Scenic memory of the Shoah – on the transgenerational transmission of extreme trauma in Germany

Grünberg, K. (2013). Scenic Memory of the Shoah—“The Adventuresome Life of Alfred Silbermann”. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 73(1), 30-42.
Grünberg, K., & Markert, F. (2012). A psychoanalytic grave walk—Scenic memory of the Shoah. On the transgenerational transmission of extreme trauma in Germany. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72(3), 207-222.
Grünberg, K., & Markert, F. (2017). Child Survivors: Stolen childhood— Scenic Memory of the Shoah in Jewish child or adolescent survivors of the Nazi persecution. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1-23.


The research project in the Frankfurt Sigmund-Freud-Institut pursues the goal of comprehending the transmission of Jewish survivors' persecution experiences to their sons and daughters, under the specific circumstances which apply in the "land of the perpetrators".

The study focusses on the way in which the Shoah is recalled through a process of scenic memory rather than in a primarily verbal manner and on its effect on the next generation. Our basic assumption here is that it conveys those central aspects of the trauma, which excluded language from the start. This approach is based on the concept of scenic understanding proposed by Alfred Lorenzer, which is similar to the concept of enactment. For Lorenzer the most significant access to unconscious memories is obtained by the scenic approach, for his initial question is: "How can the non-verbal be grasped in language?" With the scenic understanding he wants "to understand [...] the incomprehensible".


A particular characteristic of the study consists of a specific mode of research corre­sponding to the “multi-sited ethnography” approach (George Marcus): the Holocaust survivors living in Germany are not observed in a single “field” but in various contexts, including analyses, psychotherapies, psychotherapeutic self-experience groups, in video interviews, house visits, or at the “Meeting-Place for Survivors of the Shoah”, so that the study includes observations from both clinical and non-clinical settings. We will be presenting vignettes based on these sources.

The processes of the scenic memory of the Shoah are at first investigated from the dif­ferent perspectives of the two research analysts, who supervise each other. The non-Jewish German psychoanalyst and the Jewish analyst in Germany belong to different generations. Their different research perspectives are important because the transmis­sion configurations diverge and because the contrasting views expand and deepen the study of the treatment processes. In terms of the Freudian notion of "Healing and Research" the treating analyst is the starting point and basis for the study of trauma transmission. In addition, external supervisors who also examine the psychosocial effects of the Holocaust in Germany, Austria, Israel and the United States, are included in the research process.

As the transmission of the trauma is not directly observable, it must be interpreted her­meneutically. Firstly relevant scenes or vignettes are selected and described phenome­nologically. The subsequent analysis of these scenes follows the basic idea formulated by Lorenzer, "to understand all the material on the model of dream interpretation”. The transference and counter-transference processes which occur in the analytic work with Holocaust survivors and their descendants, play a central role.

The transmission of trauma is investigated from working with survivors of the Holocaust and members of the Second and Third Generation. In each setting the analysts enter into a relational process. With "evenly hovering attention" they observe how the survivors shape the scenic memory of the Shoah. The decisive criterion for determining the character of such a scene is founded in the analysts' countertransference reaction: that is, when their feelings and fantasies indicate a "getting-in-touch" with the extreme trauma. This may be a hint of something catastrophically intolerable, a sense of annihilation, anxiety, pain, compassion, powerlessness, despair, hopelessness, senselessness, depression and mourning, but also bodily sensations such as shuddering, tears and paralysis. The inner eye may show images of menace and persecution from concentration camps; the inner experience is about surviving, self- or object-loss, about non-verbal expression of the place "where language cannot reach" (Hans Keilson).

In the next step of the evaluation, the experts are involved in the investigation process. The expert supervision will be carried out by psychoanalysts and psychologists, sociologists and cultural studies specialists who are familiar with hermeneutic approaches and analytic methods. Following the model of psychoanalytic case-supervisions the clinical and non-clinical material will be worked on with the aim of achieving a consensual conceptualization of scenic trauma transmission in the various individual cases. If necessary several expert sessions will be held.


The goal of the study consists in generating hypotheses from the empirical material about how and in what way, specifically in Germany, the extremely traumatic experiences of the Nazi extermination of the Jews are transmitted by survivors to the following generations.


Dr. Kurt Grünberg


Myliusstraße 20

60323 Frankfurt/M