, Irene and a friend she made there tried to help a very sick Anne Frank, who was in another section separated from them by barbed wire, by scrounging for some extra scraps of clothing to throw across the barrier to her. Throughout her life, Irene has continued to help feed the hungry, to protect the vulnerable, and to work for equality and social justice.
Switch from seeing yourself as a victim to seeing yourself as a survivor. It took Irene quite a few years before she came to this realization: "Just because I was a victim then doesn’t mean I have to be a victim for the rest of my life.”
Irene says that thinking of herself as a victim only reminds her of being weak and powerless. She says that, in contrast, thinking of herself as a survivor yields strength and the potential to move forward and help build a better world.
Sometimes, trauma and oppression can lead individuals to internalize the dehumanization they experienced. Sadly, this can result in a tendency to become hateful and revengeful. Irene models an alternative way to overcome a painful past: Choose to practice loving-kindness and help others. In this way, a person not only enriches their own life but also blocks the perpetuation of hate and suffering in our world.
Irene Butter (November, 2019). Shore Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story, Civic Books