Remembering Henry Krystal, Pioneer in Trauma Therapy

In December 1976, thanks to my therapy experience with young adult children of Holocaust survivors, I found myself attending a workshop with Dr. Henry Krystal, the psychoanalyst who virtually created trauma therapy as a specialized field. I knew, of course, that Krystal was himself a Holocaust survivor and that he had initiated the psychoanalytic study group I was attending. But I was nevertheless unprepared for the question he approached me with after the discussion.

Krystal, who died October 8 at the age of 90, told me that he had two sons in college, and he wanted to know more about my understanding of the psychological consequences on offspring whose parents had survived Auschwitz. He was, it turned out, pained by the notion that his traumatic past might harm his own children’s development. In particular, he was consumed with how the expression of anger or suppression of anger would stifle the next generation.

I tried to assure him that he did not have to feel guilty. I told him that psychological effects of the Holocaust on offspring of survivors do not cause a psychological syndrome. I explained to him that anger could be channeled in constructive ways; it did not have to be debilitating.

I do not think I persuaded him.

Krystal was not one to brag, even though he was the initiator of the study group we were at—an ongoing enterprise of the American Psychoanalytic Association that continues to meet up to today. But years later, I discovered that in 1968, when Krystal first approached the APA to convene a study group on the effects of the Holocaust on second generation, he hit a wall of resistance.

Back then, the psychology of “massive psychic trauma” (a term coined by Krystal) was not on the psychoanalysts’ radar-screen. Psychoanalysts did not even consider the impact of the Holocaust on the survivors themselves, let alone on second-generation members. Analysts treating Holocaust survivors, when asked about the persecution of these patients, would respond, “What does this have to do with the analysis?” It was only in 1975, as analysts such as Judith Kestenberg, Martin Bergmann, and Milton Jucovy joined Krystal to plead with the APA authorities, that the association gave its blessing to the study group.

Krystal was born in Sosnowiec. Poland, on April 22, 1925, to a middle-class, educated family. The young Henry suffered from a lung disease, and he later recalled his mother’s reassurances that he would live then as crucial to his subsequent capacity to survive his teen-age years of Nazi torture and incarceration. Krystal ascribed his ability to live through Starachowice, Auschwitz/Birkenau, Bobrek and death marches between Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen to his relationship with his mother. In an essay decades later Krystal reported that invoking his “mother’s image” enabled him “to preserve his capacity to fight for survival for some time.” This insight is also a key to understanding how most Holocaust survivors were able to transcend dehumanization and persecution, and to begin to lead productive lives and loving relationships.

Henry Krystal was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. He attended Goethe College in Germany and, after emigrating to the United States, Wayne State University in Detroit, where he obtained his medical degree. He continued his training in psychoanalysis at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute.

Krystal, along with William Niederland, was a pioneer in interviewing thousands of Holocaust survivors who were applying for German reparations in the 1950s and 1960s. The process was a challenge. Some survivors did not want to apply, because applying would be an admission to the Germans that they were “damaged.” Dr Krystal had to convince them to go through the process, however painful that process might be. The Germans, for their part, did not want to grant reparations to those who had psychological disabilities. Krystal was a fighter. He appealed these cases, and the German legislature finally agreed to pay compensation for psychological disability.

Henry Krystal was also a leader. In the early 1960s, he organized two seminal international conferences on psychological traumatization. These conferences spotlighted the work of researchers who were examining a range of massive traumas, including psychohistorian Robert J. Lifton’s study of Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. John Sigal, another presenter, discussed his work with the children of Holocaust survivors.

It was these pivotal discussions that inspired Krystal to approach his colleagues at the APA to establish a study group on second generation of survivors. He embarked on a life-long study of the impact of massive psychic trauma, and trained future generations of mental-health professionals at Wayne State University Medical School, Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. Beyond this, his presentations at numerous conferences, his countless journal articles and book chapters, and the books he wrote or edited, such as “Massive Psychic Trauma” and “Psychic Traumatization, Integration and Self Healing,” ultimately transformed psychology’s understanding of this phenomenon.

Today, our understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in military veterans—as opposed to simply viewing them as out of control ex-soldiers—is based on Krystal’s groundbreaking work in the 1960s. Concepts that are now household words, such as late onset PTSD, dissociation, affective disorders and affect addictions, stemmed from Krystal’s work.

As things turned out, the Henry Krystal who worried about having a negative effect on his children was blessed with two sons who followed in his footsteps. John Krystal is director of psychiatry at Yale, and is editor of “Biological Psychiatry Journal.” His other son, Andrew, is a psychiatrist who teaches at Duke University, studies depression and heads a sleep disorder clinic.

A few months before Krystal died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, he asked his staunchly supportive wife, Esther, “to go on a journey” with him as he struggled with the final stage of the illness. Shortly before he died, he told her, “I am going on a journey and you can’t go with me.”

Eva Fogelman is a psychologist and clinical therapist who specializes in the treatment of first and second generation Holocaust survivors.

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