As I’ve noted before, my mother spent the war years interned in a Japanese concentration camp in Java. These camps were not Nazi death camps, but they were no picnic either, with a horrible attrition rate from disease, starvation, overwork and abuse. (See here for more information about one of the camps my Mom was in, Tjideng.) My Mom (obviously) survived the camp but, for decades, it also seemed as if she had survived the devastating depression that so quickly enveloped some camp survivors, especially survivors of the death camps. People have always commented on her energy, and she brought that energy to bear on child rearing, running a home and art. She talked about her experience in the camps, but didn’t obsess about those experiences. Indeed, she was very forgiving towards the Japanese, even though they never paid reparations, on the ground that there is a difference between a “traditional” concentration camp aimed at segregating civilians, no matter how brutal it is, and a Nazi death camp, aimed at genocide.
It’s been surprising and sad, therefore, that in the past few years, my mother has been obsessing more and more about her concentration camp years. I had naively thought that, as those years recede in the past, and as she finds herself in a secure, comfortable environment, the terror of those years would diminish. Instead, she can’t stop talking about the horrors visited upon her in her youth. I have been sympathetic but, as I said, confused by what struck me as counterintuitive mental behavior. It turns out, though, that Mom’s memories, and her inability to block some of the worst ones, are completely consistent with her age. Psychiatrists and psychologists who work at Jewish Homes for the Aged, which have large numbers of Holocaust survivors, have discovered that age weakens our ability to screen unpleasant memories:
In recent years, a body of research has sprung from the lives of Holocaust survivors like Kane as caregivers and mental health professionals work to understand and alleviate the pain of old age and remembered trauma. But when she first began to relive her past, the territory was largely uncharted.
“There has never been a group of genocide survivors live to this age in history,” said Paula David, editor of the manual “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors.” Their experiences offer a rare window into the confluence of trauma and aging.
One clear lesson from this shrinking group, whose median age is more than 70, is that “resilience ages, too,” David said, “and diminishes along with hearing and vision.”
The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging has the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the West, according to nursing home officials. There were 63 such patients at latest count, although that number could rise to nearly 90 when a new building opens later this summer.
Although every Holocaust survivor is different, Kane’s end-of-life experiences are a good illustration of the kinds of things they can go through, said Chaya Berci, the Jewish Home’s executive director of nursing.
As people age and their grasp on the present weakens, events from the distant past can seem as real as anything unfolding today. For those who lived through severe early trauma, the memories that come rushing back are often of their most harrowing experiences.
Certainly I see the truth of this as I watch my mother. It’s so sad. These people have finally found safety and security, and they are incapable of enjoying it because they are assaulted by the ghosts of their pasts.