The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma. After the death of her father, a WWII U.S. Army doctor, Leila Levinson discovers a concealed box of shocking photos...

Leila Levinson


How many World War II GIs liberated Nazi concentration camps?

Over 350,000 GIs liberated 20,000 Nazi concentration camps and subcamps.  One of every 18 World War II combat veterans witnessed first-hand the final and, until then, unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust.

What is a “legacy” of trauma?

When trauma — whether from combat and witnessing atrocities, as in the case of GATED GRIEF, or from civilian life — is not healed, it takes on a life of its own within the family of the traumatized person.  The children absorb the grief and anguish that lies under the silence or anger.   This can lead to emotional problems like depression, difficulty with intimacy, low self-confidence, rage.  The children inherit the emotional fallout of the trauma.

Is the trauma GATED GRIEF portrays specific to witnessing the Nazi concentration camps?

As I began meeting World War II veterans who had not liberated camps and then met veterans from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq, I heard and saw pain like that of the liberators.  There was the same kind of banning of grief within their homes, the pushing away of the memories, the fear of remembering.  No matter what the war, a soldier returns having lost the person they were before entering combat.

The liberators were traumatized, even though they freed the prisoners and ended their suffering?

In his superb book, War and the Soul, Dr. Ed Tick presents an essential perspective on PTSD.  He says those letters stand for “post terror soul distress.”  Rather than being a physiological/psychological phenomena that results from shock and fear of imminent death, combat trauma has a quality specific to war: participating in and witnessing in killing, which is a violation and negation of the fundamental moral code of our society.

The Holocaust took the level of that violation to an (until then) unimaginable level.  This is why so many veteran liberators — people who had seen their buddies blow up, who had walked over fields of frozen dead soldiers — say, “The rest of the war paled in comparison.”

How do we break the legacy of trauma?

We need to provide veterans with resources and support for healing.  What form that healing takes will differ for every veteran, which is why it is very difficult for a bureaucracy like the VA to provide meaningful help to all the veterans who need it.   We are facing a relative epidemic of PTSD among our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, due to the multiple deployments of our troops.   The need already far outstrips the VA’s ability to respond.

A reliance on medications alone does not seem to work.   As a society we need to begin valuing alternative paths to wholeness such as acupuncture, meditation, Tai Chi, writing and art, and speaking our stories.  One of the most powerful healing experiences I have had occurred when I participated in a Listening Circle, where I heard others speak what I had experienced and saw others listen to my story and nod in empathy.  The best way we have of breaking trauma’s legacy is by breaking the isolation of those suffering from trauma.

How many people now suffer from the trauma of combat?

Over five million Americans saw combat in World War II; and one million of them were wounded.  It is estimated that least 30%, and perhaps as much as 80%, of those wounds were psychological in nature.   As documented in Penny Coleman’s Flashback (Beacon Press, 2007), in the 1950’s approximately 50,000 veterans were given lobotomies as “cures” for their psychological symptoms.

The Veterans Administration estimates that 20% to 35% of the Nation’s 2.5 million surviving World War II vets suffer from PTSD.

According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, conducted by the National Center for PTSD, PTSD affects about 30 percent of Vietnam War Veterans.

Psychiatrists estimate that one in three U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan may develop PTSD. (Seal, K. H., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., Gima, K., Chu, A., and Marmar, C. R. (2008). “Getting beyond ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell’: An evaluation of US Veterans Administration post-deployment mental health screening of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.” American Journal of Public Health, 98, 714–720.)  Due to stigma and lack of resources, only about 50% of these veterans are expected to get the treatment they need.

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