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Auschwitz: Reliving genocide

Six decades after Auschwitz was liberated, the biggest and most brutal Nazi death camp remains a potent symbol of terror and genocide. More than a million Jews were murdered there, as well as tens of thousands of Poles, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war. When Allied soldiers liberated the complex in Poland in January 1945, they found skeletal prisoners, mounds of corpses, gas chambers and cooling crematoria. Survivors scattered, many to Canada, to rebuild their lives. But the Nazi atrocities they witnessed have echoed through the years along with the cry "Never again."

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Aging can be a cruel joke for the 65,000 elderly Holocaust survivors in Canada. Dementia is making some of them relive their imprisonment in Nazi death camps. For others, long-buried feelings of depression and survivor's guilt are haunting them afresh. The everyday sound of a barking dog can trigger memories of being bitten by an SS guard dog, producing a terror that is inexplicable to those around them, as we see in this CBC Television clip.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto. It's here, where there is the largest community of Holocaust survivors in North America, that doctors spotted the problem. The light bulb went off for Dr. Michael Gordon when a patient panicked after being told he was being taken for a shower. "A shower in 1994 in a Toronto hospital is not a shower in 1943 in Auschwitz," Gordon says. 
. Two Danish doctors, K. Hermann and Paul Thygesen, first coined the term "concentration camp syndrome" in 1954 to describe the group of persistent disorders such as headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, depression, insomnia and nightmares suffered by Holocaust survivors.

. The lingering mental effects of the Holocaust, today often called "survivor syndrome," went undocumented for years after the Second World War. In 1954, the German government passed a law proposing reparation payments for those who suffered in the Holocaust. The application process required survivors to undergo medical and psychiatric testing. It was the first time the medical community had come in contact with significant numbers of Holocaust survivors.

. This syndrome was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1961 by American psychoanalysts William Niederland and Henry Krystal. To hear a clip of Krystal speaking about survivor syndrome, click here.

. In Massive Psychic Trauma, a 1968 work edited by Niederland and Krystal, Krystal wrote that many memories of persecution are "occurring with such clarity and being so threatening that the patient cannot be sure that the old horrors have not, in fact, reappeared."

. In the mid-1960s, some psychiatrists began publishing research suggesting that children of Holocaust victims also experience a greater-than-average frequency of mental problems. Since then, debate has raged over whether there is a "child of survivors syndrome."
. Since the problem explored in this clip was first noticed at the Baycrest Centre, the suburban Toronto facility has introduced many programs, and initiated research and conferences aimed at helping elderly Holocaust survivors and their families.

. On July 2, 1947, the Polish government established the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the grounds of the two remaining parts of the concentration and death camp, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Evening News
Broadcast Date: March 1, 2000
Guest(s): Paula David, Michael Gordon, Margie Levitt, Dorothy Riseman
Reporter: Robin Smythe
Duration: 10:13

Last updated: August 29, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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